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Irish Independent's Darragh McCullough in Shanghai.

Irish Independent's Darragh McCullough in Shanghai.

China is forging ahead with the rapid intensification of its agriculture sector, but traditional practices are still common in most areas.

China is forging ahead with the rapid intensification of its agriculture sector, but traditional practices are still common in most areas.

A man carries some fertiliser.

A man carries some fertiliser.

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Irish Independent's Darragh McCullough in Shanghai.

Ireland will get its first glimpse of the rapidly changing face of Chinese agriculture this evening, with a special Ear To The Ground report from the world's most populous country.

Despite having just 10pc of the world's land area to feed 20pc of the planet's population, China is forging ahead with the rapid intensification of its agriculture sector, especially in dairying.

The last four years have seen billions invested in 'mega-farms', capable of accommodating 10,000-40,000 cows.

This is partly a reaction to the various food scandals that have rocked the confidence of Chinese citizens in their local food supply chains. The adulteration of milk with industrial chemicals aimed at elevating its protein content was mainly linked to small 'unprofessional' milk suppliers.

While official China government figures state that just six infants died as a result of the milk contamination, industry insiders believe that the real figure was much higher.

"The real figure has never really been revealed," claimed Greenpeace's Beijing researcher, Wang Jing. "People cannot trust what it says on the label anymore."

The Chinese government's response has been to invest heavily in mega-farms such as the 40,000-cow unit near Bengbu, 500km northwest of Shanghai.

While dairy analysts such as Rabobank see more and more of the world's global milk supply coming from these types of farms in the future, they are struggling to produce milk at much less than 50c/l.

This is partly a result of increasing wage rates for manual labourers and a heavy reliance on imported forage from as far away as Australia and the US.

"We buy oaten hay from Australia for 2,500RMB [€330/t] and alfalfa from the US for 3,000RMB [€400/t]," said Chen GuoPing, the farm manager at a 1,200-cow dairy farm, owned by a Taiwanese dairy processor called Weiquan.

Mr GuoPing receives 5.8RMB (78c/l) for the milk produced on the farm, which is sold directly by Weiquan into the Shanghai region 200km north of the farm.

Milk prices for suppliers often depends on how large they are, with returns paid by the second largest milk processor, Mengniu, ranging from less than 4RMB up to 5.2RMB (53-70c/l).

Management at this company, which is partly owned by the state company, Cofco, estimate that average milk production costs are running at 46c/l on their large farms.

'Ear To The Ground' will air at 8.30pm tonight (Tuesday) on RTE1. The programme is repeated on Sundays

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