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China can feed itself today, but what about tomorrow?

BEIJING – Despite severe droughts and flooding that ravaged grain production bases throughout southwestern and central China last summer, the country met its target of 95 percent agricultural self-sufficiency, according to a report published in China’s state-run English news weekly, Beijing Review, earlier this month.    

It is truly is a feat of ingenuity and state-mandated discipline that, in the wake of such natural disasters, China was able to feed its 1.3 billion people – 22 percent of the world population – with only 10 percent of the world’s arable land.

Adrienne Mong/ NBC News File

Villages in Chongqing Municipality are crammed with rice steppes.

Beijing has long considered food self-sufficiency a matter of national security and the central tenet of the unspoken pact between China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) and its citizens: the government will provide economic prosperity and stability while the people will embrace party rule. 

In the three decades since opening up under Deng Xiaoping, the CCP has delivered on its mandate, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and bringing millions more out of the countryside and creating a burgeoning urban middle class.
But despite the glowing report and optimistic projections of continued self-sufficiency, the long-term economic and societal trends that are shaping China show a country that will increasingly struggle to feed its own people.

A matter of national security
In shaping its agricultural policy, China has learned to maximize production from its arable land by focusing on a select group of crops. As a USDA report succinctly put it, “[China] tends to import land-intensive commodities (soybeans, cotton, barley)… and it exports labor-intensive commodities (fish, fruits, vegetables).”

In particular, grain and corn production numbers are impressive: The China National Grain and Oils Information Center reported a yield of 169 million tons of corn in 2010, a 3.1 percent improvement on 2009 crop numbers.

And in the case of grain, China is not just feeding its people, it has also socked away an impressive strategic reserve. While the globally accepted ratio between inventory and consumption is around 18 percent, China’s 63 million ton grain reserve is well over 40 percent and is currently the largest single reserve of grain in the world.

Adrienne Mong/ NBC News File

Farmers dig up soil from a dried out lakebed in Yunnan Province during the drought in the summer 2010.

Chinese central planners have also long managed farm land so that the amount of arable land would never fall below a theoretical “red line” of 120 million hectares. However, due to the pressure of rapid urbanization, the requirements of industrial development, an unfettered construction bonanza and ironically an aggressive reforestation plan to combat desertification throughout the country, China is coming dangerously close to dipping below that line.

According to the Ministry of Land and Resources, at the start of 2010 China had 121.7 million hectares of arable land available.

With China’s urban population expected to grow from 47 percent to 75 percent in the next 30 years -- imagine the entire population of the United States moving into China’s cities – that land will face even greater pressures.

Parched land, polluted water
The remaining arable land available in China is also under threat from ever present water management issues.

Traveling around China’s countryside, a wide variety of farming techniques are on display, some of which experts have long charged are inefficient and resource intensive. Earlier this year, in drought struck regions like Yunnan, one could see the lengths to which desperate farmers go to farm their lands.

Techniques like draping low slung plastic tarps over farmland to preserve every drop of moisture, farmers mining nutrient rich soil from a dried out lake bed and strict water rationing were just a few of the ways farmers made the most out of limited water resources.

Adrienne Mong/ NBC News File

Farmland typical of China's eastern region Zhejiang Province

China has access to just seven percent of global freshwater resources. Subsequently, cities rely heavily on groundwater stocks that are already heavily under threat from pollution. A report presented at the International Groundwater Forum by the China Geographical Survey earlier this year found that 90 percent of groundwater in China is polluted, 60 percent of it seriously so.
And the clean water stocks that do exist are under strain from the government’s continued campaign to raise its people out of poverty through urbanization.

One expert estimates that the city of Beijing’s water use alone grew by 150 percent in the last decade. 

The looming specter of climate change has also pushed water resources to the brink as steadily melting glaciers in the mountains and drought like conditions throughout the country earlier this year forced farmers to rely even more heavily on underground water stocks.

In some farming regions, farmers reportedly had to drill hundreds of yards underground to reach freshwater. Water tables across the board have subsequently dropped, with one estimate suggesting that between 1974 and 2000, underground water tables dropped a yard a year.

Global repercussions
These lurking domestic strains have found themselves seeping into China’s foreign policy. Last month’s attempted takeover of the Canadian fertilizer producer Potash Corp. by Sinochem, the parent company of China’s largest fertilizer distributor, was largely seen as an attempt to secure an uninterrupted supply of fertilizer to help produce more food.

China’s consumption and production will also increasingly play a larger role in an ever intertwined agricultural commodities market. In recent years, shortages – even rumors – of various agricultural goods in China such as consumable oil, pork and garlic have led to rampant price speculation and inflation.

One major concern is that as world agricultural markets become increasingly connected, sudden and massive Chinese demand on any given product could lead to rapid and severe price spikes across the globe.