|What will China's food demand be in 2025 and 2050?
considerable research is being done to determine China's (natural) potential for producing
food, less effort is being spent on assessing how much and what type of food the country
will actually need. Current food demand projections for China are usually very crude. Most
take into account only a medium-variant population projection and some increase in meat
consumption (see the overview in Fan / Agcaoili-Sombilla, 1997). Several authors have
already pointed out that China's food demand is affected by interrelated economic,
demographic, social, and cultural factors with high predictive uncertainty (see, e.g., Wu
and Findlay, 1997; Xiaohua, 1997; Ikegami, 1997; and Zuhui and Bolin, 1997).
In this discussion we use a simple scenario method to quantify some of these
uncertainties. We also use this scenario method to calculate rough estimates of China's
food commodity demand in 2025 and 2050 according to three possible scenarios. For
analytical purposes, it is useful to distinguish three factors that can determine a
country's overall food demand. We first look into each of these factors independently and
then discuss their combined effect.
food demand projections have to take population growth into account. China will most
likely have another 260 million people by 2025. All else being equal, this would increase
the national food demand by 21%. However, we must also take into account a substantial error range in total population projections that is unavoidable because of the large
size of China's population. According to the most recent projections from the UN,
(mainland) China's population in 2025 might be only 1.39 billion (low variant); but it is
also possible that it could reach 1.55 billion (high variant). The error range for 2050
is, of course, even larger. It is possible that China's population might be as large as
1.69 billion people in 2050 (high variant). However, it is also possible that the
population with actually begin to decline after 2025, so that it would be only 1.25
billion in 2050, which is about the same size as in the mid-1990s.
If we assume for the moment that per capita calorie consumption, diet
preferences, and the structure of the food supply system will remain constant, we can
determine China's food commodity demand using simple back-of-the-envelope calculations.
According to these estimates, China's total cereal demand might increase from about 379.9
million tons in the mid-1990s to between 434.1 million tons (low variant) and 481.0
million tons (high variant) in 2025. China's rice demand (in milled equivalent) would
increase from about 115.2 million tons in 1994-1996 to between 131.6 and 145.8 million
tons in 2025, depending on possible lower or higher population growth. The demand for
maize (the primary feed grain) would increase from 118.2 million tons in the mid-1990s to
between 135.0 and 149.6 million tons in 2025. By 2050 China's wheat demand might be from
118.0 to 159.1 million tons, depending on the population projection variant (see Table 1).
In other words, from the uncertainty in population projections alone, we have to
expect an error range in food demand projections for China of about 12% in 2025 and of
about 35% in 2050. It is also interesting that according to the low population growth
variant, China's grain demand in 2050 could be lower than in 2025, because the population
would actually decline after 2025.
in food calorie intake (without any change in diet patterns)
||Of course, it
is unrealistic to assume that only the population will increase and nothing else will
change. For instance, we certainly have to take into account that people in China will
probably eat more. In our reference period of 1994-1996, China had an average food energy
supply of 2,766 kcal per person per day, according to FAO estimates. This was still
significantly lower than in, for instance, South Korea (3,303 kcal per person per day),
Japan (2,898 kcal), Hong Kong (3,262), or the USA (3,624). With growing income we can
expect that people in China will increase overall food consumption, even if they do not
change their diet. (It is, by the way, a misunderstanding that an increase in food energy
intake, measured in kcal per person per day, is always linked to a particular change in
diet, such as an increase in meat consumption. A given level of food calorie intake can be
achieved by rather different diets. For instance, Japan and Australia both have an average
per capita calorie supply of about 2,900 kcal; the diet, and therefore the national
commodity demand is, however, quite different.)
How much would a increased food consumption in China affect overall food demand if we
assume (for the moment) that all else remains constant? One simple method for estimating
the possible increase is to use figures from more developed reference countries. I have
therefore calculated how much China's food commodity demand would increase if the average
calorie food intake were to increase to the level of Japan, South Korea, and the USA, and
to the average of all developed countries.
With the same level of calorie intake as in Japan, China would need only a little more
food than is currently available. For instance, the total cereal demand would only
increase from 379.9 to 398.0 million tons. With US levels of calorie intake, however,
China's grain demand would increase to 497.7 million tons. One might argue that US levels
of calorie intake are highly unlikely for China. Therefore, I have also used the average
calorie intake level of all developed countries to calculate China's overall food demand.
At this level, China would need some 437.2 million tons of cereals: 132.5 million tons of
wheat, 145.7 million tons of rice, and some 136.0 million tons of maize (seeTable 1).
In other words, if we think that China's calorie intake might increase to a level between
those of Japan and the average of all developed countries, the uncertainty in demand
projections would be some 10%.
in diet without any change in the overall level of food calorie intake
affluence people usually increase food intake and also begin to eat different types of
food. There is not only the trend toward consumption of animal products (meat, fish, milk,
eggs), but also a growing trend toward consumption of fruit, beer, sweeteners, and
vegetables. Affluent people also tend to eat fewer pulses and roots. In general, people
begin to move up the food chain, from primary products (such as grain, roots, or pulses)
to secondary food commodities (such as meat, fish, or milk) and processed food (such as
sweeteners). This increases the overall food demand, because much more grain is necessary
when it is cycled through animals before it is eaten by humans (in the form of meat, milk
or eggs), then when the grain is consumed directly by people.
How would China's overall food demand increase, if people were to only change their diet?
In other words, what would be the net effect of a change in diet without any increase in
population and without any change in overall calorie intake?
The answer to this question again depends very much on what type of diet change we assume.
If China were to gradually move toward a Japanese diet, the overall cereal demand would
actually decline (because with Japan's largely vegetarian diet, much less grain
would be needed for feeding animals). However, if China were to move toward US diet
patterns, which are based much more on consumption of animal products, a huge increase in
feed grain production would be necessary. Contrary to what some authors believe, it is not
clear in which direction China will move. Twenty years ago no one believed that
hamburgers, ketchup, and French fries would ever become popular in France - today they
are. There is currently a globalization in food preferences that is wiping out many ethnic
diets. With growing affluence, China's diet might become quite Westernized. In my view,
the best guess for a maximal diet change is to assume that in 2050 China will have a diet
pattern similar to the current average diet pattern of all developed countries. The other
"extreme" would be that China would have no diet change at all between now and
the middle of next century.
If China were to have a diet comparable to that of today's developed countries, its
food demand would be some 55% higher due to change in diet alone (with population
and food energy intake held constant). Why would there be such a huge increase, if only
the diet would change? If China's diet pattern were like the current average diet pattern
of all developed countries, it would have a much greater demand for meat and animal
products (such as milk and milk products). This would boost the demand for feed
grain. In the mid-1990s China had a total feed grain demand of about 107 million tons,
mainly maize. If its average diet were equivalent to that of all developed countries,
China's feed grain demand would more than triple to 365.9 million tons; the total cereal
demand (including all feed and food grains) would increase to 532.3 million tons, a 40%
increase to the current situation (see Table 1). Please be aware, that these calculations
do not take into account population growth or a likely increase in food
calorie intake; the numbers above are only the net effect of a possible change in
far, we have assumed that the various factors that determine China's food demand can be
isolated; in reality, they cannot. China will have population growth plus some increase in
food energy intake, plus a significant change in diet (which is associated with a
necessary change in the food utilization structure). All three factors will likely change
at the same time.
To study the combined impact of these factors I have developed a simple
accounting model based on the FAO food balance sheet for China. One can use it to
simultaneously "apply" various population projections and different calorie
intake levels, as well as several different types of diet (which determine the utilization
structure of the various commodities). Moreover it is possible to change the import ratio
(by commodity). One can experiment with various combinations of the three factors, such as
a high-variant population projection combined with a minor diet change, or a rapid diet
change with low population growth.
From the large range of possible combinations, I have selected three scenarios that I
consider most plausible:
(rather pessimistic) scenario, we assume that population growth in China follows the high
variant UN population projection from 1998; that is, we assume that China will have a
population of 1.686 billion by 2050. Food calorie intake increases only slowly, by 5%
between 1994 and 2025 and by another 5% between 2025 and 2050. The diet patterns remain
unchanged. This combination of high population growth with a slowly rising level of
calorie consumption yields the following results.
China's overall cereal (grain) demand increases from currently 379.9 to 577.9
million tons in 2050; the domestic wheat demand increases from currently 115.2 to 175.1
million tons, and the rice demand grows from 126.6 to 192.4 million tons. In this simple
linear scenario China's food commodity demand increases by 52% across the board (see
modernization scenario (the "vegetable and fish" variant)
(probably more realistic) scenario we assume that China's population increases according
to the medium variant UN population projection, which predicts a total population
of 1.478 billion for the year 2050. The food calorie intake level reaches that of South
Korea (3,303 kcal per person per day) in 2050. We also assume that by 2025 China's diet
has become similar to that of South Korea and remains thereafter constant.
South Korea has a diet typical of a developed Asian country, with relatively high
consumption of fish but a lower consumption of meat than in China and high
consumption of vegetables and fruit. However, contrary to Western countries, rice makes up
a high percentage of direct grain consumption. As is typical for many developed countries,
people in South Korea eat more sugar than in China, so that the sugar crop demand is more
than three times higher. Their consumption of alcohol and milk products is also higher
than in China. With growing income, people in China might very well prefer a Korean type
of diet. What would be the consequences in terms of food commodity demand?
China's demand for fish would more than triple, to 98 million tons in 2025 and 105 million
tons in 2050. They would also need more vegetables, about 330 million tons in 2025
compared with current levels of 180 million tons. The total grain demand - taking into
account feed grain - would increase moderately, from 379.9 million tons of cereals to 506
million tons in 2025 and to 538 million tons in 2050. Wheat demand would actually decline
from 115 to 103 million tons in 2025.
According to this scenario, China could switch to a more "developed" diet
without a massive increase in feed grain demand. In fact, the total grain demand in both
2025 and 2050 would be lower than in Scenario A (the slow modernization scenario). The key
to this option is lower population growth (than in Scenario A) and slightly lower
consumption of meat, but significantly higher consumption of fish, vegetables, and fruits
(see Table 1).
modernization scenario (the "meat and animal products" variant)
||It is perhaps
unlikely, but we cannot rule out the possibility that China's diet might become quite
meat-based in the future. If available data are correct, China has had a spectacular
increase in the per capita production of livestock products (see Figure 1). Per capita
meat consumption is already higher than in many other Asian countries, much higher, for
instance, than in Japan or India. What would be the consequences if China were to switch
to a diet typical of a developed country, with a still higher share of animal products?
In this scenario we assume that China has very low population growth (low variant
of 1998 UN projection). In fact, the population slowly begins to decline after
2025, so that in 2050 China has about the same population as in the mid-1990s. China's
food commodity demand therefore essentially depends on the increase of per capita calorie
intake and on the diet. For lack of a better choice, in this scenario we assume that
China follows the average pattern (and calorie level) of all developed countries. The only
modification is a change in the wheat-rice ratio. Since most of the developed countries
have high levels of wheat consumption, we use China's current wheat to rice ratio in this
The results of this scenario are as follows:
China would need much more feed grain: the total demand for maize (food and feed)
would increase from the current level of 118 million tons to 266 million tons in 2025;
maize demand would then decline (because of population decline) to 251 million tons. As
there would be also an increase in the demand for other coarse grains (mainly for feed),
the total cereal demand in this scenario would increase to 663 million tons in 2025. The
demand for wheat in 2025, however, would be almost identical to the current level of 115
million tons (because per capita wheat consumption in this diet is lower, even with the
Chinese rice-wheat ratio applied). Demand for rice would even decline from the current
level of 127 million tons to 85 million tons in 2025. China would also need
considerably more sugar crops, but a smaller amount of vegetables. As is typical for
developed countries, the demand for meat, milk, and fish would increase significantly. The
domestic meat supply would have to grow from the current level of 29 million tons to 54
million tons (seeTable 1).
What can we learn from these scenarios?
we draw any conclusions, it should be made clear that this exercise is not about
predicting specific levels of commodity demand in China. No one can make such predictions
because there are too many political, economic, social, and cultural factors that are
essentially unpredictable beyond a few years. These long-range scenarios up to 2050 should
only demonstrate the relative weight of three important factors of food demand:
population, level of consumption, and diet. With this modest approach, we can make the
show that China's food demand is not as predictable as the typical single-variant models
suggest. In particular, the impact of population growth and change in diet is quite
different depending on which variants in population projections and diet-change
assumptions are used. The food demand difference between the low and high UN 1998
population projection is in the range of 50 million tons of grain in 2025.
projections for China in recent years had to be adjusted downward. According to the most
recent projection from the UN Population Division (which is typical for the newer
projections), China will probably not reach the 1.5 billion mark by 2050. In the most
optimistic scenario, China's population in 2050 will be about the same size as today. Even
under most pessimistic assumptions, the population would remain significantly below 1.7
billion. Not too long, ago some authors predicted a total population of almost 2 billion
for China. Moreover, the majority of the population increase is projected for the next 25
years; after that, China's population should level out or even decline. This would be good
news for China's food prospects.
||Diet is at least
as important as the number of mouths to feed. With a diet similar to that in the USA,
China's grain demand would inevitably skyrocket. While China has rapidly increased its
meat production in the past 15 years, its feed grain demand has grown quite moderately
over the same time period. The ratio of meat to feed grain is much higher in China than in
most Western countries; in other words, China produces more meat per kilogram of feed
grain. Obviously, China's farmers so far have intensively used farm residues and household
waste for feeding animals (especially pigs and poultry). This will most likely have to
change in the future. With a further increase of meat production, China's farmers would
need significantly more feed grain. However, as our scenarios show, there are
alternatives. If China's diet were to include more vegetables, fruit, and fish, and less
meat (as in the average diet in South Korea), the country could increase its per capita
calorie intake level with only a moderate increase in overall grain demand.
we compare these food demand scenarios with projections by other authors (see Table 2), we
find that estimates from Scenarios A and B are a little lower, but well within the range
of their estimates for 2020. The more extreme Scenario B (with a strong trend toward meat
consumption) is some 60 million tons (or about 10%) higher than the levels projected by
the World Bank.
Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)
- Copyright © 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright © 1999 by IIASA.)