Agriculture and Food Security: A Long-Term Priority


Ensuring food security in China has been both a priority and a challenge for Chinese leaders throughout the ages. With China currently supporting 20% of the world’s population on approximately 10% of the world’s arable land, today is no exception. Historically, China has met its food needs through a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency. China continues this policy of grain independence today. This policy of grain self-reliance is driven in part because China’s leaders continue to distrust the intentions of other nations, particularly as China’s rising power status threatens to disrupt the existing international order. Drawing lessons from history, today’s leadership believes it is better not to risk being vulnerable to food markets outside of its control, or to chance having food be used as a weapon against it.

That said, China’s ability to maintain continued growth in agricultural output is under threat unless there is further reform in the agricultural sector. Increased urbanization, plateauing yields, water shortages, small farm sizes and uncertain property laws are all making it difficult for China to continue to increase agricultural production. China’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) recognizes these challenges. Investing in hybrid seed research, repairing irrigation infrastructure, reclaiming rural land that has been lost to environmental degradation, and improving land contract law have all been stated as clear priorities. The plan also recognizes the continued need to invest in rural areas of the country, so that China’s remaining farmers can earn a reasonable living and adequately invest in their children’s future within and beyond the farm sector. What China’s 12th Five Year Plan does not discuss is its growing agricultural footprint in Africa. To date, China has developed agricultural aid projects in more than 40 African countries and recently large Chinese agricultural companies have been employed to help sustain Sino-African agricultural aid initiatives.

China’s Agriculture under Mao Zedong

Paddy Field Plougher near Inle Lake Myanmar (Burma)

When the PRC was founded in 1949 its new leaders continued to support a policy of agricultural self-reliance. This agricultural policy was driven by Mao Zedong’s view that the post-World War II order, with its corresponding American ascendancy, was potentially aggressive and imperialistic. Under this view dependency on grain imports risked making China vulnerable to having its food needs being turned into a weapon against it. In addition, Mao wished to use his country’s limited foreign exchange resources to purchase industrial plant and equipment rather than food, aiming for rapid industrialization. Indeed, until the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), China exported grain to the Soviet Union in order to purchase plant and heavy equipment, at the expense of providing adequate per capita calories for its citizens at home.

Agriculture thus became the basis on which China’s planned economy was built. As China transitioned to a planned economy, the Communist planners began to under-price farm products relative to heavy industrial goods. This was because the planners were trying to ensure that the industrial sector produced high profits which could be plowed back into industry. To keep industrial profits high, costs had to be kept low; the most easily affected cost was labor. In order keep wages low, food needed to be cheap. Thus, farming became the key to the success of the entire Chinese planned economy. To achieve China’s goals, soon after he took power in 1949, Mao orchestrated the largest act of expropriation in world history. Approximately 200 million acres of land were taken from wealthy landowners and redistributed to nearly every peasant family in China. An estimated two million landlords lost their estates, sometimes through violence and almost never with compensation. Mao soon undercut this mass creation of private land ownership by implementing socialist policies of collective agriculture. The launch of the First Five Year Plan in 1953 saw farmers organized into cooperatives where they pooled their land and shared the proceeds. Under the collective structure, each farmer kept title to his land and was paid both labor wages and a dividend based on the value of the land contributed to the collective. After some success under the cooperative model, Mao began to move farmers into communes in 1958 in order to gain greater control of agricultural output. Mao believed that communes would generate greater farm output as it allowed an increased usage of irrigation and mechanization. Surplus farm labor could be redeployed into the rural and urban industrial sectors. Healthcare and education for the rural citizens could be more easily delivered. Just as importantly, communes would be an effective platform for mass political indoctrination. Mao’s communes pursued a “grain first policy” in which basic crops such as rice, wheat, and corn were planted regardless of the suitability of the soil and other conditions. The shift to communes eliminated household farming, except on small family plots, and all land ownership transferred to the state.

As a result of Mao’s policies, from 1952 to 1978, China increased industrial production as a percentage of national income from 19.5% to 49.4%. Grain production rose by 86%, an average annual increase of 2.5%. However, grain production increased at a rate similar to population growth, meaning that average grain output per capita was little change during this period. China also increased the production of cash crops by 16%. Up until 1960, China exported grain, peaking at 5 million tons in 1958. After the famine of the Great Leap Forward, China began to import grain, yet these imports averaged 1.6% of total consumption, meaning that China was almost completely self-sufficient in food under the planned economy.

However, these numbers are deceptive. Much of Mao’s industrial development was inefficient. Poor economies of scale, inadequate transport, and poorly skilled labor meant that China’s huge industrial investment generally failed to effectively build upon China’s existing industrial base, although its development of human capital skills and rudimentary infrastructure did lay the foundations for broader industrialization during the Reform Era. Throughout the socialist period, Chinese consumers remained on strictly rationed diets consisting primarily of coarse grains. Most consumers were deprived of daily access to cooking oil, sugar, meat, and vegetables for extended periods. In the 1970s, despite increases in grain production, urban residents ate an average of 2,328 calories per day, while rural intake was even lower at 2,100 calories daily. Average grain output per capita remained virtually unchanged and the absolute poverty rate hovered between 30 and 40%.

The primary weakness of communes was the absence of incentives. Farmers did not keep produce from their lands, which undermined their work effort. Instead, commune members were given work points based on particular tasks; these points were converted to grain and cash pay-outs at the end of each crop year. Free riding and an inability to monitor agricultural labor became endemic. Output also suffered because decision-making was concentrated in the hands of collective leaders who themselves were frequently following dictates from above, stifling any prospect for innovation. The pricing during this era also did little to encourage the efficient production or allocation of goods and services. Additionally, agricultural inputs such as fertilizer were in constant short supply. Because of the hukou housing registration system (which, while more relaxed, remains in force today), farm labor had no opportunity to move from agriculture to industry. This entrapment of Chinese villagers effectively designated them as second-class citizens.

Agriculture during the Reform Era

After 1978, a series of reforms was introduced into the rural sector to improve its economic performance. One step was to de-collectivize Chinese farmers into what was termed the Household Responsibility System (jiating lianchan chengbao zerenzhi), where the government leased agricultural land to households. The government then raised the prices that farmers would receive for any farm output they produced above mandatory quota deliveries, by 41% for grain and by around 50% for cash crops. Initially, the state purchased all grain sold by farmers above quotas. Eventually, private agricultural markets were re-established. Greater freedom of choice was allowed in terms of the types of crops cultivated. Fertilizer and new high-yield seed usage became more widespread. The result was a surge in agricultural output. Grain output swelled from 304.8 million tons in 1978 to 501.5 million tons in 2007. This growth reflected a significant rise in crop yields as grain sown area decreased from 120.6 million hectares in 1978 to 101.6 million in 2004. Additionally, agricultural output became significantly more diversified as farmers moved into labor-intensive cash crops such as aquaculture, cotton, edible oils, fruits and vegetables. Between 1978 and 2007, for instance, crop farming went from 80% of agricultural gross value output to 50.4%, while animal husbandry and fisheries increased from 16.6% to 42.1%. Between 1990 and 2004, China’s vegetable output expanded so quickly that China added the equivalent of California’s vegetable industry every two years, and orchards now cover over 5% of China’s farmed area, double the share of any other major agricultural nation. Grain prices also fell in real terms. Between the late 1970s, maize prices decreased 33% and wheat 45%. Coupled with rising incomes, these decreases meant that grain, as a percentage of rural and urban household consumption, fell from 40% and 20% respectively in the late 1970s to about 14% and 3% in 2004. Households also began to consume a more varied diet adding meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy produce. China now produces in excess of 3,000 calories per capita per day. Moreover, the government no longer plays a significant role in agricultural production. Aside from restrictions on land ownership, China today has one of the least distorted domestic agricultural economies in the world. The majority of grains, oilseeds, and fiber crops, and all horticultural and livestock products are sold to small private traders who compete in efficient and integrated markets with minimal regulation.

Maintaining Grain Yields in the Future

Throughout this period of reform, China maintained its policy of grain independence, never importing more than 5% of its grain needs. Maintaining this independence in the future, however, will become increasingly difficult. With 20% of the world’s population on approximately 10% of its arable land, China does not have a comparative advantage in land intensive products, such as grain. Furthermore, the amount of China’s arable land is continuing to shrink due to rapid urbanization and environmental problems such as flooding, soil erosion and desertification. Moreover, China’s population will continue to rise until around 2030. It is estimated that by 2050, the total demand for arable land will outstrip supply by more than 12%.

Additionally, part of the reason that China achieved such high grain production over the last two decades was yield improvements driven by the use of new high-grade seed varieties and by massive inputs of chemical fertilizer. Yet further benefits from these inputs are beginning to diminish. In 1975, total fertilizer usage was 5.5 million tons, but this rose to 47.7 million tons by 2005. China’s per hectare fertilizer usage was second only to Japan in the 1990s. Fertilizer saturation is such that previously good or excellent soils are cresting, hardening and becoming devoid of organic material such that further application of fertilizers is leading to diminishing crop yields as well as causing considerable environmental problems. Yield benefits from the extensive use of plastic are also plateauing. Finally, large-scale deforestation has led to soil erosion.

Water shortages and water pollution may also limit future yields unless China is able to implement significant reforms in its water management. China’s freshwater resources of 2304 m³ per capita are less than one third of the world average. Water shortages are expected to worsen as current water demand is still relatively low at 461 m³ per capita, compared with the world average of 645 m³, but this is projected to reach 665 billion m³ by 2030. Water shortages will be worse in the arid and semi-arid areas in China’s northern plain from which much of the future grain output growth will be generated. In addition to water shortages, problems with irrigation system will also stymie yield growth. During the Mao-era, irrigated area tripled. Since de-collectivization, the irrigation system has deteriorated. Additionally, with the reversion to family farming, control of the irrigation system has fragmented, and it is harder to mobilize mass labor for maintenance and construction. The introduction of water fees in the 1980s was designed to encourage more efficient water usage, but the fees were not sufficiently high to have the desired effect. This remains a problem today and increasing water charges is an essential part of dealing with China’s water shortages.

Currently, 62% of China’s water is used for agriculture, a sector which is responsible for approximately 13% of the country’s GDP. Yet agriculture water usage is extremely unproductive, with 45% of agricultural water lost before it even reaches crops. Water used for industrial output is 70 times more productive in terms of financial value than that used in wheat production. As water becomes increasingly scarce, the agricultural sector risks losing water resources to industrial production, especially if China increases the price of water to better reflect its true scarcity.

Extensive irrigation has always been essential to China’s agricultural productivity. Indeed, massive irrigation works built during the Maoist era enabled food production to keep pace with the rapid population growth of the time. China draws on both its rivers and large underground aquifers to irrigate its crops. Irrigated land produces nearly 75% of China’s cereals and more than 90% of its cotton, fruits, vegetables and other agricultural commodities on around half of the farmlands throughout the country. Yet, according to the Ministry of Water Resources, China now uses as much as 60% of the water running in many of its rivers, including the Liao and Yellow Rivers, and as much as 90% of the Huai River. China has increasingly turned to aquifers and lakes to meet water demands no longer satisfied by rain and river water alone. Groundwater now provides potable water for nearly 70% of China’s population and irrigation for approximately 40% of its agricultural land. Nationally, groundwater usage has almost doubled since 1970, and now accounts for 20% of China’s total water usage.

Aquifers are especially important in China’s north, where farmers have been relying heavily on groundwater resources to increase agricultural yields. Yet China is now draining its aquifers at an unsustainable rate. At current rates of depletion, the World Bank estimates that China’s northern aquifers could effectively run dry in as little as 30 years. China’s northern megacities now rely on underground water sources for two-thirds of their needs. For example, in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, aquifer levels are dropping by approximately 3 meters annually, forcing the digging of ever deeper wells which increases the risk of both saltwater and arsenic intruding into the water supply, as well as increasing the likelihood of land subsidence. With aquifers and rivers suffering from overuse, lakes are also diminishing. The province of Hebei has already lost a staggering 969 of its 1052 lakes.

Future yield growth will also be hampered by the small area plowed by each farmer, averaging less than a hectare. While de-collectivization initially led to a surge in output growth, the segmentation of large communal plots will hamper growth in grain yields in the future. Small farm sizes restrict growth by preventing farmers from capturing economies of scale that could be derived from greater mechanization, the more efficient dissemination of new seed technologies and the improved maintenance of irrigation structures. It has been estimated that improving fragmentation could increase grain output by as much as 70 million tons annually.

The fact that farmers lease – as opposed to own – their land has also worked to constrain grain yield by discouraging long-term investment. While lease times have extended to between 30 and 50 years, many villages continue to be awarded comparatively short lease contracts of 5 to 10 years. The reality is that China’s land rights are complicated and quickly changing. China recently passed the Rural Land Contract Law which took effect in 2003. The law endeavors to improve the security of land tenure, to clarify the transfer and exchange rights of contracted land, and to permit family members to inherit land during the contracted period. Above all, the law reflects the government’s attempts to allow those staying in farming to gain access to additional cultivated land and to increase their incomes and competitiveness. It strives to encourage farmers to use the land more efficiently. Working against government efforts to improve plot size is the belief by some leaders that family farming provides at least nominal proof that China is still communist as its land is not privately held, and as its land is relatively equally distributed. Many Chinese leaders also believe that agricultural land provides a social security system for its population, as every rural family is theoretically only one season away from being able to feed itself. In the five years following the implementation of the law more than 50,000 land disputes were raised and the government responded with a new draft law in 2009, though this was never passed.

Despite these challenges, grain independence remains one of the primary goals of China’s agriculture policy. In China’s 12th Five Year Plan released in March 2011, the government states that it expects grain production capacity to remain over 540 million tons per annum, and that overall, it seeks to increase grain production by 50 million tons by 2015. To produce more grain than economic efficiency dictates, China will need to invest in agricultural infrastructure, seed research, and organic fertilizers. It will need to provide greater agricultural credit availability, increase plot size, and improve water management.

GuoZhongHua / Shutterstock.comUltimately, as China continues to develop, the priority of its agricultural policy should be less grain self-reliance and more the continued transformation from an agricultural based economy to one that is industry and service based. To join the ranks of the developed world, China will need to promote policies that continue this structural change. Already, agriculture’s share of GDP has fallen from 40% in 1970 to under 10% in 2008. Going forward, China’s real challenge will be whether it can release large numbers of families to live and work in urban areas, leaving a smaller number of farming families that control sufficient land and other resources to make a decent living from farming. It will need to provide these remaining farmers with enough income to invest in their children’s human capital, thus raising their capacity to respond to future economic opportunities within and beyond the farm sector.

Additionally, China will need to better integrate into the economy those workers released from the agricultural sector. Figures from the 2010 census put temporary migrants – that is, those living more than one municipality away from their registered home for a period of more than six weeks – at almost 250 million, or nearly 19% of the overall population. These temporary migrants are projected to grow to 400 million by 2025. Despite the significant increase in rural migrant workers to urban areas, there are still fundamental barriers that discourage permanent migration of individuals and families from rural to urban environments, the most important of which is the hukou resident registration system. Without official residence papers, migrants have poor access to housing, health facilities, and education for their children. It is not uncommon for migrants to work long hours in poor safety conditions and for little pay.

China’s Growing Presence in African Agriculture


Increasingly, China’s agricultural policies no longer revolve around just its domestic market. In particular, its agricultural footprint in Africa is growing. According to research conducted by Deborah Brautigam, China has developed agricultural aid projects in more than 40 African countries. Historically, these aid projects were characterized by “quick starting, quick results and quick decline”. Between 1965 and 1986, approximately 50% of Chinese African rural development projects failed. This low success rate has driven Beijing to find ways to make its African agricultural aid projects more sustainable. In particular, China is increasingly engaging Chinese agro-businesses as partners in its agricultural aid projects. In the 1980s, for instance, China began to experiment with trading African debt for equity and lease arrangements in former Chinese aid projects which it then passed to Chinese agricultural companies. By 2002, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation was stating that Chinese agricultural investment in Africa should be “conducted by enterprises and should be market oriented”, supporting the 1990s policies of making Chinese agricultural investment mutually beneficially for both China and the African countries in which it invested. What this has meant in practice is that the government has increasingly brought in Chinese companies to sustain agricultural initiatives in Africa once these projects are up and running. This “mutual benefit” policy has the additional advantage of finding new markets for its agricultural technologies such as hybrid seeds, and of allowing its agricultural companies to gain international experience.

For their part, there is concern among some in Africa that China is developing agricultural projects so it can ship food to China at the expense of the African consumer. Evidence to date suggests, however, that most of the agricultural products produced on Sino-African agricultural initiatives are sold to local African markets. That said, increasing the overall global food supply is beneficial to China as that helps to reduce food prices for products that it does purchase in the international markets. Of course, this does not just benefit China as ever country that imports foods would welcome downward pressure on food prices. In the longer term, it may also help to create potential new food sources.

Future Trends

There will be four trends to watch for in the Chinese agricultural sector in the coming years. Firstly, China will make every effort to maintain or increase its agricultural yields through greater investment in agricultural research, improvement of agricultural irrigation networks, reclamation of land for agricultural use, and the support of contract land arrangements that provide both security as well as flexibility for farmers to trade their leasing rights. Secondly, China will also support growth in cash crops such as vegetables and fruits, animals, and aquatic products, including investing in fishing ports, fish farms and coastal harbor centers. Thirdly, China plans to heavily invest to improve the standard of living of those citizens remaining in rural areas, including increasing rural access to electricity, roads, quality housing, education, and healthcare. While not actively stating that there are immediate plans to overhaul the Chinese resident permit system, China’s 12th Five Year Plan does affirm that it will, “adapt to the new situation of the rural population migration”, tacit acknowledgement that the hukou system needs further reform. Finally, China’s presence in African agriculture will continue to expand. This expansion will take many forms, but underlying its growth will be the creation of new opportunities for China’s large agricultural companies.