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2nd Revision


Conclusion: Can China feed itself?
Before we can answer this question we have to rephrase it in the following more specific form: Will China depend on food imports to satisfy the food demand of its population in 2025 (or 2050)? In other words: Will China be able to feed itself from its own resources of arable land and water?

Yes, China can feed itself!
China has enough arable land and water to feed its projected population of 1.48 billion in 2025 - even at currently available levels of agricultural technology. According to a detailed Agro-ecological Assessment model (AEZ), which was developed by IIASA and FAO and recently applied to China on the basis of greatly improved soil, terrain, and climate databases, the country has enough cultivation potential to produce about 650 million tons of grain. This production potential meets most food demand projections, such as those from the World Bank, from the US Department of Agriculture, or from the Food Demand Scenarios for China reported in this application. The assessment takes into account that about 25% of the arable land will be reserved for other types of agricultural production, such as cultivation of vegetables or fruits; it also discounts land needed for infrastructure.
However, the reader should not misunderstand the above conclusion. It does not claim that China will, in fact, feed itself. First, China might find it economically more attractive to import a certain amount of (food) grain, instead of pushing grain production to its limits. Some parts of the very limited cropland might be used for better purposes than producing rice, wheat, or maize. Second, there is no guarantee that China will develop its agriculture and economy in such a way that it can actually utilize the existing agro-climatic potential. This depends on political and economic decisions, which cannot be predicted. China will only be able to feed itself, if it undertakes serious efforts to solve the following problems (the list below is in no particular order):

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China can (and should) greatly improve water use efficiency in agriculture
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) The current limitation of agriculture in China is water rather than land. Large parts of the existing agricultural areas in the North cannot be cultivated to their full potential due to insufficient rainfall. There are also some 30 million hectares of land reserves; some of these could only be utilized with irrigation. Therefore, China's central (and provincial) governments will have to focus on the water problems. This should include projects to increase water supply in agricultural deficit regions; projects to improve water quality and waste water treatment; and in particular projects to improve irrigation efficiency. Various authors have pointed out the problem of water waste in open irrigation canals and on flood-irrigated fields. The estimated water loss is in the range of up to 60%. This is a significant water resource for the drought-affected North China Plain, that could be developed in relatively short time by better maintenance of irrigation infrastructure and more advanced irrigation technology.
A trans-basin water diversion is necessary to better supply China's high population concentration in the North China Plain
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) During the next decades not only the agricultural sector in the North will need more water for additional irrigation, there is also a rapidly growing competitive water demand from urban areas and industries. Improvements in water use efficiency could cover some of this demand, but not all of it. Trans-basin water diversion from the Yangtze to the Yellow river is probably the only option in the long run to develop an effective water supply for the North of China.
Bottlenecks in transportation infrastructure, technology, and logistics have to be removed
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) China's insufficient transportation infrastructure, outdated transportation technology, and under-developed logistics are serious bottlenecks in the food sector. Particularly, the insufficient harbor capacity, the overburdened railroads, and the lack of adequate roads in many remote areas pose serious risks in case of local or regional food shortages. As the Chinese say: "The trip to Sichuan is more difficult than a trip to heaven".
Larger farm sizes should be promoted by gradual privatization of the arable land
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) The large number of very small farms is one of the factors, which prevent further modernization in China's agriculture. China's family farms are usually too small to take advantage of economies of scale. A modification of the strict land-transfer rights and the introduction of private ownership of land would introduce a market for arable land. Small farmers, who in the meantime already generate their main income from employment in rural industries, could sell their property rights to larger, more productive farms. This would lead to a consolidation of China's farm structure, which would boost productivity.
China would benefit from a moderate increase of (feed) grain imports
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) Economically, it makes no sense to increase pressure on farmers for producing ever more grain in order to achieve a very high self-sufficiency ratio. The limited resources of good cropland in China could be used more efficiently in the labor-intensive cultivation of high-value crops, such as vegetables, fruit, or nuts. China might even use these areas for a highly profitable production of export crops. In that way, China could balance moderate imports of (feed) grain with exports of certain agricultural products. Slowly growing grain imports of China up to a volume of 30 - 50 million tons would not disturb the world market, because they are well within the "normal" historical fluctuations and could be met by production increases in the USA, Europe, and Australia.
Flood prevention measures must be intensified
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) Floods are a serious threat to food security in China. Between 1988 and 1995 China has lost some 856,000 hectares of cropland due to disasters - primarily flooding. Some 33,000 medium and smaller dams and dykes in China need urgent repairs, better maintainance, or even reconstruction.
Research in bio-technology should be further supported
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) China is already one of the leading countries in advanced rice biotechnology research. Since the mid-1980s, Chinese research centers have begun to develop advanced biotechnological tools, such as recombinant DNA technology. Because of the potential (but also risks) of genetically modified plants and animals for China's future food supply, these research efforts should be strengthened.
Some state intervention in the grain sector is necessary to guarantee a sufficient grain supply
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) A sufficient and stable supply of the primary food commodities, rice and wheat, will probably require - as in many other countries - some kind of state intervention. In the West, this often takes the form of agricultural subsidies, price regulation or production quotas. Under China's current grain procurement system the state acquires grain from the farmers at fixed and at negotiated prices - only a small percentage can be sold at market price. More attractive producer prices would certainly stimulate grain production to a greater extent than any kind of pressure.
Family planning can prevent a larger than expected growth in food demand
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) Without continuation of an effective family planning program China's food demand would probably grow more rapidly than expected. While lifestyle change associated with increasing prosperity has led to very low voluntary fertility rates in urban areas, the situation is certainly different in the countryside. In rural areas people might increase the number of children, if family planning restrictions were relaxed. However, only a slight increase in average fertility would increase China's population - and mouths to feed - by hundreds of millions.
China's agriculture might benefit from climate change
blank_3.gif (810 bytes)blank_3.gif (810 bytes) The literature on climate change in China is inconsistent. While some authors see slight to moderate disadvantages for China's agriculture, others see benefits. According to preliminary assessments with the IIASA AEZ model the most likely impact of climate change would be a slight improvement in the North of China - which would benefit from higher temperatures and increasing precipitation.The cultivated land in southern China, on the other hand, would only be affected slightly by increased tropical storms. China's South is too far "north" for the climate change impact of increased storms that is typical for the hot tropics.  
China's farmers are currently cultivating some 132 million hectares - an area which is almost 40% larger than previously estimated. Therefore, grain yields in the 1980s and early 1990s were inflated (due to the overestimated denominator), which - on the other hand - means that the farmers actually have "more room" to increase productivity. In addition there are some 30 million hectares of land reserves - primarily in the North. Most of the reserves in arid regions could be cultivated, if irrigation water would be available.
We believe that the most critical resource for China's agriculture is water, not land. The regional distribution of water resources does not match the agricultural (irrigation) demand, and many rivers and lakes are seriously polluted. Massive investments into the water infrastructure will be needed. Soil degradation exists, but often outside cultivated areas. Its effect on agricultural productivity can also be reduced by adequate management and conservation measures - as indicated by the six-fold increase in grain production since the early 1960s.
Finally, it should be emphasized that economic and policy measures are the key to China's food security. The "Great Famine" in China, which probably killed more than 30 million people during the "Great Leap Forward" (between 1959 and 1961) was not caused by shortage of land or water, insufficient agricultural technology, or higher than expected food demand. It was caused by faulty policy measures. More than anything else, it will be the decisions of policy makers that will determine whether China can feed its population by the middle of the next century.
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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.)