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Cultivating Change


“Farm families that plant tobacco need to be shown they can generate a greater income by substituting vegetables and other crops.” - Dr. Virginia Li

TOBACCO IS A MAJOR PROBLEM IN CHINA, where an estimated 316 million people smoke and 1 million smokers die of lung cancer each year. But efforts to tackle this public health scourge in the world’s most populous nation are complicated by economics. Some 20 million Chinese farmers are dependent on tobacco cultivation, manufacturing and sales for their livelihood. The Chinese government controls production and regulates the tobacco industry. Tobacco revenues account for 7 percent of the gross national product.

So rather than push the health argument, Dr. Virginia Li, professor emerita in the Fielding School’s Department of Community Health Sciences, approached government officials in China’s tobacco-growing capital nearly a decade ago with a new idea: lower the supply of tobacco by showing farmers how to increase their profits through substitute crops.

“In China, anti-smoking campaigns aren’t enough,” Li explains. “To really make a difference, farm families that plant tobacco need to be shown they can generate a greater income by substituting vegetables and other crops.”



Li was born in China, the oldest of five children to accomplished parents: Her mother directed an operation during the Sino-Japanese War that rescued more than 20,000 newly orphaned and refugee children from occupied territory; Li’s father was a military general and later governor of Guangdong Province who, Li has said, “had the heart of a poet and believed in the nonviolent teachings of Buddhism.” The family moved to New York City in 1947 when Li was 13; she wouldn’t return to China until 1974, a quarter- century after the Communist Revolution.

As an FSPH faculty member in the 1980s, Li began to focus on the issue of smoking in her native country. While visiting in 1987, she advocated moving China toward being a smoke-free nation in an article published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. “It was met with silence,” Li recalls.

But by 2008, she sensed the timing was right to try again. Five years earlier, China was among the 192 World Health Organization member nations to sign on to the landmark Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a declaration of its commitment. With modernization and economic development, the government was less dependent than before on tobacco revenue. And in the face of food security concerns, there was a need to grow more edible crops. “China is a mountainous country with about one-third of the arable land that the United States has, but 1 billion more people,” Li says.

Li had also worked in southwest China’s Yunnan Province uninterrupted for 20 years, organizing grassroots programs to address women’s reproductive health and other issues. In addition to the relationships forged there through these programs and her education of local students, she had trained approximately 30 students who had come to UCLA as visiting scholars and gone on to serve in key positions throughout China. Li consulted with a colleague and long-time friend, Yunnan Province’s former director of public health, who helped her get the go-ahead from the government to work with the Bureau of Agriculture in Yuxi Municipality. With modest funding from a private donor, Li and her local partners launched a three-year tobacco crop-substitution pilot project in 2009.

Yuxi was China’s tobacco capital, with more than 96 million acres of tobacco-producing farmland and a tobacco-driven economy that ranked first in the province. But Li knew the farmers could do better. “With tobacco you have only one crop a year, and it’s labor-intensive,” she says. “Planting food you have four seasons. Also, the average farm size per capita was one-sixth of a U.S. acre. Farmers could never get rich with such a small piece of land, but my thinking was that with the right training, farmer cooperatives could be turned into business enterprises.”

The Yuxi Bureau of Agriculture worked with village heads to recruit more than 450 farm families to a for-profit cooperative that would enable them to take advantage of economies of scale. Instead of growing tobacco, the farmers grew crops such as vegetables, arrowhead and grapes. Most importantly, the bureau’s agricultural specialists trained the farmers in skills such as market research, seed selection, maximizing crop yields, storing and selling the produce, and accounting. The farmers elected their own officers, and each cooperative’s responsibilities included supplying members with seeds, pesticides and other needed materials.

Over a period of three years, farmers earned 20-115 percent more than they had from tobacco crops. Every crop at every site yielded a higher income. “Many of these farmers do not read or write,” Li says, “but the Yuxi pilot showed that they can gain the knowledge and skills they need to run a business that brings them more income than they would receive from tobacco farming.”

Seeing the success in Yuxi, farmers all over the province have followed suit. In Tonghai County, previously China’s largest tobacco producer, vegetables have replaced tobacco as the leading crop. The effort is now buoyed by the “redline” policy initiated by China in 2013 to ensure adequate food production through a minimum threshold of 120 million hectares of cultivated land. According to data released by the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, the policy reduced China’s tobacco planting acreage by about 20 percent over three years.

In Li’s most recent visits to Yunnan Province, she has seen the impact of what she started. “In the countryside there are new houses being built, and farmers are sending their children to college,” she says. “This has put more money in their pockets while improving health. It’s a win-win.”