Hunger was such a constant companion in Yao Qizhong’s childhood that even now, at age 40, he’ll stoop down to salvage a single clove of garlic that falls from his table at the Beijing market where he hawks fresh produce.
Life is less harsh these days, but China’s fast-rising food prices have hit his family hard, making it increasingly difficult to save for his three kids’ education — Yao’s main goal.
Prosperity and a fast-growing middle class have cultivated more sophisticated and exotic tastes. Such luxuries as blueberries, avocado, asparagus, and endive, recently unattainable to all but the wealthiest, are now widely available in China’s big cities.
But rising affluence has taxed the ability of farmers to meet growing demand while the rural labor pool dwindles. The result: Rising food prices hit every level of society, not just those who can afford imported South American bananas or pricey mushrooms and herbs from China’s remote Yunnan province. People on low or fixed incomes feel the pinch most.
“We don’t dare to try and eat good stuff because we can’t afford it,” says Yao, whose four grandparents starved to death during China’s 1960 famine. He was so poor growing up in rural Anhui province that his neighbors assumed he would end up a beggar on the streets.
“If I go to a supermarket,” he says, “it’s a novelty, like sightseeing.”
In China, farm workers have flocked by the millions to factory and service jobs in coastal cities. Luring them back to till and weed by hand is proving a tough sell. The resulting supply pinch helped send food prices up 11.7 percent in March from the year before, adding to months of steep increases.
“You can’t find (farm) workers and they’re expensive, over a dollar (7 yuan) an hour,” said Liu Li, a wholesaler hawking Napa cabbage and coriander at Beijing’s Xinfadi, north China’s biggest agricultural distribution center.
People in the countryside want factory work or a job in the service industry, where they’d get to stay indoors and have a warm place to sleep, said Liu. Farm work, she said, is “too dirty and too hard.”