The population of China is predicted to reach 1.4 billion in 2025, which leads to a huge food consumption. With global economic growth, the food supply of China becomes a significant issue in the whole world. In 1995 a book《Who will feed China? Wake-up call for a small planet》written by Lester Brown warned global policymakers that the population of China and lack of agriculture land might contribute to a huge disequilibrium between food needs and production in China, and this might cause a considerable pressure on international food products and supply market, even threaten global food security. In the following, I will focus on factors that affect food supply and strategies of it adopted by the Chinese government.
History of China
In the middle of the last century, there was a 3-year famine, even though data of that period are sparse, starvation caused nearly millions of people died. National mortality rates were 1,46%, 2.54% and 1.43% in 1959, 1960 and 1961 respectively, and particularly in 1960 the mortality rate was higher than birth rate.Because of this tragedy, food supply, availability and price are always top priorities for Chinese policy maker. In the 1970s, with Chinese economic reform, Chinese economy developed rapidly, as well as the increase of population, led to a new challenge on food supply.
Key factors of food supply in China
Firstly, the quantity and quality of cultivated lands. Chinese tillage only accounted for 7-9% of global arable lands but in China, 20% population need to be fed, and the average tillage lower than global level, and the average tillage lower than global level, and tillage has been reducing because of soil erosion and land conversion (figure 1A). Furthermore, highest grade lands (suitable for crops) only accounted for 40% in China, and rest of areas have environmental issues like high salinity and highest grades areas located in three main plains: the Northeast China Plain, the North China Plain, and the Yangtze Plain. In these regions, urbanization is highly developed and a large number of major cities located in these places, so there is a strong competition between agricultural and urban land use.
Another key factor is water resource. In China, 62.4% of total water consumption is used for irrigation in 2016.Water resource limits crops production and the extent of arable land in some ways. For instance, in 2008, drought influenced 12 million hectares (nearly 10% of total agricultural land), and 812,000 hectares lands had crop failure. Likewise, average water resources in China are far lower than the global average (figure 1B) and water resources are decreasing because of pollution.
Because of unbalanced water resources and arable lands, intensive tillage of productive land contributed to deficiencies in soil micronutrients, which led to the limitation of land productivity. The lack of micronutrients in soil can affect micronutrients in crops, which may cause dietary micronutrients deficits, for example, in China some people lack iodine (figure 2) because of this. People who live in remote areas have difficulties to get access to different food types and they are more likely to be a 2002 survey, 208 million Chinese people had iron-deficiency anemia and most of them are in rural areas as well as 86 million had zinc-deficiency stunting.
Fig.2 Thyroid enlargement caused by iodine deficiency(source)
Strategies for food supply in China
Over 13% of the population in China lives under the poverty line, most live in rural areas, and they have difficulties to access diverse food types. Although governments have maintained low crops price for decades, these policies benefited people lived in urban areas most rather than undeveloped rural areas and thus some negative feedbacks to agriculture appeared.These situations will be reduced through Chinese population migration, which is a long-term process that reshapes rural and urban populations. Only less than 20% of the population lived in cities in 1980, but now over half people reside in urban areas. Moreover, people lived in rural regions tended to own more land since the 1980s. The agricultural mechanization and industrialization can increase farm sizes and push up farmers’ income and crop production.
As in most countries of the world, China’s agricultural production is closely linked to available water, Chinese governments pay attention to water conservation projects, especially to water-scarce northern China. The South-North Water Transfer Project targets on redistribution of water resources to mitigate regional water unbalance and also some water-saving projects such as drip irrigation and cover crops in some areas in northwest China.
China made considerable investments in agricultural technologies, such as investing US$3·5 billion to support studies on transgenic technologies of rice, wheat, maize, soybean, cotton and three important domestic animals (pigs, cows, and sheep) over 13 years. Likewise, Chinese scholars started hybrid rice research since 1064 by Prof. Yuan Longping. In 1975, technology for massive hybrid seeds production was ready. After a year, hybrid rice was used for commercial production. Thus, China was the first country to use hybrid rice technology to real agricultural activities. Moreover, during 2001 to 2013, 5,883 rice varieties used and certificated by national and provincial levels in China, with increasing about 300 new varieties per year(figure 3). Hybrid rice, GM food and non-food agricultural products are considered as important methods to meet human future food demand.The future food market in China will rely on Chinese consumers’ confidence, which will depend on the implementation of appropriate regulatory policies by the government. Thus, The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has implemented guidelines based on “the concept of substantial equivalence, which limits testing requirements to key product characteristics”.
Fig.3 The model of plant types for further yield increase of rice(source)
In conclusion, China faces a large number of challenges of the food supply, but the distance on per-person food production between global and Chinese average is much closer, because of many factors such as high-yield varieties (eg. hybrid rice) and considerable investment on agriculture. However, the food security is not just about food supply, there are also many things (eg. food safety) need to improve in China.