In-depth Analyses

All Data


     Charts / Figures

     Thematic Maps






Web Links







2nd Revision


Summary of Arguments
This is a summary list of arguments on how trends in various sectors of society will affect China's food security. Please see the evaluation matrix for detailed analyses of these questions.

1. Population

1.1 Population growth is still an extremely important factor for China's food security.
When the People’s 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 China’s 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.
1.2 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).
1.3 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.
1.4 There is no guarantee that fertility in China will decline and remain low with economic growth.
In recent 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.
1.5 An effective family planning program is still necessary.
China's food 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.
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes)
2. Change in Diet
2.1 A growing preference for meat will push up China's grain demand - only moderately, however.
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.
 2.2 The 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.
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes)
3. Urbanization
3.1 China's 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.
3.2 Urbanization promotes commercial agriculture and drives the expansion of China's food industry.
Urbanization 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.
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes)
4. Arable Land / Soils
4.1 China's 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 1995.
4.2 China's has some land reserves that can be brought into cultivation.
Estimates of 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 areas.
4.3 There are various types of soil degradation in China, but so far they have had little impact on productivity.
Soil degradation 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. 
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes)

5. Water Resources

5.1 Water 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.
5.2 China is wasting large amounts of water.
Water-use 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.
5.3 Water 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 existing ones.
5.4 Urban 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.
5.5 Large-scale water redirection projects are necessary, but have high economic, ecological, and social costs.
Projects that 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 lived before.
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.
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes)

6. Agricultural Policy

6.1 China's agricultural policy before 1978 led to stagnation and crises.
China's 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.
6.2 The introduction of family farming has boosted agricultural productivity since 1978.
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 stable prices).
6.3 Further reforms are necessary to strengthen the entrepreneurial spirit among Chinese farmers.
The introduction 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.
6.4 The insistence on "self-sufficiency" in grain production prevents more effective use of cropland.
Currently, the 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).
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes)

7. Science and Technology

7.1 Implementation of better agricultural technology has greatly contributed to China's growing food supply.
China has 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.
7.2 China is currently investing heavily in basic biochemical research, a key factor in future food security.
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 breeding.
7.3 Science and technology will be key factors in China's food security.
Science and 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.
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes)
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes)
Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)  - Copyright 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright 1999 by IIASA.)