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In-depth Analyses
How did China's grain supply change between 1964-1966 and 1994-1996?
The analysis makes use of FAO food balance sheets for China that have been averaged over the three-year periods of 1964-1966 and 1994-1996. This averaging was done to eliminate random annual fluctuations in the reference periods. The analysis shows the changes in China's food system between the pre-reform period in the mid-1960s and the current situation.
This section makes extensive use of the corresponding tables with food balance sheets: (1) 1964-1966, (2) 1994-1996, (3) change between 1964-1966 and 1994-1996, and (4) percentage change between 1964-1966 and 1994-1996.
Cereals are the primary staple in the Chinese diet. In the three-year period of 1994-1996 they, on average, contributed 1,646 kcal (or almost 60%) to the total average energy supply of 2,766 kcal per person per day. Cereals include food grains, such as rice or wheat, and coarse grains, such as maize, which are fed to animals and ultimately consumed in the form of meat. However, the traditional distinction between food and feed (or coarse) grains is not very helpful. Today, significant amounts of food grains, such as rice, are also used to feed animals, and some of today's typical feed grains, such as maize, have been used in China for direct human consumption for many decades. A crude distinction between food and feed grains is therefore inadequate for a serious analysis of China's food system. We have to distinguish the various types of utilization for each of the major grains.
  Among the major grains, wheat had by far the biggest increase in production between 1964-1966 and 1994-1996. Whereas in the mid-1960s farmers produced some 24 million tons of wheat, they harvested more than 104 million tons in the mid-1990s. This spectacular 337% increase of wheat production within only three decades is one of the most important achievements of China's agricultural reforms. The total domestic supply of wheat increased even further (by 85 million tons), because net imports in that period increased by 3.3 million tons and stocks where reduced by another 1.6 million tons.
The utilization of wheat, however, did not change much. Most of the wheat is still used for direct human consumption. The only significant change in utilization is that in the mid-1990s a much smaller proportion of the wheat was used for seed than in the mid-1960s; 3.9 million tons were used as seed in 1964-1966, and 30 years later it was still only 4.7 million tons.
(See charts on the trends in wheat production and utilization in Figure 1)
Figure 1
  China's rice production increased much slower than its wheat production. It "only" doubled from about 61 million tons to 125 million tons between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s. Whereas China had net exports of 1.3 million tons of rice 30 years ago, the country had to import, on average, some 250,000 tons in the three-year period from 1994-1996. While this is certainly not a spectacular increase, it has been used by some authors to raise alarm. They use 1993, the peak-year of rice imports, as a basis for predicting massive grain deficits for China. However, as can be seen from these numbers, imports still contribute a rather small proportion of China's rice supply, and the increase of imports over a 30-year period is very modest indeed.
What has really changed in China's rice economy is the steep increase in the use of rice as animal feed. In 1964-1966, just 274,000 tons of rice were used to feed animals; in 1994-1996, 4.6 million tons were used as animal feed. This increase is a consequence of the rapid increase in meat consumption in China.

(See charts on the trends in rice production and utilization in Figure 2)
China's Rice Balance, 1961 - 1997
China's Rice Balance, 1961 - 1997
China's Rice Balance, 1961 - 1997
Figure 2
  The trend toward using grain for animal feed instead of using it for direct human consumption is even more apparent with respect to maize. In the mid-1960s, farmers produced about 25 million tons of maize, of which 8.5 million tons (or some 34%) was used for feeding animals. By the mid-1990s, China's farmers had more than quadrupled maize production to 113 million tons, and they used almost 91 million tons, or more than 80%, for animal feed.
It is interesting that China imported only 4.9 million tons of maize (the annual average net import for the three-year period 1994-1996). This is rather low compared with the 9.5 million tons of average net imports of wheat in that period. It seems that China could have avoided the use of rice (a high-quality food grain) for feeding animals if it had imported more maize, the typical feed grain.
(See charts on the trends in maize production and utilization in Figure 3)
China's Maize Balance, 1961 - 1997
China's Maize Balance, 1961 - 1997
China's Maize Balance, 1961 - 1997
Figure 3
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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.)