First farm-to-farm picture of Chinese countryside

The first definitive picture of China's vast agricultural landscape spread over 960 million hectares is due to take place early next year when interviewers will travel from farm to farm to record an agricultural census based on FAO guidelines and training.

The task is a colossal logistical exercise. The country has one of the world's largest agricultural sectors, producing 20 percent of global cereal production, with some 800 million people living in the countryside.

Counting change in the new market

Armed with questionnaires, some four million interviewers will set off in January across terrains as diverse as semi-desert to lush river deltas to unearth facts on everything from household size and types of crops grown, to farm and non-farm labour, types of livestock and inputs.

Collecting key data became a big headache for the authorities following sweeping agrarian reforms in 1978 to boost output. The relaxation of controls, expansion of rights to land and market incentives led to a great multiplication of individual holdings. And production moved from the commune back to the agrarian household.

"At the beginning it was very much a practical not a development problem," says Professor Biggeri of Florence University. "From 70 000 communes, whose job was also to produce annual production figures and other data, you suddenly had 200 million small holdings. So how do you collect the data?"

Early in the 1980s the government produced an annual yearbook of production figures, but as the economy began to expand changes were needed. In 1987, FAO, in collaboration with major Italian universities and funding from the Italian Government, provided technical support.

And now having helped train over 12 000 statisticians, the load of data will soon be entered and analysed at the recently set up Food and Agricultural Statistics Centre in the capital, Beijing, and in 32 provincial centres.

A 3-D-like picture of the agrarian sector -- also covering on-farm fisheries and forestry activities -- will take in the village, province and national levels and should emerge over some 18 months. And crucially, statisticians will be able to build on this.

"One of the key advantages when this is up and running, " says Odell Larson of FAO, "is that China will be able to develop a current data collection system to keep track of shifts of production and other important trends on a yearly basis by using sampling techniques using the census as a base."

And this will be vital as the market continues to expand and open up with farmers producing for markets both at home and abroad. Vital too for assessing and planning the need for key inputs including fertilizers, seeds and machinery when feeding one-fifth of the world's population.

Previously, the country's statisticians were using different methods for assessing the agricultural sector. By using the FAO's World Agricultural Census Programme (WACP), China will be able to compare its performance with other countries, which also helps to demonstrate the sector's potential to foreign investors.

Outside of China it is expected that other countries, especially those shifting from centrally planned economies to market ones, will join FAO's WACP in which 92 countries participated between 1986 to 1995.

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