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How is China able to provide enough food to feed its population of over 1 billion people? Do they import food or are they self-sustainable?

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How is China able to provide enough food to feed its population of over 1 billion people

How is China able to provide enough food to feed its population of over 1 billion people? Do they import food or are they self-sustainable?

China Can’t Feed Itself Even With Constant, Careful, Active Management of its Food Production

There are many layers to untangle in Chinese agriculture.

China is able to feed its people only through massive state oversight, investment, and regulation in agriculture. Even then China still has to import food and is the largest food importer in the world.

Basics of Chinese Agricultural Production

Large Population + Limited Land: As all the other answers have mentioned China needs to feed 21% of the world population on only 7% of global farmland. What needs to be added is that a lot of this ‘arable land’ is often still hilly, water-starved, salinated, or polluted. The percentage of arable land also continues to shrink due to urbanization, erosion, pollution, and other factors.

How is China able to provide enough food to feed its population of over 1 billion people
[1] By some accounts China has lost up to 20% of its arable land since 1949

[2]Crop Breakdown: About 75% of China’s farmland is used for growing food (as opposed to being used to feed animals). 90% of that land is used to grow the three major grains of rice, wheat, and corn.

Farm Size: The size of the average Chinese farm is tiny. In 2013 the average size was .78 hectares[3]and among the smallest in the world. Around 60% of Chinese farms are smaller than .1 hectares. The terrain is just too hilly to be manageable in large sizes. Increasing the size of Chinese farms is essential[4]but not really possible.

Limited Mechanization: It is hard to effectively mechanize Chinese farms because it is meant for large flat farms. Chinese agriculture cannot make effective use of many modern agricultural technologies. In many cases it just makes economic sense to do it the old, labor-intensive way. Over a third of Chinese farms have no mechanized equipment at all.

Declining Competitiveness: China’s competitiveness in food products has gone down in recent years. Its revealed comparative advantage (RCA) in the export of agro-foods has actually declined over the last decade even as it has invested in and subsidized the industry heavily.
Primary Advantage Only in Labor Intensive Agriculture: Chinese agriculture has a legitimate comparative advantage only in the export of highly labor-intensive products, things like tea, honey, and many fruits and vegetables. This comes from having a very large poor hardworking agricultural workforce. China has no comparative advantage in capital and land intensive agricultural products.

 

How is China able to provide enough food to feed its population of over 1 billion people

Enormous, Inefficient Agricultural Labor Force: China has an agricultural labor force of at least 300 million people. A recent government account puts the labor force at over 360 million people.[5]This is over 1/4th of the Chinese population and larger than the entire population of the USA. China has enormous agricultural output but the output per worker is low.
Aging Agricultural Labor Force: Farmers age 50 or older are the largest component of the agricultural labor force. The rural population is declining and aging. Older farmers are less productive. They also likely mean less agricultural productivity growth. They are also hard to replace because younger people are choosing cities over farms. Surveys show less than 10% of rural youth want to farm like their parents.

Output Per Hectare is Low: Even when heavily dosed with agrochemical inputs Chinese farms only yield about 70% as much food as US farms.
Huge Amounts of Ag Inputs: China uses about 1/3rd of global nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer, even though it has less than 9% of global farmland.[6] Usage has gone up 3x in the last three decades. This chemical usage is responsible for essentially all growth in Chinese food output in the last 30 years.[7]This helps make Chinese agriculture incredibly expensive. It also makes up for China’s degraded soil[8] in the short term, but with negative consequences farther out.

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How is China able to provide enough food to feed its population of over 1 billion people

Huge Subsidies: Agrochemical inputs, mechanization, digitization, irrigation, and a number of other inputs and enabling elements of agriculture are paid for by the government. China has agricultural subsidies 5x to 6x those in the USA.[9]In 2012 it was over $165 billion and today it is likely over $200 billion.
Water: Northern China has serious water challenges. It has 40% of the population and 63% of the cultivated land with only 19% of the water. Precipitation levels have gone done 12% since 1960. The North China Plain aquifer is being depleted and the ground is subsiding. Beijing is sinking 4+ inches a year.[10]Overall per capita water availability is 1/4th the world average.

Aquaculture: Aquaculture is a very small component of the Chinese diet in comparison to grains. It is also severely limited by the pollution levels in Chinese waterways, lakes, and nearby seas. This makes food safety a serious concern and large aquaculture expansion difficult. It also suffers from all the water challenges listed above (and more). Finally, any aquaculture that requires electricity as an input is at the mercy of electricity prices (which are high) or solar irradiation levels, which are very low in major production regions.

Food Security Is a Major Security Challenge

Famine: China has a legitimate reason to be worried about famine. Its large population requires more food than any other on limited land. The worst famine in human history occurred in China in the 20th century. Famine has been a permanent, recurring part of Chinese history.

 

How is China able to provide enough food to feed its population of over 1 billion people

Calorie Basics: What is the makeup of the average Chinese person’s diet? In 2011, the average Chinese person took in around 3000 calories a day. Around ~50% of those calories are in the form of cereal grains.[11] Grain consumption goes up as income decreases so the poor are the most dependent on grain calories.

Cereal Grain is Paramount: To deal with the high caloric demand of its population China needs to be able to produce a significant portion of its own food. The most important food type to manage are the cereal grains that comprise the largest share of China’s per capita calorie consumption. Since 1996 China has had official and aspirational goals of 95% grain self-sufficiency.

Food Imports: Unfortunately, high demand relative to output and land use constraints have made China a food importer since 2008. China’s imports of cereal grains have gone up over 800% from 2003 to 2014. By 2011 China was the largest food importer in the world. In 2019 China represents 18% of total global food imports.[12]It’s self-sufficiency goals are not being met and are trending to be even harder to meet.[13]

The Food Transition: As a population grows more prosperous it consumes (1) more calories and (2) more calories from diverse sources and in particular animal protein. Total Chinese calorie consumption per capita has gone up 20% since 1990. A few decades ago the average Chinese person got 65% or more of his or her calories from grains. But from 1990 to 2011 meat and dairy consumption have gone from 11% to 23% of total calories and is certainly even higher now.

The Costs of Animal Protein: Animal protein is far more energy and land intensive than grain calories. Feeding livestock requires huge amounts of land and grain. For example, 48% of the land in the contiguous US is pasture/grazing land.[14]And 36% of the US crop, the largest in the world, is used to feed animals. China has a very limited ability to produce feed grain for animals. If a third of China’s grain crop was used to feed animals (the world average) it would starve.

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First World Diet: China simply does not have the agricultural capacity to produce a first world diet for its entire population or even a significant portion of its population. World agricultural export markets do not have the ability to support it either. China consumes more than 28% of global meat, over 2x US meat consumption.

An Unfree Diet: Grain security policies, land constraints, and output realities mean China will have to constrain food choice. Everyone is not going to be able to eat what they want if everyone wants to eat. The changing Chinese diet means more dependence on foreign countries for food security, particularly places like the USA and Brazil.

FAO food security definition: “when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to Basics that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”[15]

China may continue to feed its people but will likely not be eating what they’d prefer to eat.

Economics of Chinese Agriculture

Chinese agriculture is insanely inefficient, labor intensive, subsidized, and expensive.

Poor Quality Fundamentals: China has around 130 million hectares of cultivated land but only around 30% of it is high quality. It has an official policy to replace any repurposed farmland with new farmland but it almost always replaces higher quality land with lower quality land. The new land has higher production costs and lower production if it is even used for farming at all.

Enormous Costs: High output requirements plus poor quality land leads to massive costs. The land has to be painfully forced to yield more through the massive agrochemical intensification mentioned above. Economies of scale are impossible in most production regions. Transportation costs are high. Only subsidies and rural poverty make it even somewhat sustainable.

Subsidies: As a result China pays out more in agricultural subsidies than the EU and USA combined.[16]Subsidies are used for everything from direct payments to above market government purchases to equipment purchases to strategic crop production. China sees them as essential to food security (and they are).[17]In the major cereal grains, subsidies account for around 1/3rd of farm revenue.[18]This is over 3x the share of other major producers. These subsidies distort global food prices.

Employment: China’s enormous agricultural labor population is a fundamental cap on agricultural (and broader economic) productivity. For comparison, the USA produces a similar agricultural output with a labor force around 100 times smaller. China has over 200 million farms.[19] Overall Chinese productivity is 15–30% of the OECD average and agricultural productivity is 1/4 of that.[20] Rural agricultural employment cant get too low because it is a support ballast for the rural/migrant labor population.

High Value Products: China has to devote more land to low value grain products than the market would otherwise dictate. Security concerns plus limited land means agricultural output is not primarily focused on value. China has high market share in many non-core and high value agricultural products such as honey, silk, tea, and many fruits and vegetables because these are labor-intensive products. Adding in all the subsidies, supports, and costs makes most of them unprofitable.

Alternative Production Styles are Costly: The cheapest way to produce food is to do it on large, flat, sunny, well watered farms in a temperate climate. Almost everything else is more costly. It may look or sound ‘modern’ or ‘innovative’ but is frequently infeasible. Even terraced rice paddies are a costly compromise meant to deal with hilly terrain. Floating cages, aerated aquaculture, greenhouses, vertical farming buildings, farms in a desert – all of this is far less efficient than normal farming. It is an attempt to make up for a poor geography and inability to sufficiently capitalize and improve farms with technology.

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China lacks the basic components of a productive and efficient primary sector. It does not have the right amount of flat land, good soil, and sufficient water. The US produces a similar amount of food more cheaply and with far far fewer workers. No novel agricultural methods will be cost competitive and those that might be will be non-exclusive and replicated.

China’s large population is stretching and contorting its agricultural economy to the point of absurdity.

The Future of Chinese Agriculture is Not a Bright, Technologically Advanced Utopia

Output Gains Plateauing: China has literally done almost everything conceivable to try and increase output. The most effective agricultural improvement in Chinese history by far has been the adoption of industrial agriculture inputs (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc.). Agricultural chemicals were the first purchase China made after its relations with the USA were restored in the 1970’s. This advancement has been milked dry. Almost all the other schemes to improve output should be regarded skeptically. China is dealing with structural constraints.

Limited Re-Capitalization and Technological Improvements: China’s core food production system is not very responsive to the most valuable capital improvements, technological enhancements, and economies of scale better land benefits from. This is recognized by many of China’s aging farmers who don’t adopt many best practices recommended by experts. The massive, diverse, old labor force is more resistant to change than a younger cohort would be. The lack of consolidation makes it much more difficult to disseminate new agricultural technologies and techniques.

Lack of True Land Ownership: China does not have a primary land market. Land cannot be directly bought and sold. It is all owned by the government. Secondary and tertiary markets for use rights ‘approximate’ a true land market. However, the willingness of tenants to make long term investments in their land is doubtful. Incentives to deal with long term ecological challenges are low and incentives to increase immediate production (through agro-chemicals for example) is high.

Signs of Desperation: All the crazy, seemingly advanced and innovative agro-production schemes China is coming up with should be seen for what they are: signs of desperation. Outside of a few situations such as CAFO’s or conditions with very low input costs, like electricity or an abundance of water, these are not things that work at scale. They definitely will not work at China scale.

The Illusion of High Output: It is very easy to be impressed by China’s high output numbers in a host of agricultural products. However, these are enabled by subsidies, poverty, huge amounts of labor, ridiculous amounts of credit, and government guarantees. High output does not mean profitability or sustainability.

Agricultural Fundamentals Are Worse: China is losing the good land, soil, and water its agricultural system requires. The supposed technological replacements for all of this are diversions and distractions. The scale of devastation to the arable land is hard to grasp but certainly catastrophic and would be enormously expensive to remediate. The incentives in China’s system mean the problem is getting worse (propaganda notwithstanding).

Conclusion

Chinese agriculture is a mess.
It is large but incredibly inefficient.
It is not self-sustainable. Serious long-term ecological challenges are building up.
It cannot by itself feed the entire Chinese population. It has to buy soybeans abroad for the Chinese population to eat local meat.
Production methods are not becoming sci-fi futuristic.
Chinese agriculture will have trouble responding to dietary changes associated with greater prosperity.
The future of Chinese agriculture depends on the wealth and size of China’s population.
In terms of feeding its population, a smaller and poorer China is sadly better.

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