Can China Increase Food Quality while Maintaining Food Production?

5 February 2020 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

According to reports, China’s grain harvests have increased fivefold since 1949, but food security is still a key issue for Chinese policy makers. China now aims to improve the quality of its crops, as well as produce enough food to feed its population. Over the last several years, Chinese government departments have introduced a series of initiatives aimed at restoring the country’s degraded agricultural land. A recent white paper, published by the State Council Information Office, also highlights the importance of maintaining and improving arable land.

Comment

With 1.4 billion people to feed and only 135 million hectares of arable land (most of which is cultivated by small-scale farmers), maintaining China’s food security has always been a momentous task. Making the task even more complex, are a myriad of challenges and difficulties that Chinese agriculture currently faces.

Contaminated soil, for instance, threatens China’s food security and, in some cases, public health. Reports indicate that over 40 per cent of China’s soil is degraded, reducing crop yields. Land classified as degraded includes land displaying reduced fertility, erosion, acidification or damage from pollutants. In China, such pollutants can include organic and inorganic chemical pollutants, as well as heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium and arsenic. According to official estimates, each year in China 12 million tons of grain contaminated with heavy metals is produced and 10 billion kilograms of food is lost, as a result of pollution. More than three million hectares of land have also been declared too polluted to farm.

Food safety scandals are also alarmingly common. While the Chinese Government has made numerous efforts to combat the problem, including strict monitoring and punishments, food scandals have continued to emerge. That is partly because of the vast scale and complexity of China’s food system, which consists of around 450,000 food production companies, the majority of which have fewer than ten employees.

Part of the problem China faces relates to its large population, increasing consumption and relatively sparse arable land. Past reforms designed to address this gap, significantly boosted agricultural production by intensifying agricultural practices; however, they did so at the expense of the environment. Along with intensive farming, Chinese agricultural practices also favour the heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers – China uses more fertiliser than any other country. Many Chinese farmers also rely on highly toxic pesticides, including those banned in other countries, which further contaminate soils.

Other issues also plague China’s agricultural system. In 2007, China announced it would aim to maintain 120 million hectares of arable land. Local governments are able to bypass these requirements, however, by including marginal areas as arable or by reclassifying urban areas as farms. Meanwhile, China lost arable land between 2013 and 2017 as a result of new construction, natural disasters and agricultural production changes. Water shortages have also been driven by increasing urbanisation and industrialisation and the current irrigation system is inefficient. A further complication is that the majority of China’s cropland is found in the north of the country, which only possesses one-fifth of the country’s water resources.

China’s goal to improve its crop quality, while maintaining its arable land, is not a bad one, but the current state of the Chinese agricultural system suggests that a great deal of work is needed to meet that goal.

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