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Science and Technology in Agriculture, Livestock Production, and the Food Industry

China has significantly improved its agricultural technology since 1978. The country has introduced high-yield crops, increased its 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 more than sixfold. The food industry has also introduced new technologies for food storage, processing, preservation, and distribution that have reduced post-harvest losses. However, there is still a great potential for further technological modernization in this sector.
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.

Description of the Problem
Science and technology will certainly be among the key factors in China's food security during the next few decades. With China's inevitable population growth, its likely economic development, and its serious constraints in cropland and water, the country has no other choice than to modernize its agricultural sector. Which current trends in science and technology will have an impact on China's food supply?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) First, we have to ask how well China's agricultural sector has implemented available modern technology. This includes the adaptation and improvement of crop plants and livestock through systematic breeding, the implementation of integrated soil and crop management systems (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.), and the use of agricultural machinery and irrigation.
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) The production of crops and livestock are only the first steps in a long food chain. China's food security will also depend on how well the country is able to modernize the post-harvest processes in the food industry. This includes the implementation of modern technology in logistics, food processing, storage, preservation, and distribution.
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) A third relevant trend is the quality of agriculture-related basic research in China, such as research in plant genetics, molecular biology, or recombinant DNA and transgenic technology. Does China have the necessary basic research to move into high-tech agriculture during the next 50 years?
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Implementation of available modern technology in agriculture Tables & Charts
Without the modernization of agricultural technology of the past two decades, China would not be able to feed its current population of 1.3 billion. In particular, the introduction of high-yield rice in combination with expanded irrigation and a massive increase in the use of (nitrogen) fertilizers and pesticides has significantly improved crop yields. In combination with the economic reforms of the late 1970s that re-introduced family farming, China's "Green Revolution" has led to the spectacular increase in food production.

At the national level, the supply of chemical fertilizers (nitrogenous, phosphate, potash, and compound fertilizers combined) in China massively increased from 0.08 to 39.81 million tons between 1952 and 1997, while the total arable land declined slightly. Between 1952 and 1993, the supply of organic fertilizers only increased from some 5.8 to about 17.7 million tons. The application of chemical fertilizers increased from 0.6 to about 213 kg per hectare between 1952 and 1993, while the application of organic fertilizers increased from about 41 to 120 kg per hectare. By 1982 Chinese farmers were applying more chemical than organic fertilizers on their fields, and by 1993 they were using almost twice as much chemical than organic fertilizers (see Figure 1 and Table 1). Nonetheless, organic fertilizers still play an important role in Chinese agriculture.

Irrigation has also been expanded in China: between 1978 and 1997 the irrigated area increased from 45.0 to 51.2 million ha (see Table 2). The total power of agricultural machinery increased from 117.5 million kW in 1978 to 420.2 million kW in 1997. During that same period, the number of large and medium-sized agricultural tractors increased from 557,400 to 689,100 units. The number of mini-tractors increased almost eightfold, from 1.37 to 10.49 million (see Table 3).

If we use consumption of electricity in rural areas of China as an indicator of overall technological modernization in agriculture, we can assume that great progress has been made since the late 1970s. The electricity consumption increased from 25.3 billion kWh in 1978 to 198 billion kWh in 1997. The generating capacity of hydropower stations in rural areas more than doubled, from 2.3 to 5.6 million kW (see Table 2). Reflecting the liberalization of market access for agricultural producers after 1978, there was also a significant improvement in transportation technology. The number of trucks for agricultural use increased almost twelve-fold, from 73,800 in 1978 to 875,600 in 1997(see Table 3).


Chemical & Organic Fertilizer Application, 1952-1993
Figure 1

Chemical & Organic Fertilizer Supply & Application, 1952-1996
Table 1

Irrigation, Fertilizer & Energy Consumption in Rural Areas
Table 2

Agricultural Machinery in China
Table 3

Post-harvest technologies / food industry
The gradual decline of China's inefficient state-run food distribution system for the nonagricultural population and the enormous success of free (farmers') markets clearly indicate the trend toward a modern food production and retail industry based on private enterprises. As official statistics show, China's food processing and manufacturing industry grew much faster than the average of all other industries, despite (or perhaps because of) the stagnating or even declining number of enterprises (see Table 4).
China has certainly improved its post-harvest processes, but there is still a huge potential for increasing efficiency. Post-harvest losses of (food) crops due to pests, improper treatment, and storage or transportation waste can be in the order of 5-10%, sometimes even higher. Although the transportation capacity by truck and train has been upgraded significantly, it is still inadequate.
China's food industry and retail markets have a long way to go in introducing efficient methods of food preservation, packaging, storage, and distribution. The supply channels for the growing number of urban consumers are currently expanding and improving, as can be seen by the growing number of new supermarkets and shopping centers in China's major cities. This includes promotion of consumer-related technologies, such as a more widespread introduction of household refrigerators.
Food Industry Indicators
Table 4
Basic research capacity (with impact on agriculture, livestock production, and food processing)
Despite enormous progress in grain production since 1978, China became a net-importer of grain in 1994. The Chinese Academy of Science predicted that the grain deficit would increase to 50 million tons by 2020. In light of the government's strong commitment to national food self-sufficiency, this was certainly a shock for the authorities. Within a few months, government support for agriculture-related research was stepped up. In 1996 the Chinese government announced a five-year, 10 billion yuan program of support for research to promote economic development. One-third of the funded projects dealt with the modernization of agriculture, including research into high-yield crops, intensive farming, and improved pesticides and fertilizers (Tacey, 1996). A new National Corn Engineering Technique Research Centre was established in Shandong province. Support was also increased for existing high-level research centers working on plant genetics, molecular biology, and related fields.
Before many other developing countries, China's government officials have understood the importance of biotechnology for its future food security. In 1995 Science magazine devoted a special section to an analysis of scientific research in China, entitled "The Great Leap Forward" (Science, Vol 270, 1995). It outlined the great advances China made in agriculture- and food-related basic research. For instance, a major national biotechnology program was initiated as early as the mid-1980s. Uninhibited by concerns about environmental risks, Chinese research centers since then have begun to develop advanced biotechnological tools, such as recombinant DNA technology.Today, China is one of the leading countries in agricultural biotechnology. According to Gary Toenniessen, director of the rice biotechnology program at Rockefeller Foundation, "China is clearly the most advanced country in the world in terms of using genetic markers and tools in rice breeding" (Kinoshita, 1995).
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Science & Technology:   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.)