Could the Election of Qu Dongyu as FAO´s General-Director be a Turning-point for Sustainable Agricultural Development?

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Jul 1 2019 (IPS)

Agriculture is the bedrock of sedentary human civilization,
without it we would have no governments or nations. It was food
surplus generated by agriculture that enabled people to live in
cities and form regimes able to organize food production in such a
manner that some community members could engage in other activities
than direct food production and thus give rise to the ideologies,
techniques and goods which now constitute and govern our

China’s agricultural output is currently the largest in the
world and for thousands of years the intimate connection between
nature and agriculture has been an outstanding feature of its
culture. A worthy example is the poetry of Du Fu (712 – 770 CE)
who wrote about the toils of farming:

Long hoe, long hoe, handle of white wood,
I trust my life to you – you must save me now!

Like any other peasant today Du Fu was acutely aware of
nature´s capriciousness and the disasters brought about through
drought and famine.

Heaven has long withheld its thunder,
is this not a most perverse heavenly command?
No rain moistens the living things,
fertile fields rise into clouds of yellow dust.
Soaring birds die from searing heat,
fish dry up as ponds turn to mud.
A myriad of people wander about, destitute and homeless.
Lifting up one´s eyes reveals a plethora of weeds.

Much of Chinese history is characterized by huge efforts to
mitigate and harness the forces of nature. Myths tell how
agricultural tools and implements were invented, how plants and
animals were domesticated. They speak of irrigation, the digging of
wells, and the establishment of farmers´ markets. Heroes and
emperors are hailed as initiators of such endeavours and often
became deified and worshipped as gods, like the legendary Yu, son
of Gun, who became the fertility god Shénnóng (神農) The Divine

Even in modern times mortal men have been worshipped as
all-knowing, almost divine creatures – like Mao Zedong, whose
1958 Great Leap Forward put land use under closer Government
control, causing a catastrophic situation when ecologicallly
disastrous campaigns, as the extermination of sparrows, were paired
with a ban on private food production and the introduction of
harmful agricultural practices, such as widespread deforestation,
deep plowing and close cropping, as well as the misuse of poisons
and pesticides, resulted in a famine that killed an estimated 14
million individuals.4

However, China learned from such disastrous politics and
gradually moved away from a Maoist ”command economy”, which did
not allow farmers to determine their economic activities according
to the laws of supply and demand. In 1984, about 99 percent of the
farming communes had been dismantled and agricultural production
returned to individual households. The People’s Republic of China
(PRC) now produces one fourth of the world’s grain and with less
than 10 percent of world arable land it feeds one fifth of the
world’s population. China ranks first in the world in terms of
the production of cereals, cotton, fruit, vegetables, meat,
poultry, eggs and fishery products. However, China´s population is
steadily increasing, while the amount of arable land is declining.
The population of PRC is approaching 1,5 billion, the equivalent of
almost 20 percent of the earth´s inhabitants. Agriculture employs
over 300 million Chinese farmers, while 40 percent of PRC´s
citizens live in rural areas. Young people are in a steady stream
migrating from rural to urban areas. Mechanization rates are
rapidly rising to fill agricultural labour shortage, but even with
increased mechanization China will need young farmers to replace
those who are aging.5

Acordingly, to feed its incresing population Chinese rulers have
realized that apart from increasing their nation´s food poduction,
investments have to be made in global agriculture, not the least in
Africa. Trade between PRC and Africa did in the 1990s increase by
700 percent and PRC has become Africa’s largest trading partner,
supporting agricultural production and food exports in a vast range
of developing countries. China is currently building up
agricultural exchange and cooperation relations with international
agricultural and financing organizations, and is actively involved
in agricutural development in more than 140 countries.

This push for international cooperation may be one reason for
PRC´s growing interest in the United Nations. When PRC in 1971
replaced Taiwan (the Republic of China) as the Chinese
representative to the UN, it did at first keep a low profile.
However, after Xi Jinping became China´s main leader PRC has
steadily become more visible within the UN system.

In a speech delivered at the UN Office in Geneva, Xi Jinping
declared that he did not consider trade protectionism and
self-isolation to be beneficient. He described the Paris Agreement
as ”a milestone in the history of climate governance” and
declared that ”we must ensure this endeavour is not derailed.”
Furthermore, he emphasized that the UN is ”at the core of the
international system.” 6 Xi Jinping´s speech
may be compared to a speech Donald J. Trump gave at the UN General

America is governed by Americans. We
reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of
patriotism. Around the world, responsible nations must defend
themselves against threats to sovereignty not just from the global
governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and

The United States remains the largest financial contributor to
the UN, providing 22 percent of its budget. However, US support is
declining. Already in 2011, the US stopped paying dues to the
UNESCO and in October 2017 it officially quit the Organisation. In
2018, the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council and ended
all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for
Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The Trump
administration is currently trying to decrease US funding to
several UN agencies. Meanwhile, the People´s Republic of China
recently surpassed Japan as the second largest national, economic
contributor to the UN. So far, Japan has every year contributed
with 10 percent, while PRC now is contributing with 10.8 percent
and plans to increase its financial support. 8

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
(FAO) is in charge of international efforts to improve agriculture,
forestry, and fisheries, intending to ensure food security for all
and it is thus natural that its activites are of great interest to
the biggest food producer of the world. On the 23rd of June, Qu
Dongyu was elected Director General of the FAO, becoming the second
Chinese citizen to head a UN agency.9 In a recent
speech, Qu Dongyu who at that time still was PRC’s vice minister
for agriculture and rural affairs, stated that if he became FAO´s
Director General he would try to continue the Organisation´s
efforts to foment sustainable agriculture, particularly by
supporting value chains, tropical agriculture, dryland farming,
water management and innovative ITC (Information and Communications
Technology). Qu Dongyu stressed that this can only be achieved by
the farmers themselves, emphasizing that rural women and youth have
to be mobilized, supported and included in all decision making. The
last promise may indicate that Qu Dongyu intends to avoid becoming
the kind of demi-god that rulers of big organisations often tend to
consider themselves to be. Qu Dongyu´s speech might be perceived
as the high-flown oratory of any incoming head of a big
organization. However, I found one section of his speech
particularly reassuring – when he stated that the future of
agriculture depends on the experience of the elderly and the
capacity of the young:

When I was a child, my Grandma always
took me to pick mushrooms in the neighbouring hills. She told me
that we should leave the old mushrooms to spread spores and the
young, small ones to grow. This is the only way to ensure that we
could have a constant supply of mushrooms within the season. With a
strong scientific background, I have always stood by the principle
of carefulness, truth-seeking, inclusiveness, and collaboration.

The future belongs to the young and we have to prepare and
safeguard our world for them. The Swedish environment activist
Greta Thunberg became known after she in May 2018 won second-prize
in a contest for middle school pupils. They had been asked to write
about environmental degradation. Greta called her essay We know –
and we can do something now, in it she wrote:

When you think about the future
today, you do not think further than 2050. Then, at best, I have
not even lived half my life. What happens next? […] If I become a
hundred years old, I will be alive in the year 2103. If I by that
time have children and grandchildren they would probably celebrate
that day together with me. Maybe we would talk about how things
were when I was a child. I would presumably talk about you then.
How would you like to be remembered? 11

One answer to Greta´s question could be that eighty-four years
ago the election of a new Director General for FAO helped reverse
our short-sighted and ruthless exploitation of the Earth and thus
contributed to a sustainable management of natural resources,
making it possible for her and her grandchildren to enjoy food
security and live in harmony with nature.

1 Du Fu (2002) The Selected Poems by Du Fu,
translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press,
p. 71.
2 Summer Sigh quoted in Zhang, Yunhua (2018)
Insights Into Chinese Agriculture. Singapore: Springer, p. 97.
3 Cf. Yuan Kee (1993) Dragons and Dynasties: An
Introduction to Chinese Mythology. London: Penguin Books.
4 Some scholarly estimates are as high as 20 to 43
millions, cf. Dikötter, Frank (2011) Mao´s Great Famine: The
History of China´s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962.
London: Bloomsbury.
6 Xi Jinping (2017) Work Together to Build a
Community of Shared Future for Mankind.
7 UN Affairs (2018) US President Trump rejects
globalism in speech to UN General Assembly’s annual debate.
8 Okano-Heijmans, Maaike and van der Putten,
Frans-Paul (2018) A United Nations with Chinese characteristics?
The Hague: Clingendael Institute.
9 Li Yong is since 2013 heading United Nations
Industrial Devolpment Organization (UNIDO).
10 Dongyu, Qu (2019) Building a Dynamic FAO for a
Better World.

11 Thunberg, Greta (2018) ”Greta Thunberg: ´Vi
vet – och vi kan göra något nu´,” Svenska Dagbladet, 30

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion
from Lund University and has served as a development expert,
researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international

The post
Could the Election of Qu Dongyu as FAO´s General-Director be a
Turning-point for Sustainable Agricultural Development?

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Could the Election of Qu Dongyu as FAO´s General-Director be a Turning-point for Sustainable Agricultural Development?