China’s shrinking arable land?

by on Monday, 03 August 2009 Comments

The crisis in natural resources affecting mankind is multifaceted, and it’s not always easy to evaluate the acuteness of the phenomena. China’s shrinking arable land offers a perspective on the way such challenges can be analyzed and assessed. It shows that problems are real but should not be exaggerated. Rather than relying on general statistics it is always good to look at the data and trends in more detail. In a nutshell, China’s land problem is a real one, but land resources are still available and some changes in land use have been commendable. However, the needs of the country will probably put additional pressure on world markets.

The Maoist period had seen much pasture and forest devoted to agricultural production. Conversely, the years from 1979 to 1985 constitute a period of rapid deterioration in terms of available arable land. In 1981, 1984 and 1985, China suffered an annual loss of more than a million hectares. The next five years saw this trend reversed and in 1990 more new land was brought into cultivation than was lost. Thereafter, however, conditions deteriorated once more. Most cultivated land that disappeared because of industrial, urban and infrastructural development was fertile land on the periphery of urban centers. On the other hand, there still exists a considerable amount of wasteland, especially in the southeast and central eastern regions, unused as a result of mining or industrial activities. Some of this could still be restored for agricultural use.

It is often said that China’s arable land might drop below the red line of 120 million hectares in a few years time due to rampant illegal use. This might be true but is not proven. Looking at statistics production by production, one sees some sown areas growing in size and others diminishing, in an inconsistent pattern. Also, there is progress recorded in irrigation and water-saving irrigation systems.

Some scholars assert that the situation is not as bad as often described. The official total of China’s farmland, they say, is about 50 per cent lower than the real figure. Moreover, they argue that the decline has been the result mostly of desirable land use changes rather than of disappearance of farmland in favour of new cities, industries and transportation links.

China has a long history of underreporting its grain production area, one of the difficulties lying in the diversity of local criterion used for area measurement. Other reasons for underreporting are linked to taxation issues and the need to keep a “space’ for reporting big rises in production gain when asked to do so by higher levels of government.

There is still available farmland. Also, China’s average grain yields are still below the South Korean and Japanese rates, giving the country room for improvement. On the other hand, figures of the losses incurred during the last thirty years may actually underestimate the real loss. Reasons for the loss must be assessed carefully. The combined total of urban and rural construction has been responsible for less than one-fifth of China’s recent farmland loss. Another fifth of the total loss was the result of conversion to orchards, reflecting the increased demand for fruit.

In any case, the most problematic losses occur in areas with inadequate production capacity and in suburban coastal areas where the most productive agricultural land is converted to other uses. After careful, cautious analysis, one may conclude that in the future, grain imports from China are highly likely. For the time being, looking at the situation of world markets, there should be little problem with the country eventually doubling or tripling, its current grain imports. This however could change within the next few years. For sure, no catastrophic scenario is likely, but China’s farmland problem must be seen in an ever-changing global context.

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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