Policy and integrated management Environment

Posted July 1997

Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development in China, Part 1:
The Agro-Ecosystem and China's Rural Economy

prepared by
Li Xiaoyun, Centre for Integrated Agricultural Development
Zuo Changsheng, Ministry of Agriculture
Jeffrey B. Tschirley, FAO
Shwu Eng Webb & Ashley Morton, FAO consultants
From "Promotion of sustainable agriculture and rural development in China: elements for a policy framework and a National Agenda 21 Action Programme" (FAO/UNDP/Ministry of Agriculture, China, 1997)

See also: Environment Specials
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  • Organic agriculture
  • Integrated coastal area management
  • Biodiversity in agriculture
  • Earth Summit+5
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  • Sea-level rise and agriculture
  • TO DATE, MOST OF CHINA'S AGRICULTURAL POLICIES have strongly emphasized food production goals and targets that require intensive use of mineral fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation water and machinery. Because these policies have not been accompanied by incentives for conservation and environmental protection, the natural resources base has deteriorated, particularly in areas with high potential for food production. The concept of sustainable development highlights the complexity of designing operational policies and programmes. For this study the following definition is used:

    "Sustainable development is the management and conservation of the natural resources base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such sustainable development in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable." (FAO, 1988)
    The challenge this poses for China is to design agricultural commodity and environmental policies that achieve food security goals while enhancing both natural resources and human welfare. An understanding of the context in which current practices and policies have emerged will facilitate the identification of impediments to and opportunities for sustainable agriculture.

    We begin by looking at China's population and the pressure this places on its two key agricultural resource endowments, land and water, in order to provide an overview of the physical context of current production activities. This is followed with a discussion of the economic and social context of agricultural production and rural activities including issues of income distribution, gender and rural energy use. These factors have a major influence on the choices facing China's rural economy. Finally, we examine how agricultural policy influences resource and degradation.

    Limited resources, growing food demand

    China accounts for 22 per cent of the world's population but has only 10 per cent (revised figure) of world's arable land. Per caput water resources are less than one-fourth of the world's average. With its huge population China easily is the world's largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. It accounts for 34 per cent of global pork and 25 per cent of global grain production and consumption, respectively. As income per caput grows, this huge population is shifting its food preferences toward better quality but less efficient sources of calories and nutrition (i.e. less grain, more meat). Relatively high income elasticity of demand for food places great pressure on the food production capacity of the country to respond to these changing consumer tastes.

    The emphasis of Chinese leaders on maintaining food self-sufficiency exerts additional pressure on the limited natural resource base and constrains the evolution of development in rural areas.

    Population pressure and income growth

    Despite its large land area China has a very low resource base per caput - cropland, forest, grassland and water resources are only 46 per cent, 14 per cent, 32 per cent and 22 per cent of the world average, respectively.

    While development policies have successfully increased food production and industrial output over the past 15 years it is apparent that this has been achieved at a significant environmental cost. The majority of these costs have been treated as externalities (i.e. the negative impacts were "absorbed" in the form of deterioration of the human environment instead of being internalized at the source of the production). Depletion and pollution of water resources, land degradation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, desertification and deforestation are now sufficiently widespread that they constrain further economic growth in the agricultural sector.

    The remarkable success China has had over the past half century in feeding its population will be made more difficult in the decades to come by three major trends.

    Land, water, energy and purchased inputs

    Pressure on the land resources

    Land per capita in China is only 0.84 ha. which is 1/3 of the world average. However, only about 14 per cent of its total land area is arable land and on a per capita basis is only two-fifths of the world average.

    Table 1. Distribution of land resources (per cent)
    Land resources World average (ha.) China average (ha.)
    Croplands 0.29 0.12*
    Forests 0.74 0.12
    Grasslands 0.65 0.25
    Total 2.47 0.84
    Corrected value based on revised estimated arable land area of 139 m. ha.
    Source: FAO

    China's available land resource is not only limited in quantity but also in quality. The best arable land (i.e. no significant constraints as regards soil type, fertility, slope or climate) accounts for only 40 per cent of the total, 34 per cent has limited constraints, 23 per cent has significant constraints (China's Cultivated Land, 1995). About 3 per cent of arable land is not suitable for production.

    Table 2. Agricultural resources and cereal production 1994 (per caput)
    Country Cropland ha. Nitrogen kg NPK kg Grain Production (kg)
    China 0.15 168 299 329
    Japan 0.04 142 933 126
    India 0.21 35 54 231
    Mexico 0.30 54 75 298
    USA 0.78 50 93 1,371
    Europe 0.25 118 230 517
    World Average 0.29 52 95 346

    As can be seen in tables 2 and 3, Chinese farmers use their land intensively, and are relying more on fossil fuels for farming than ever before. The use of agricultural machinery, electricity and irrigation have grown rapidly since 1979. Fertilizer use has grown at more than 15 per cent per year and the ratio of organic to inorganic fertilizer has declined by nearly half between 1980 and 1990.

    Environmental impact of industrialization and urbanization

    Since the early 1980s, the average rate of conversion of arable land to non-agriculture uses has decreased from 1 m. ha./year to about 0.5 m.ha. At the same time, about 2.6 m. ha. have been created through land "reclamation" (500,000 ha. were reclaimed in 1994 alone) and it is estimated that a further 10.7 m. ha. could be reclaimed. Despite this, since 1978the average net loss of crop land has exceeded 300,000 ha/year.

    Although the rate of conversion of land into and out of agriculture is not an ideal basis for analysis - there is a need to assess what kinds of land are being developed for farming and whether sustainable farming systems can be, and are being, introduced.

    If present trends continue, the arable land area will decrease by 6.7 - 7.5 m. ha. by the turn of the century and the average arable land per caput will be reduced to 0.1 ha, just 60 per cent of that available in the 1950s. Significantly, the greatest loss of crop land is taking place in the eastern coastal areas where the cultivated land per capita is already less than 0.07 ha.

    Widespread land degradation and soil erosion

    As early as 1000 AD, population density pushed Chinese farm families from the prime valley bottoms toward marginal lands in marshy, hilly and mountainous areas. This process has continued, reaching a (numerical) peak in the 1960s and 1970s. Under the prevailing farming systems, however, the returns on these lands were often too low to induce farmers to invest in conservation measures. Consequently, inappropriate cultivation techniques and overgrazing severely degraded large areas of the red soils, the loess plateau, the northern grasslands and the north-east plains. Eventually much of this land may have to be rehabilitated at great cost or abandoned.

    China's grassland resource amounts to 330 m. ha., of which about 11 m. ha. has been subject to improvement. Nearly one-third of this grassland is considered overgrazed, with desertification already affecting 67 - 87 m. ha. and increasing at a rate of 1.33 m. ha./year. The total desertified area has more than doubled in size since the 1950s.

    Hills and mountains cover 65-70 per cent of China's territory. Although national guidelines prescribe that annual cropping should not take place on slopes with gradient in excess of 30 per cent, soil erosion is increasing and about 1.5 m. km2 (17 per cent of the total area) are now affected. The areas of particular concern are along the Yangtze River, where the rate of erosion has doubled since the 1950s, and Sichuan Province where 44 per cent of the land is affected and about 2 m. ha. are losing an average of 110 tonnes of soil per hectare per year. Nationally, soil erosion now affects 30 per cent more land than in the 1940s.

    About 33 per cent of land with slopes greater than 8 degrees is used for growing crops. More than 7 per cent of cultivated land has slopes that are greater than 25 degrees. Nutrient loss from cultivation on sloping land is severe, amounting to 47 tons (in active ingredient, or 112 tons in product weight) of chemical fertilizer and more than 13 tons of organic fertilizer per square kilometer per year.

    Reduction of agro-biodiversity

    China possesses a rich diversity of wild and domesticated plant and animal genetic resources as well as a diverse array of natural habitats. A comprehensive national survey (1976-84) of China's livestock genetic resources revealed more than 282 national recognized indigenous livestock breeds. Many more species of plants and other animals exist and have been used through many centuries.

    Policy incentives to produce food and raise rural incomes has not only expanded land use for agricultural crops, but it has also reduced agrobiodiversity due to specialization. The high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of the major green revolution crops, wheat, rice and maize, have a narrow genetic base. In 1990, the use of HYVs covered more than 80 per cent of the area under cultivation whereas 25 years ago almost no HYVs were in use. Many native races of rice and other food crops have been lost, together with potentially valuable qualities and characteristics, especially those resistant to different pests and diseases.

    Achievements in productivity gains have mainly taken place in the resource-rich regions of China. The marginal upland regions, about 70 per cent of the national territory, were neglected as were crops such as small-grains and tubers. For example, from 1975 to 1995, the yield per unit area of sorghum, millet and potatoes increased only by 3 per cent, 2 per cent and 1 per cent annually respectively.

    Central planning offices often compelled research and extension services in the resource-poor provinces and autonomous regions to concentrate on green revolution crops. Most scientific research papers from these regions concentrate on rice, wheat and maize.

    On marginal lands the suitability and production stability of traditional crops are much better suited to farmers who must carefully manage their production risk than are the green revolution crops. For example, during periods of drought when wheat fails in the arid mountain areas of north-western China, the potato can reap at least 60 per cent of its normal yield. For this reason it is called the 'life-saving grain' (in China potato is classified as a grain crop) by the local farmers.

    Although much of China's domestic animal diversity is still intact, it is now coming under pressure. As human diets in China have changed to demand more meat, pig and poultry production have increased - growing at more than 10 per cent per year for the last decade. This has created pressure to replace lesser known breeds with specialized, high production varieties thus, threatening breeds that possess biologically unique characteristics.

    Use of inputs

    The high yields of some crops seem to be decreasing due to production and harvesting without nutrient replacement. According to the "Second National Survey on the Situation of the Soil", almost 90 per cent of the national land has plant nutrition constraints; organic matter content accounts for less than 1.5 per cent on the average in China; 59 per cent of the arable land is deficient in phosphorus and 23 per cent in potassium. Because of the intensification of crop production and resulting depletion of soil fertility, China has become much more dependent on mineral fertilizer use, which, because it is subsidized, entails further cost to the government.

    Table 3. Land use intensity, 1949-95
    Year Grain yield, (t/ha sown) MCI Irrigated land (%) Agric. machine power kw/ha Fertilizer (inorganic) kg/ha Inorganic to Total
    1949 1.03 128 18.5   3.9 0.8
    1971-80 2.36 148 42.4 1.05 9.3 42.4
    1986 3.53 150 45.9 3.3 16.0 36.1
    1988 3.63 150 44.4 n/a n/a n/a
    1992 4.00 156 50.9 3.1 272  
    1993 4.13 155 51.2 3.4 331  
    1994 4.50 156 51.4 3.6 348  
    1995 9.66 158 51.9 3.8 379  
    1992 and 93 from Rural state book Mach power: 1,000 watts/ha. inorganic : kg/ha. fertilizer/ha.

    At present about 80 per cent of the total national water consumption is for irrigation. This has caused the depletion of water resources, especially the non-renewable deep ground water in the north of China, as well as pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, salinization.

    Management and utilization of grasslands

    Overgrazing in the hilly and mountainous areas of the farming regions causes severe water and soil erosion; in the pastoral regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjinag, Qinghai it leads to desertification. Of the desertified areas in the north of China overgrazing contributes 30 per cent. The grassland deterioration, including desertification, has reached 87 m. ha., about 1/3 of the national total. The development of settlement sites, staying most of the year, especially in the grass-growing season, has intensified the situation.

    Deforestation and loss of biodiversity

    Loss of biodiversity in China has not been confined to major agricultural crops. Intense deforestation occurred during the 1950s through to the '70s resulting in the loss of significant natural habitat. In Hainan, tropical forest cover decreased from 25 per cent of the total area in 1956 to less than 10 per cent by 1981. This resulted in catastrophic floods caused by the combination of increased runoff and siltation of rivers through soil erosion.

    Since then, the total forest cover has actually increased due to afforestation of about 5 m. ha. annually. But the afforested areas mostly comprise plantations of cedar in the south and poplar in the north which cannot substitute for the loss of natural forest bio-diversity.

    Deforestation in species-rich areas such as Hainan, Xishuangbana and Southeast Tibet is believed to have caused the extinction of 500-800 plant species since 1957 and endangered a further 3,000-5,000 plants and more than 300 animals. The ecosystems now under the most immediate threat are grasslands and wetlands. China's wetlands are among the most important wildlife habitats in the world but are considered wastelands by the local population and the Government which use them as economic development zones.

    If present trends continue, during the next decades China will lose many natural ecosystems that lie outside its nature reserves - including most of their coastal wetlands. The development of a national Agenda 21 for forestry in China is an important first step in the direction toward more strategic management of China's forests. However, a national policy on biodiversity conservation and on wetlands management with clear lines of authority are needed if China is to protect these resources.

    Pressure on water resources

    China's average water resources 2,484 m m3 per caput is just one fourth of the world average. Moreover, they are unevenly distributed; 80 per cent is concentrated in the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) and the area south of it. However, arable land area in this large southern region accounts only for 36 per cent of China's total while the north has only 19 per cent of the water resources but 64 per cent of the prime agricultural land. The increase in irrigation water usage is accompanied by increased demand for water by industry and has almost exhausted the supply of the Yellow River which is the primary source for aquifers in the North China Plain. This will constrain the production of wheat, corn, and cotton, which could double or triple yields with irrigation.

    There are significant seasonal variations in rainfall among the different areas of China as well as from year to year. The ratio of the maximum to the minimum annual runoff on a yearly basis is 2-3:1 for the Yangtze and Zhujiang rivers in the South, 4:1 for the Yellow river and 15-20:1 for the Huaihe and Haihe rivers in the North.

    Agriculture consumes about 50,000 m. m3 annually (including crop farming, livestock raising, drinking water and other uses in rural areas), accounting for 81 per cent of the total water use. Irrigated land accounts for 48 per cent of the total cultivated area and consumes over 95 per cent of the agricultural water use.

    The prime farm land of northern China (including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi, parts of Henan, Shandong and Liaoning) is experiencing a severe water shortage. Over 70 per cent of the total resources have been exploited and there is little remaining potential for expansion. The water tables of some aquifers in the North China Plain are declining at 1 meter per annum.

    Management of water resources

    Since 1949, the per capita water resource availability has declined at more than 1 per cent per annum and, in 1979 was only about 1/9 of the world average. Although the current annual consumption is only about half of total available resource, the forecast growth in demand suggests that absolute shortages will occur within 30 years.

    The intensive farming techniques used on irrigated lands enable them to account for two-thirds of the total grain production. Although the extent of irrigation has not grown in recent years, the demand for water arising from intensified industrial and human needs is increasing at about 8 per cent per annum.

    An example is the Huanghe, Huaihe and Haihe River Plain (3H), which is considered to have the greatest potential for agricultural development due to its vast area of arable land and relatively low yields. This area covers about 10 per cent of China's territory but has less than 2 per cent of the water resources. The gap between water supply and demand is equivalent to about three-quarters of the annual rainfall.

    In Changzhou District, Hebei Province, more than half of the current grain production depends upon irrigation which can provide less than half of the total volume of irrigation water that is required. So almost one-third of the current grain production in this district cannot be sustained with irrigation. The production is dependent upon withdrawal of groundwater which is falling by more than 1 meter per year. Each meter drop in the groundwater level will double the pumping cost over the next 10 years.

    Mis-use of water resources (i.e. over-application and/or poor drainage) is responsible for nearly 10 per cent of the total desertified area in the north of China. New irrigation in the northern arid region, with higher evapo-transpiration has caused soil salinization and mobilization of fixed dunes along the middle and lower reaches of continental rivers such as Talimu and Manasi.

    The combined effects of increased water demand by households, industry and irrigation is depleting several aquifers and causing subsidence of large areas around Beijing and Tianjin where about 50 per cent of the cultivated land depends on irrigation. About 70 per cent of total grain output and 80 per cent of fruits and vegetable production takes place on irrigated land.

    Many large irrigation schemes constructed in the 1950s and 1960s were hastily designed, constructed to low standards, and built with poor quality materials and equipment. Many were not completed or still lack distribution and drainage networks at the tertiary and farm level. Now most systems require major upgrading, rehabilitation, and completion. Such projects present opportunities for high return investments but must be accompanied by adequate environmental management.

    Water pollution and soil degradation

    Croplands are increasingly affected by pollution mostly arising from industrial discharges of contaminated wastewater or through pollution of irrigation water. Less than 20% of wastewater is treated. So far, about 2.6 m. ha. have been taken out of agriculture and the annual grain foregone is estimated at 5-10 mt. This problem is exacerbated by rapid growth of the rural TVEs, many of which operate at low levels of technical sophistication and generate high levels of pollution.

    Almost 7 m. ha. of irrigated farmland has been affected by salinization and alkalinization as a result of indiscriminate irrigation without adequate drainage, or application of insufficient water to flush salts through the soil and into the drainage system. Of the total area, about 2.7 m. ha. are in the basins of Hai, Huai and Yellow Rivers where nearly 15 per cent of the cultivated area is affected. Some of this land can no longer be farmed, whereas mild to moderate salt levels on the remainder have reduced the yields of rice, corn, soybeans and wheat by up to 25 per cent and even cotton, which is salt-tolerant, by 10 per cent.

    Untreated wastewater, mostly urban sewage, is used to irrigate about 1.4 m. ha. Acids and heavy metals in this water impair the soil chemistry and in some areas an impervious subsoil hardpan is formed. Studies in Tianjin by the Agricultural Environment Protection Institute over an eight-year period showed 8.4 per cent of wastewater-irrigated farmland produced crops that exceeded safe standards for contaminants.

    The efficiency of water use in China is low. The effective utilization index (EUI) which is the ratio of water technically required for a crop divided by the amount actually used, is less than 50 per cent nation wide. This compares to 60-70 per cent in the United States and more than 90 per cent in Israel .

    Rural energy

    China accounts for 10% of the global energy use, of which more than 75 per cent presently comes from coal. Rural households engaged in agriculture use coal as their main source of energy and supplement it with bio-fuels such as crop residues and fuelwood. Fuel such as liquid propane gas is rapidly increasing in use for cooking.

    Current studies project that the use of biomass, which made up more than 70 per cent of the rural energy supply in 1979 will decline to less than 40 per cent by the year 2000. Meanwhile, the use of coal will increase from less than 20 per cent to nearly 50 per cent.

    Technologies based on renewable sources of energy such as solar water heaters, solar photovoltaic cells, wind mills, ethanol from biomass, and biogas from organic residues have an expanding market among rural users in part because of overall shortage of energy and due to their increasingly competitive costs. Apart from biogas, they still make up a relatively small share of the total energy consumed in the rural sector.

    Climate change is an important issue for China. Current models indicate that a doubling of CO2 could reduce agriculture production by 10-12 per cent in the developing countries. The main source of greenhouse gas emissions is the energy sector, due to the predominance of coal-based power plants.

    Most of the rural industries in China (e.g. brick making factories) do not use any emission controls on their flues and frequently operate using highly polluting fuels and technologies. This has led to considerable acid precipitation. In Szechuan and Guizhou provinces, widespread damage to coniferous forests has occured. In addition, there are significant emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide that reduce plant productivity and affect human health to the extent that farmers are less able to engage in economic activities during periods of the year.

    Chemical inputs

    Application of mineral fertilizers

    The average amount of mineral fertiliser used on farms in China today is 379 kg./ha. per ha. which is more than 2.5 times the world average and is similar to the most highly intensive industrial farming in western Europe. In the coastal areas it has long exceeded this amount.

    In other regions the application rates range from less than 200 kg/ha. in the north-east, north and north-west regions to 550 kg/ha. in Zhejian, over 800 kg/ha. in Guangdong and Fujian, and 775 kg/ha. in the suburbs of Shanghai.

    These extremely high rates suggest that significant portions of the nutrient are not being taken up by the plant in the form of increased production but are either being washed into water courses and/or retained (unused) within the plant material. This implies that farmers are incurring significant additional costs in the form of the excessive fertilizer application, the labour to apply it and the environmental damage arising from water pollution.

    This increased use is estimated to be responsible for about half of the 162 mt increase in grain production between 1978 and 1995, as well as much of the increase in production of cash and high-value crops.

    Nitrogen fertiliser is the most widely and intensively used and also causes the most environmental problems. Thirty per cent of fertilizer applied in China now is ammonium bicarbonate, a volatile form of nitrogen, in which much of the nitrogen escapes into the atmosphere before it becomes available to the plant.

    The ratio of organic fertilizers to total fertilizers used has declined from 60 per cent in 1980 to 46 per cent in 1995.

    The use of green manure has declined rather sharply since the 1970s because of the perceived high opportunity cost of "non-productive" land use. Area sowed to green manure declined from 7.5 m. ha. in 1980 to 4.4 m. ha. in 1991. Continuous cultivation of the same crops (viz. rice, wheat, maize) combined with overuse of mineral fertilizers have resulted in significant reductions in soil organic matter content and nutrient status. Almost 11 per cent of the cultivated soils have limited organic content; nearly 60 per cent of the cultivated land is deficient in phosphate; 30 per cent is deficient in potash; and 14 per cent is deficient in both phosphate and potash. The proportion of soils with good inherent fertility has decreased from nearly 33 per cent to just 20 per cent.

    The domestic production of mineral fertilizers requires substantial industrial energy supply and is accompanied by high levels of pollution. The proposed doubling of fertilizer production would make the mineral fertilizer industry the second largest consumer of coal in China.

    Application of pesticides

    A growing source of pollution throughout China is the mis-use of pesticides in agriculture. China is the world's second largest producer of pesticides (after the USA), with an output of 260,000 tons (of which 75 per cent were insecticides) in 1994. China's products are mostly high toxin and persistent types of which about 90 per cent is used on cotton, rice, oilseeds and horticultural crops.

    Between 1952-90, pesticide use increased by more than 110 times. During 1980, the peak year, more than 537,000 tons of pesticides were used. Although this has declined, there remains evidence of widespread harm to the environment and human health. Unfortunately there is very little systematic monitoring of these pollutants.

    In order to deal with pest resistance and low quality of pesticides, sprays are usually over used, resulting in the loss of beneficial insects and poisoning of humans as well as livestock and poultry. Rough estimates are that about 100,000 people are accidentally poisoned annually in China, of which 10 per cent are fatal. At present, 28 species of pests and 1 bacterium species are reported to have developed pesticide resistance.

    The adoption of farming systems based on high-yield varieties, irrigation, chemical fertilizers and large-scale mono-cropping has reduced agro-ecosystem diversity and rendered crops more vulnerable to pest damage. Whilst this problem can be contained by the judicious use of pesticides as part of an integrated pest management (IPM) or integrated crop management (ICM) system, inappropriate use of pesticides can exacerbate the problem by creating pesticide resistance in the target pest populations. During the past ten years, the cotton crop has experienced continuous application of high doses of (-cypermethrin, with the result that there has been rapidly increasing resistance in cotton bollworm populations. In 1992, there was a 40 per cent decrease in cotton production in North China due, in part, to this pest.

    Environmental conservation departments in China have estimated that mis-use of pesticides in China has led to about 9,520 m. yuan in costs per year in the form of lost labour, contaminated food, and land and water pollution.

    On-farm-use of plastics

    The use of plastics on farms is extensively practised as a means to maintain high soil temperatures favourable to plant growth, retain moisture and reduce weeds. Since 1992, the area cultivated with plastic film has increased annually by 7 mu on the average. In 1996 it reached at 70 mu. Crops include cotton, maize, tobacco, juvenile rice and fruit tree seedlings, melons, vegetables and groundnuts.

    However, continuous use of plastic film has negative environmental effects. Studies show that about 2.5 kg. of plastic per mu remain in the soil on the average when the land has been covered for more than 3 years. If the remaining plastic pieces weighed 3.0 kg per mu, the vegetable yield would decrease by 2 per cent to 10 per cent compared with the farm land without plastic coverage.

  • Continues: Sustainable agriculture and rural development in China (Part 1): the agro-ecosystem and China's rural economy

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