||Population growth is still an extremely important factor for China's food
Peoples Republic of China was founded in 1949, the country had a population of about
540 million. Only three decades later its population was more than 800 million. This
unprecedented population increase from the 1950s to the early 1970s created a strong
population momentum that is now driving Chinas population growth despite already low
levels of fertility. Most projections assume that China's population will increase to some
1.48 billion. However, all of this growth will occur during the next 25 years. In its most
recent medium variant projection, the UN Population Division estimates that China's
population will increase by more than 260 million people between 1995 and 2025. This
certainly causes a major problem for China's food supply: within only three decades the
country will have to feed an additional 260 million people, a number roughly equivalent to
the total population of the USA.
||Unfortunately, there is a large range of uncertainty in total
population projections for China.
||Recent high and
low variants in population projections for China typically differ in the range of 200
million people, even if assumptions for future fertility and mortality trends are very similar.
The large range of total population projections for China is a fundamental problem.
With China's massive current population of 1.3 billion people, even very small changes in
average fertility or mortality rates will result in huge differences in the number
of people (and, of course, mouths to feed).
||The next 20 years will be critical for stabilizing China's
population below 1.5 billion people.
||During the next
25 years large cohorts will reach reproductive age in China. In 1995 the number of adults
between 20 and 49 was almost 595 million (according to the 1998 UN estimates); it will
increase to 665 million by 2010. Only if these young people have very low average
fertility will it be possible to stabilize China's population below 1.5 billion. If they
have, on average, only slightly more children than the replacement level of 2.1 children
per woman, China's population will inevitably rise above 1.5 billion.
is no guarantee that fertility in China will decline and remain low with economic growth.
decades, fertility in many developing countries has declined significantly due to economic
growth and social modernization - even without strict family planning programs. This has
led some authors to conclude that population growth in China will stabilize because the
country's rapid economic growth will automatically lower fertility rates.
However, this is far from certain. There are populations where fertility has remained
relatively high despite a significant increase in income - as is the case throughout
Western Asia and in middle-class families of Pakistan and India. Moreover, China's
fertility not only has to decline (which is likely, due to economic modernization), but it
has to remain at or below replacement level. With only slightly higher average fertility,
it would not be possible to stabilize China's population below 1.5 billion.
effective family planning program is still necessary.
security greatly depends on the continuation of an effective family planning program.
Currently, fertility is very low in China. An increase in average fertility would result
in a massive increase in the number of people (and mouths to feed) due to the
large number of people of reproductive age. Stabilizing population growth is probably the
single most important measure for increasing China's food security.
|2. Change in Diet
growing preference for meat will push up China's grain demand - only moderately,
||According to FAO
estimates, average meat consumption in China increased from 39 kcal per capita per day in
1961-1963 to 286 kcal in 1991-1993 (three-year average). In the early 1990s, China used
some 75 million tons of cereal as feed crops (including about 13 million tons of whole and
broken rice in milled equivalent). This was equivalent to 66 kg per capita. If we assume
another doubling of per capita meat consumption to 132 kg per year, then China would need
198 million tons of feed crops for a projected population of 1.5 billion in 2025. However,
it is more likely that the average meat consumption in China will increase only
slowly in the future. It has already reached a higher lever than in Japan.
trend toward a more diversified diet in China is changing the structure of
agricultural land use.
||Today, people in
China eat considerably more vegetables, fruit, sugar, vegetable oil, and fish, and far
fewer roots, tubers, and pulses than 20 years ago. This positive trend toward a more
balanced diet is partly responsible for the reported decline in cropland area. In recent
years, in particular, much cropland has been converted to orchards, fields for vegetable
production, and fish ponds. As Alexandratos (1996, 1997) from the FAO has pointed out,
this trend is misunderstood by Brown (1995) in his popular book Who Will Feed China?,
where attention is focused solely on the decline of cropland, without taking into account
the increase in other areas of food production. The conversion of cropland to orchards or
fish ponds is a positive sign of greater market orientation in Chinese agriculture.
economic development drives the country's urbanization.
||Over the next few
decades China will face a massive wave of rural-urban migrants. During the 1950s, 1960s,
and 1970s, China's government strictly controlled population mobility. Consequently, China
had one of the lowest rates of urbanization in Asia. When the economic reforms began in
1978, China was a predominantly rural society. However, the rapid economic development
during the 1980s and 1990s began to change this situation. Booming urban areas in the
special development zones and coastal provinces required additional labor - especially in
the construction industry and the service sector. Temporary labor migration (referred to
as the "floating population") was allowed and a certain amount of
"illegal" rural-urban migration was obviously tolerated. While an individual's
official place of residence is still strictly controlled through a household registration
system, it is obvious that controls have been loosened. Three factors will drive
urbanization in China: the huge "excess population" in agriculture, the income
gap between rural and urban employment, and the growing labor demand of urban industries
and service sectors.
promotes commercial agriculture and drives the expansion of China's food
promotes commercial agriculture in China. Traditionally, most people in China
have been subsistence farmers. Only a small portion of the population lived in cities
and was supplied with grain by the state through its grain procurement system. This will
change in coming decades, with a much larger portion of the population working in the
industrial and service sectors and living in towns and cities. In the long run, a
declining number of farmers will have to supply a growing number of urban dwellers. This
will require a productivity increase in agriculture and the introduction or expansion of
food markets and a specialized food industry.
|4. Arable Land / Soils
cropland area was seriously underestimated in recent decades.
||It is widely
recognized among experts that China's land-use statistics were extremely unreliable in the
past. Estimates from the late 1980s and early 1990s range from 95 to 150 million hectares,
certainly not a small error margin. Even the most recent Statistical Yearbook, from 1998,
reports an "official" estimate of 95 million hectares, plus a footnote, stating
that the number is known to be underreported.
The Chinese State Land Administration, however, has estimated, based on land
surveys, that the area of farmland was in the order of 131 million ha in 1995. This
estimate is confirmed by US scientists from the MEDEA group, who have analyzed
remote-sensing information from US satellites.
Calculations by researchers of the IIASA LUC project show that the area of
cultivated land must have been even larger in the late 1980s than the initial
estimate from the State Land Administration. In 1988 China had a (corrected) cultivated
land area of 132.5 million hectares, which declined slightly to 131.1 million hectares in
has some land reserves that can be brought into cultivation.
potentially arable land (that is, current farmland plus arable land reserves currently not
cultivated) are usually based on model calculations, such as the agro-ecological zones
(AEZ) concept, which was developed by the FAO in collaboration with scientists at IIASA
(see the in-depth analysis of potential
arable land in China in this application) This methodology can assess which crops could
theoretically be grown in certain areas under given (or projected) agro-climatic
conditions, soils, and terrain characteristics. However, it is very difficult or even
impossible to estimate the impact of future technology.
According to these analyses, China has almost 197 million hectares of land with
cultivation potential for grain. However, some 35 million hectares of this land are only marginally
suitable for grain production at a low input level, where from an economic point
of view cultivation makes little sense. This means that some 162 million hectares
are available in China for grain cultivation, as compared with the currently used 132
million hectares for all crops. In other words: the bottleneck is not land, but the
availability of investment capital, agricultural know-how, and infrastructure in remote
are various types of soil degradation in China, but so far they have had little impact on
problems do exist in China, particularly the serious water erosion in the Loess Plateau,
significant wind erosion in northern China, and aridification and salinization in the
North China Plain. However, much of the degradation occurs outside cultivated
areas or affects crop production only indirectly. Water erosion in the Loess Plateau leads
to massive siltation in the lower reaches of the Yellow River, increasing the risk of
flooding and thus threatening food production.
5. Water Resources
is critical - not land.
||The most critical
resource is water, not land. Regional distribution of water resources in China does not
match agricultural (irrigation) demand. While some 44% of the population and some 58% of
the cultivated land are in the northern and northeastern provinces, only 14.4% of the
total water resources (surface runoff and groundwater) can be found in those regions.
Rivers and lakes are increasingly being polluted by the industrial and urban sectors,
which increases the risk that soil on irrigated fields will be degraded and that dangerous
substances (such as heavy metals) will enter the human food chain. Flood-related harvest
loss is a serious threat to China's food security. Finally, in northern China there is
increasing competition for scarce water resources between rapidly growing urban and
industrial consumption, on the one hand, and agricultural demand, on the other.
is wasting large amounts of water.
efficiency is very low in all sectors, but particularly in irrigation. Experts have
estimated that up to 60% of the water evaporates from open canals and from fields with
traditional flooding irrigation. There are also significant water losses due to outdated
water supply infrastructure, bad maintenance, and poor management practices.
pollution is threatening agriculture in China.
||Industry is the
biggest source of water pollution in China. Industrial wastewater accounts for about
two-thirds of the total discharge into rivers, lakes, and the sea. About 80% of industrial
wastewater is untreated. Existing facilities for treating industrial wastewater are
operating with outdated technology or are poorly maintained. Recycling of process water is
minimal in Chinese industry. It will be very costly to build new facilities and update the
water supply and wastewater treatment systems must be expanded and modernized.
||Some 75% of all
urban areas in China do not have adequate systems for supply and distribution of potable
water. Effective infrastructure for municipal wastewater treatment is rare in China. This
lack of effective measures to stop or slow urban and industrial water pollution amplifies
China's freshwater supply problems. Only since the early 1980s have major cities begun to
implement modern water-supply and sanitation facilities. It is estimated that between 1981
and 1993 the annual investment in urban public water facilities increased from just 365
million yuan to 5.95 billion yuan (United Nations ESCAP, 1997, p. 23). However, the
measures are still insufficient. Smaller cities and towns in rural areas, in particular,
have only very basic wastewater treatment facilities. The capacity of public
water supplies in the rapidly growing urban-industrial agglomerations (e.g., in Guangdong)
need to be increased drastically.
water redirection projects are necessary, but have high economic, ecological, and social
attempt to divert water from southern rivers (such as the Yangtze) to the drought-affected
North of China through canals are probably inevitable. Work on the western canal has
already begun. However, these large-scale water diversion projects are extremely
costly - not only in monetary terms, but also in ecological and social terms. They require
high dams and water reservoirs, which may inundate huge areas of valuable cropland (such
as occurred with the Three Gorges Dam project). Often large number of farmers have to be
resettled in areas where the land is less fertile than in the river valleys in which they
As a complementary measure to the trans-basin water diversion regional planning should
favor the development of water intensive industries and population centers in the
South. Recently, China seems to have been following this approach by promoting the
development of a large urban-industrial region in its central and southern provinces, such
as the development axis reaching from Shanghai to Wuhan and to the new province of
Chengquing, or the special economic zones in Guangdong Province. In these areas, water
resources are abundant.
6. Agricultural Policy
agricultural policy before 1978 led to stagnation and crises.
agricultural policy since 1949 has been characterized by a confusing succession of
political and ideological campaigns, five-year plans, and ad hoc policies, including
several sharp turns in orientation. Between 1949 and 1978, China's leaders tried to
implement several varieties of state-planned agriculture, based on top-down command and
control and operating on collectivized land. The results were disappointing. Food supply
hardly kept up with demand. There were also several severe food crises - the most serious
during the Great Leap Forward, with some 30 million or more famine-related deaths.
introduction of family farming has boosted agricultural productivity since 1978.
China's economy has been increasingly opened to market elements and decentralized economic
decision making by individual households and businesses. With the reintroduction of family
farming and the dissolution of large collective production units operating on
collectivized land, China's agricultural sector rapidly began to increase productivity.
The introduction and liberalization of food markets and the gradual decline of
the subsidized food distribution system run by the state opened up new possibilities for
farmers. Those in close proximity to urban areas could sell their products on the free
(farmers') markets. This promoted greater market orientation in agricultural cultivation,
which is a precondition for a commercial agriculture. The trend is clearly mirrored in the
greater diversity of food production since 1978, which now includes more
vegetables, fruits, tobacco, tea, meat, and fish. Today, China has a dual system of a
"socialist market economy" with growing market orientation in the agricultural
and food sectors. State control through production quotas, price fixing, and managed
consumer supply is basically restricted to a few core commodities, primarily grains (rice,
wheat), where the Chinese politicians still use market regulation and protection
(primarily to guarantee sufficient grain supply for urban consumers at low, relatively
reforms are necessary to strengthen the entrepreneurial spirit among Chinese farmers.
of family farming on land rented from the state on a long-term basis has released the
long-suppressed entrepreneurial spirit among Chinese farmers. However, the land is still
legally owned by the villagers collective and subject to state regulations. Land transfer
is strictly controlled to prevent accumulation of land by large farms and the emergence of
a class of land-less rural families. From an economic perspective, this prevents a more
rational farm structure with a smaller number of large, more productive farms. However,
from a social perspective, it helps to provide at least basic economic subsistence to
China's large rural population. In the long run, China has to massively increase nonagricultural
employment opportunities to absorb the huge agricultural "excess population" and
further boost agricultural productivity.
insistence on "self-sufficiency" in grain production prevents more
effective use of cropland.
Chinese government still follows the principle of national (or even provincial)
self-sufficiency in grain production. The recently introduced "Grain Bag" policy
puts pressure on farmers and provides incentives to increase grain production for the
state procurement system. However, in the long run this policy might change once China's
leaders calculate the costs of continually pressing farmers to step up domestic grain
production. Within the next 20 years, China will need to increase annual grain supply by
between 130 and 220 million tons, depending on the scenario considered. This target could
be achieved much more easily and at much lower costs with grain imports in the range of
30-50 million tons, which would be also consistent with the Chinese Academy of Sciences'
estimated import demand in the order of 45 million tons. This amount would certainly not
disturb the world grain market, since it is only about 20% of its current overall volume.
Economic rationality suggests that China should import land-extensive crops (such
as wheat) and use the rather limited arable land for production of labor-intensive
products (such as vegetables or fruit).
7. Science and Technology
of better agricultural technology has greatly contributed to China's growing food supply.
significantly improved its agricultural technology since 1978. The country has introduced
high-yield crops, increased the use of agro-chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides) and
agricultural machinery, and expanded irrigation. Rural electricity consumption, which can
be seen as an indicator of technological modernization, has increased almost eightfold.
The food industry has also introduced new technologies for food storage, processing,
preservation, and distribution, which has reduced post-harvest losses. However, there is
still a great potential for further technological modernization in this sector.
is currently investing heavily in basic biochemical research, a key factor in future food
||In recent years
the Chinese government has also given high priority to advanced research in molecular
biology, plant genetics, biotechnology, and related fields, which is aimed at increasing
crop yields and livestock productivity. Earlier than many other leaders of developing
countries, China's government officials understood the importance of biotechnology for
their country's future food security. By the mid-1980s a major national biotechnology
program had been initiated. Uninhibited by concerns about environmental risks, Chinese
research centers have since begun to develop advanced biotechnological tools such as
recombinant DNA technology.Today, China is a leader in agricultural biotechnology and one
of the most advanced countries in terms of using genetic markers and tools in rice
and technology will be key factors in China's food security.
technology will be crucial to unlocking China's food resources in coming decades. China's
agricultural productivity could be increased substantially if existing conventional
technologies were more widely implemented. There are huge regional differences in
crop yields and livestock productivity. Post-harvest food processing and the logistics of
the Chinese food system would also benefit greatly from modern transportation and
processing technology. In the future it will be advanced breeding methods that
will help to further increase the productivity of crop plants and livestock in China. A
great leap in food production could come from genetically improved varieties of fish and
other seafood that would increase the productivity of fish farming.
Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)
- Copyright © 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright © 1999 by IIASA.)