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Arguments - Trends
Arable Land
Arable land is a precious resource for China's agriculture. Most of the country is covered by steep mountains (see Map 1), stony deserts, or dry grasslands (see Map 2), which are unsuitable for agriculture. The land is suitable for cultivation only in the South, the East, the Northeast, and in some small areas of the extreme Northwest (see Map 3).
For many years the true area of China's cultivated land was severely underestimated. Many authors used the official estimate of about 95 million hectares. However, we now know that the area of China's cultivated land is much larger. According to our analysis, by the mid-1990s it was in the range of 132-136 million hectares. Our estimate confirms previous calculations by other authors. The new data also show only a slight decline in the area of cultivated land in China in recent years, primarily due to agricultural restructuring, but also due to infrastructure expansion. Some land has also been lost because of natural disasters, primarily flooding.
Short Description of the Problem
Here we discuss the following questions:
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) What is the true area of China's cultivated land?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) What are the regional and provincial trends?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) What are the causes of land-use change in China?
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A reconstruction of China's cultivated land area (at the national level) Tables & Charts
IIASA's LUC Project has recently received detailed statistics from the Chinese State Land Administration that describe increases and decreases of various types of cultivated land in China. These data are available for the provincial and county levels. They are based on a series of land surveys conducted during the past few years to improve China’s (crop) land statistics. Due to the enormous size of China’s agricultural area, it was not possible to cover all areas at once, but each year a larger land area was surveyed and corrected. We can therefore expect that estimates for recent years are more accurate than estimates from the late 1980s. Table 3 shows the main national-level results. As can be seen from column 5 in Table 1, the reported area of cultivated land increased from 122.3 million ha in 1988 to 131.1 million ha in 1995. This was not due to wondrous cropland expansion, but simply reflects the increasing accuracy of Chinese land-use statistics in recent years. Since the late 1980s, Chinese politicians have become very concerned with the danger of cropland loss, and great efforts have been undertaken to monitor ongoing land-use changes and correct the underreported cropland "stock" data. Currently the Chinese agricultural census is processed, which will most likely further improve the land use data. Digital Elevation Map of China
Map 1

Map 2

Concentration of Cultivated Land
Map 3

Reconstruction of cultivated land in China, 1988 - 1995
Table 1

The new data from the Chinese State Land Administration can be used to estimate the amount of underreporting in recent years. Table 1 gives the national totals for cultivated land at the beginning (column 1) and at the end of each year (column 5), as well as the corresponding increases, decreases, and net changes (columns 2-4).
As can be seen from comparing column 5 for a given year with column 1 of the next year, there is a discrepancy in the reported area of cultivated land. The changes in cultivated land (increases and decreases) do not add up to the initial cultivated land area for the subsequent year. The reason for this discrepancy is underreporting China's stock of cultivated land.
To correct this discrepancy, we make two assumptions. (1) We assume that the "flow data" (increase or decline) are relatively correct. (2) We also assume that the most recent (the 1995 year-end) estimate of the total cultivated land area is the most accurate. With these two assumptions, we can recalculate the amount of underreporting in previous years. Columns 6, 7, and 8 show the results of this reconstruction. For instance, the 1995 year-end estimate of the cultivated area was 131.1 million ha (columns 8 and 5). If we subtract the 1995 net change in cultivated land (409,100 ha), we get the initial 1995 cultivated land area, which is, of course, equivalent to the 1994 year-end area (column 7 in 1995 and column 8 in 1994). By repeating this simple procedure for all previous years, we can reconstruct China's cultivated land area from the reported land-use changes (which we consider more accurate than the estimate of the total stock).
The difference between the reported (column 5) and reconstructed (column 8) area of China's cultivated land is the amount of underreported land (column 6). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the amount underreported was around 10 million ha. By 1994, it had declined to about 2 million ha.
Note that this calculation is based on the Chinese State Land Administration's estimate of the area of cultivated land, which was already significantly higher than the numbers reported in the Statistical Yearbook of China. For 1988, the State Land Administration had reported a cultivated land area of 122.6 million ha (beginning of year), while the Statistical Yearbook published an estimate of  95 million ha (with known underreporting).
Our calculations show that the cultivated land area must have been even larger than the initial estimate of the State Land Administration. We can conclude that at the beginning of 1988, China had a (corrected) cultivated land area of 132.8 million ha; it declined slightly by 1.72 million hectares (or 1.3%), to 131.1 million hectares by the end of 1995.
Regional and provincial trends
China has eight major economic regions: North, Northwest, East, Central, South, Southwest, Plateau, and Northwest. The largest net loss of cultivated land between 1988 and 1995 was reported in the Northwest, which had a net decline of almost 400,000 ha. It is interesting that this region also had, by far, the largest overall changes in cultivated land (an approximately 880,000 ha increase and an almost 1.28 million ha decrease).
By far the lowest net loss of cultivated land was reported in the South, where it declined by just 11,000 ha or 0.1% (see Table 1). One economic region, the Plateau, even reported a small net increase of cultivated land between 1988 and 1995: according to our data, it increased 15,000 ha or 1.6%.
Land-use change by region, 1988 - 1995
Table 2
We have also used the recent data from the Chinese State Land Administration to analyze land-use changes at the provincial level. As can be seen from Table 3, significant areas of cultivated land were lost in the provinces of Inner Mongolia (more than 212,000 ha) and Sichuan (151,000 ha). However, with a loss of over 360,000 ha, the province of Shaanxi had the largest net loss of cultivated land, which declined by almost 6.4%.
The largest relative net loss of cultivated land was reported from Shanghai (which is not only a city but has counties with agricultural areas as well). It lost almost 10% of its cultivated area. With a more than 7% decline, Beijing also had a significant net loss of cultivated land. The only significant net increase of cultivated land was reported from Xinjiang (157,000 ha or 4.2%). (See Figure 1)
Land-use change by province, 1988 - 1995
Table 3
What is causing land-use change in China?
The data also provide insight into some of the driving forces that cause land-use changes in China. Table 4 provides details about various causes of increases and decreases in cultivated land.  
1. By far the most important reason for the decline in China’s cropland has been agricultural restructuring. Due to massive changes in consumer demand, it has become much more profitable for Chinese farmers to grow vegetables and fruit than rice or wheat. While most of the crop harvest is still "collected" by the state procurement system at relatively low producer prices, the farmers can often sell vegetables and fruit for a good price on the "free" farmers' markets in cities and towns. In other words, the entrepreneurial initiative of Chinese farmers explains a good part of the cropland loss in China. Of the total net decline of 1.7 million ha of cropland, 1.2 million ha were lost due to the conversion of cropland to horticulture; another 226,000 ha of cultivated land were converted to fish ponds. This, of course, reflects the growing consumer demand for fish. Land-use change by cause, 1988 - 1995
Figure 1
2. The resource base for food production has certainly been diminished by the loss of cultivated land due to construction activities. These activities include all construction by state-owned units (cities, towns, mining, factories, railways, highways, water reservoirs, and public buildings) and construction by rural communities (rural roads, township and village enterprises, rural water reservoirs, offices, education and sanitation, rural private resident housing). On balance, China lost some 980,000 ha of cultivated land to construction activities between 1988 and 1995. These losses were reported in almost all provinces; however, as might be expected, they were especially high in Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces. Construction activities have certainly caused some loss of cropland in China, particularly around booming coastal agglomerates such as Beijing and Shanghai. These losses may be more serious than cropland losses of equivalent size elsewhere in China, because they are in high-productivity areas in close proximity to large numbers of consumers. The losses are also permanent: no one can expect that a highway or housing complex will ever be returned to cropland. However, we have to put these trends into perspective. All losses due to construction activities between 1988 and 1995 combined have affected some 0.75% of the total cultivated land in China. During the same period, Chinese farmers increased the cultivation area by almost 2.2 million ha. This reclamation of marginal or previously unused land represents 1.7% of the total cultivated area. Land-use change by cause, 1988 - 1995
Figure 2

Land-use change by province, 1988 - 1995
Table 4

3. The third largest land-use change in China has been reforestation of previously cultivated land. Some 970 million ha were reforested between 1988 and 1995, especially in the provinces of Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Yunnan. While these losses of cropland may have somewhat diminished China’s agricultural land resources, they will certainly help to prevent or reduce environmental disasters in the future, such as desertification or flooding. In the end, these forests may be as important for China’s food security as an equivalent area of cropland. Land-use change by province, 1988 - 1995
Table 5
4. Finally, we must mention natural disasters. Between 1988 and 1995 China lost 856 million ha of cultivated land due to disasters - mainly flooding and droughts.  
As documented by recent data from the State Land Administration, the great majority of China’s land-use changes are related to agricultural restructuring. This, in essence, is a "healthy response" by China’s farmers to the gradual emergence of consumer markets in China’s food sector. It is a further step away from the command-and-control land-use system that hampered China’s agricultural sector for almost 30 years. This land conversion is also a sign that the grain-centered state procurement system needs further reform. Farmers' income from grain production must increase if the state wants to boost or at least maintain cereal production levels.

There has certainly been some decline of cropland in China, but the areas affected are tiny compared with the total cultivated area. The principal reason for land-use changes is the greater market orientation of Chinese farmers, who have restructured their cultivation areas for more profitable products. Some cultivated land has also been used for environmental protection (reforestation). The losses of cultivated land to construction and infrastructure expansion are in the order of less than 1% (only in some hot spots are they higher). Compared with the excessive conversion of natural and agricultural land due to urban sprawl and infrastructure construction in North America and Europe, loss of cultivated land in China is minimal.
Related Arguments

Arable Land:   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.)