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Arguments - Impact
Urbanization will affect China's food system in various ways: (1) it will promote commercial agriculture and (2) the growth of a modern food industry; (3) urban infrastructure expansion will reduce cropland areas; (4) urbanization will speed up change in diet; (5) increasing urban (air) pollution and waste discharge will affect soils and irrigation systems; and (6) growing urban freshwater consumption will compete with agricultural water demand.
Description of the Problem
It is not obvious how urbanization could affect China’s (future) food security. One might argue that it does not seem to make a big difference whether people consume food in a city or in a village. In terms of overall food (calorie) demand, the differences are probably not great. However, on closer inspection a number of indirect consequences must be considered:
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) How does urbanization affect farmers?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) How does it affect the food industry?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Does urbanization speed up change in diet?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Does the growth of towns, cities, and urban infrastructure significantly decrease cropland areas?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Will urban and industrial (air) pollution and wastewater discharge affect agricultural productivity?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) Does urban freshwater consumption affect the agricultural water supply?
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Commercial, market-oriented agriculture Tables & Charts
Currently, a large number of farmers in China produce mainly for their own families. At the national level, about 50 - 60% of the grain production is directly consumed by the farmers and their families, 30-40% goes into the state procurement system, and only a small percentage goes to free market trade (see Table 1). In the past, grain procurement at state-controlled prices and fixed quotas was used to supply urban residents with food and to balance differences between grain-deficit and -surplus regions. One of the measures was an interprovincial planned grain allocation scheme (see Song, 1997).
In the future, when a larger proportion of the population will be living in urban areas and working in nonagricultural sectors, the remaining farmers will be required to greatly increase their productivity and switch to commercial agriculture. In all modern, industrialized societies, only a small fraction of the population (between about 3% and 10%) works in agriculture, but they produce food for the other 90% or more of the population. Usually, one farmer can feed between 15 and 30 people (or even more).
China's socialist market economy has responded to this challenge by implementing the so-called "Grain Bag Governor Responsibility System" (GRS). This policy, initiated in 1993, should help to increase grain production by fine-tuning the hierarchical system of macrocontrol and state procurement. Elements of more efficient interprovincial marketing have been introduced and the provincial and local governments are now required to achieve regional grain self-sufficiency. The local authorities have responded to this policy with a mixture of stricter administrative controls and economic measures (such as subsidies) to boost grain production.
However, this can only be a transitional phase. In the long run, China will have to replace the system of fixed quotas and "state prices" with strong economic incentives for farmers (subsidies, tax measures) to increase grain production. The problem of balancing regional divergences in grain self-sufficiency must be solved through transparent markets rather than through planned grain allocation among prefectures and provinces. In other words, a growing urban sector will promote China's development toward fully market-oriented commercial agriculture.
State Procurement of Grain in China
Table 1
A modern food industry
Urbanization will also affect China’s food industry. Unlike farmers, urban residents cannot live from their own fields, but have to buy food on the market or obtain it from state-subsidized shops. With the gradual decline of the state-run food distribution system, private enterprises (the food processing industry, wholesalers, supermarkets) will flourish in the food sector. China’s urbanization will certainly drive the expansion of a market-oriented food industry. Available statistics indicate that the food industry is already one of the most rapidly growing sectors in China’s economy. The gross output value of the food processing industry grew by almost 120% between 1993 and 1997. In comparison, the gross output value increased by only some 69% in all other industrial sectors. The increase in the food manufacturing industry was 107% (see Table 2). A modern food industry that can efficiently handle post-harvest processing, storage, packaging, preservation, and distribution of food is essential for the country’s food security. As the "Great Leap Forward" disaster showed, deficient food logistics often contribute to famine. Food Industry: Economic Indicators
Table 2
Change in diet
Another consequence of urbanization in China will be an accelerated change in diet. Urban residents typically prefer a more diverse diet and eat more processed foods. They also typically eat more meat and dairy products, which boosts livestock production. If we compare China's diet with those of other developed (Asian) countries, we can see that further changes are certainly possible, or even likely (see Table 3). (See also the special section on Change in Diet). Diets in selected countries
Table 3
Loss of arable land
The growth of cities and towns also leads to the conversion of arable land to built up areas, although increasing population density (e.g., "vertical growth" through high rises) somewhat moderates this effect. In contrast to agricultural land-use changes, which are usually reversible, transformation of arable land to built up areas, such as highways or settlements, tends to be permanent or reversible only at very high costs. Available statistics show significant increases in built-up land in 12 major urban areas of China between 1989 and 1995.
Urbanization not only causes an expansion of built-up areas for housing, but also has far-reaching effects on indirect land-cover change. Urban populations need a much broader supply and service infrastructure than rural populations - from shopping centers to water reservoirs. They usually cannot build their houses with local products, such as clay or wood; instead, steel mills and cement factories are necessary for urban construction. They cannot collect firewood for cooking and heating, but depend instead on the production and distribution of commercial energy. Much cultivated land in China was lost due to the construction of dams for hydropower generation. Cities also need special areas for sewage treatment and waste disposal; in villages, this is often taken care of at the household level. The process of urbanization usually triggers the growth of a specific supply infrastructure and city-specific land-use forms, such as parks, recreation areas, and sport stadiums, which further diminish cropland areas around the cities. Farmers around rich coastal cities in China have already protested against the construction of golf courses and other land-consuming sports facilities for the growing upper class. Table 4 and Figure 1 detail land-use changes in China between 1988 and 1995. They show that during that period some 980,000 ha of cultivated land had been used for construction activities of all kinds.
Diets in selected countries
Table 4

Land-use change by cause, 1988 - 1995
Figure 1

Urban pollution and water consumption
With increasing urbanization, China will face pollution problems typical of cities and urban agglomerations: growing air pollution from traffic, rising wastewater discharge, and growing solid waste deposits. China already has one of the most serious water pollution problems in the world (see Table 5). For a more detailed discussion see also the chapter on Water resources. Diets in selected countries
Table 5
Related Arguments

Urbanization:   Trends     Impact    Data Quality    Prediction Error    Intervention Possibilities    Intervention Costs

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Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)  - Copyright 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright 1999 by IIASA.)