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Traditional Chinese farming has been widely seen as a paragon of organic agriculture, relying on close integration of crops and domestic animals, on recycling of organic wastes and on often-complex crop rotations. While its achievements made it possible for China to be the world’s first nation to surpass the 500 million population mark (perhaps as early as the late 1920s), its performance remained vulnerable to natural catastrophes and to productivity dips caused by wars and other conflicts. China entered the twentieth century with the ever-present threat of another sweeping food shortage. In the 1920s, J.L. Buck (1937) found that Chinese peasants recalled an average of three crop failures during their lifetime that were serious enough to cause famines. These famines lasted on average about ten months, and they led up to a quarter of the affected population to eat grasses and strip bark from trees, and forced nearly one seventh of all people to leave their hungry villages in search of food.

Since the beginning of the economic reforms, the Chinese have followed the near-universal pattern of nutritional shifts that accompany industrialization and urbanization (Smil, 1995). Major staple grains have become less important as legume consumption has decreased and consumption of animal foods, oil, fruits and sugar has increased. In specific Chinese terms, this means that rice is becoming an inferior food; that the consumption of pork and plant oils used in stir-frying has risen rapidly; and that the domestic production of sugar cannot meet the growing demand.

The level of meat consumption will have the greatest impact on China’s future food self-sufficiency. So far the demand for meat has been rising faster than anticipated. Average per capita annual consumption almost tripled between 1978 and 1994, and in 1995 it is already above the target set for the year 2000 by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The Academy also assumes that average per capita meat demand will remain fairly stable at about 25kg per year until the year 2020.

Rising per capita intakes of animal foodstuffs, and continuation of rapid urbanization, are the two factors favoring further increases in meat consumption. But, as in other countries, China’s meat demand is also highly income-dependent. Nationwide surveys show urban income elasticities as high as 3.1 for poultry and 1.7 for pork, compared to just 0.7 for both foodstuffs in rural (and relatively rich) Jiangsu (Hsu et al. 2002). Consequently, relatively low income in most of China’s rural areas will restrain the future meat demand. Moreover, nationwide surveys also show that China’s urban consumers are especially sensitive to prices of pork, poultry, and eggs (price elasticities of 1.6, 1.3 and 1.8 respectively), which means that future price increases (resulting, for example, from China’s accession to the WTO) might slow the growth in meat demand that is stimulated by higher incomes (Hsu et al. 2002). A rapidly ageing population that is more concerned about healthy eating is yet another factor that will moderate the future meat demand.

At the same time, because China’s regional, provincial and rural/urban income inequalities had actually risen during the 1990s, it means that overconsumption of food in general, and high intakes of meat in particular, have become common among the more affluent segments of the population in the best-off large cities and in the coastal regions of the country, where tens of millions of people now have more food at their disposal than does the average Japanese (Smil, 2000).

China’s burgeoning economy and improving food supply were perhaps the best news coming out from the post-Tian’anmen China of the early 1990s. But in 1994 Lester Brown, at that time the president of Washington’s Worldwatch Institute, wrote an article arguing that China was rapidly losing its capacity to feed itself, that its grain output had already reached its peak and would fall by at least 20 per cent by the year 2030, and that only massive grain imports could make up for the anticipated deficit (Brown, 1994). The following year he published an expanded version of this paper as a short book entitled Who Will Feed China? and subtitled, melodramatically, Wake-up Call for a Small Planet (Brown 1995).

Brown’s analysis of China’s food prospects rests on a series of assumptions about what, to him, appear to be irrevocable trends: China’s consumers are “moving up the food chain”, the country is losing arable land, running out of water, and exhausting its opportunities for further major increases in yields. Because Brown considers all these trends to be virtually unstoppable, his conclusion is that China is heading toward catastrophe. As incomes rise, China’s demand for feed grain to produce meat and fish will keep growing. Since there will be no conceivable way to satisfy this demand through domestic grain production (which will be actually declining), the only recourse will be vast, and increasing, imports of grain. This will lead not only to a global increase in food prices but – because Brown does not see any possibility for a major expansion of export supplies – also to world shortages of staple cereals.

China’s post-1994 grain production has certainly not conformed to Brown’s catastrophist forecasts, but nobody could have predicted its rapid swings. As the total 1994 grain harvest fell below 400Mt the government decided to stimulate grain production through increased procurement prices and mandated minimum production and reserve levels. These decisions brought a succession of record harvests, with the peak in 1998 (456Mt) more than 12 per cent above the 1993 level, and with the 1999 harvest only a few megatons lower. These huge outputs combined with a falling demand for grain – between 1990 and 2000 intakes of rice and wheat fell by 13 per cent – to fill China’s storages beyond capacity, to push grain prices down, and to bring a sharp retrenchment in 2000. The total area sown to cereals declined by 7 per cent, and a widespread drought further reduced the harvest to just over 400Mt; and the 2001 harvest, after further reduction of the planted area, was even a few megatons lower.

In spite of a production level equal to the early 1990s, when China’s population was 11 per cent smaller, there have been no grain shortages. Lower demand accounts for only a small part of this discrepancy: China’s enormous grain stocks explain most of it. The size of these stocks has been always a state secret, but a variety of new fragmentary information led USDA to re-evaluate drastically its previous estimates of these stocks: instead of about 66Mt of stocks at the end of the 2000/2001 crop year, USDA now believes that the total was about 230Mt, and other estimates are as high as 360-500Mt (Hsu and Gale 2001). This is why, at the time of its lowest harvests in a decade, China was selling large amounts of corn while it was reducing its grain imports to a few megatons. Brown (1995) made a great deal of the fact that China’s net grain exports of 8Mt in 1993/1994 turned into net imports of 16Mt a year later, and he saw it as an indisputable fact that the country had emerged as a major permanent importer of grain. What would he make of the fact that during the three crop years between 1998-1999 and 2000-2001 China’s corn, wheat and rice imports totaled 2.8Mt while exports of these cereals reached nearly 30Mt (FAO 2002)?

And Brown’s dire predictions could not accommodate the fact that China’s food balance sheets have shown no decline in average per capita food availability. FAO’s (2002) calculations show that between 1997 and 2000 China’s average food availability remained almost perfectly steady, with year-to-year fluctuations being less than 0.5 per cent, and that shifts in diet composition continued within this stable overall supply. Following the trend established at the very beginning of the post-1978 agricultural reforms, the average per capita food supply now contains less cereals but more sugar, plant oils, vegetables, fruits, poultry, milk and aquacultured fish than it did in the mid-1990s. Both of these trends – stable per capita food availability and continuing slow shifts of average dietary make-up – are expected to continue during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Urbanization in general, and higher incomes of many city residents in particular, will be the primary drivers of these shifts. The latest urban household survey shows that high-income urban households purchased 18 per cent less wheat and 4 per cent less rice than did the low-income families – but that their purchases of poultry, fruit and milk were, respectively, 1.9, 2.2 and 3.4 times higher (NBS 2000).

Obviously, the dramatic reduction of post-1999 grain harvests has not signified any loss of China’s productive capacity, and in no way does it confirm Brown’s forecasts of permanently declining cereal production: it merely reflects adjustments resulting from changing demand and grain prices, and China’s entry into the WTO. Direct per capita grain consumption is falling, but demand for higher-quality wheat (suitable for baked goods and noodles) and rice is rising (Gale et al., 2001). At the same time, the need for feed grains is not increasing as rapidly as anticipated because of the stabilized demand for meat and eggs. Barring any protracted nationwide natural catastrophes, grain production levels during the coming years will thus be determined by government policies regarding grain stocks, WTO obligations and prices of flour, milled rice and animal foodstuffs – and not by any agronomic or environmental limits on China’s harvests.

Considering evidence of potential capacity for improving harvests, reducing losses and managing demand, it is not surprising that virtually all researchers who have spent a long time studying China’s agriculture agree that the country can feed itself during the coming generations, and that its grain, oil, sugar and meat imports will not destabilize the global food market. The tenor of these conclusions is remarkably similar. Alexandratos (1996) uses a wide range of revealing international production and consumption comparisons to make the persuasive case that China’s growing grain imports will remain only a fraction of those depicted in the panicky scenarios offered by Brown. He also notes that East Asia’s decline of cereal food consumption reflected above all drastic falls in rice consumption – but as a smaller share of China’s population consumes a mainly rice-based diet (rice dominates grain output only in fourteen of China’s thirty provinces) this trend cannot be duplicated in China (Alexandratos, 1997). China is also still much poorer than its smaller neighbors, and populations living in poverty will increase their grain intake in early stages of their modernization. And so it is much more likely that a generation from now China’s direct annual grain consumption will be still closer to 200kg rather than 100kg per capita.

Frederick Crook (1994) expects “Chinese farmers to feed their own population, supplemented by modest quantities of imported grain”. Scott Rozelle and his colleagues believe that “China will neither starve the world nor become a major grain exporter. It does seem likely, however, that China will become a much bigger importer in the coming decades” (Rozelle et al., 1996). The president of China’s new Agricultural University has an unequivocal answer buttressed by detailed technical explanations: “China should and can feed itself today and in the future” (Ke, 1996). For now, there seems to be no valid reasons why China should not continue being self sufficient in food during the next few generations. Were this not to happen it will not be because meeting this challenge requires reliance on as yet unproven bioengineering advances or on unprecedented social adjustments. A combination of well-proven economic and technical fixes, environmental protection measures, and dietary adjustments, can extract enough additional food from China’s agroecosystems to provide decent nutrition during the coming generations without a further weakening of the country’s environmental foundations.

All in all, ss for the more distant future, I support the idea of Huang et al. (1999) who states that China will neither empty the world grain markets nor will it become a major grain exporter. Depending on meat prices, perhaps as much as 40 per cent of China’s grain demand by the year 2020 may be for feed, but a combination of improved productivity and imports no higher than 25Mt a year should be able to cover even that eventuality. Such a mundane conclusion is the most welcome reality about the future of China’s food supply: it clearly signifies the country’s maturity and unprecedented security.


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Alexandratos, N. (1997). China’s consumption of cereals and the capacity of the rest of the world to increase exports. Food Policy, 22, 253-267.

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Brown, L. (1995). Who will feed china?: Wake-up call for a small planet. New York: Norton.

Buck, J.L. (1937). Land Utilization in China. Nanking: Nanking University Press.

Crook, F. (1994). Could China Starve the World? Washington DC: USDA.

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Smil, V. (1995). Feeding China. Current History, 94(593), 280-284.


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