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* Senior Agronomist and Deputy Director, Department of Crop Production, Ministry of Agriculture, Beijing, China.

1.1 Bio-diversity of Genetic Resources

China ranks third in the world in germplasm resources, second only to Brazil and Colombia, and occupies 12 percent of the world's crop species. The country is one of the three centres of origin of cultivated plants in the world and has a great number of wild relatives of cultivated species such as soybean, rice, barley, tea and, therefore, is very rich in germplasm resources of crops. According to statistics, China has more than 1,000 economic tree species, 50,000 local rice varieties, 20,000 soybean varieties, more than 11,000 species of drug plants, more than 4,200 species of forage plants, and more than 2,200 species of important ornamental and flower plants.

1.2 Crop Diversification in China

China has 7,000 years of history in agricultural development and domestication of crops. This heritage of cultivated plants developed and utilized by the farmers is unique in the world. China's vast territory, diversity of climates, as well as its complicated physiography made great contributions to the formation of a variety of ecosystems. With a long period of natural and artificial selection, the farmers in China have created various types of cropping systems to match varied ecosystems exploiting abundant genetic resources of farm crops.

Diversification of farm crops refers to the complex diversification patterns of agricultural cropping systems found under the conditions of farming environments. In short, diversification of crops firstly refers to the species diversification of cultivated crops and secondly refers to the diversification of varieties and ecotypes of the same variety to maximize outputs of primary products as well as value-added processed products to enable farmers to enhance their incomes. The Chinese farmer pioneered this concept long ago as the pressure of population on land was so great that he was compelled to diversify his cropping systems in order to be self-reliant within the physical resources available to him.


2.1 Commercial Production of Major Crops

The Chinese government always puts agriculture at the forefront of the national economy, and assists in improving the conditions of agricultural production continuously by stabilizing the basic policies in rural areas. The government thus protected and mobilized the enthusiasm of the farmers in their production efforts, and brought about the sustained and stable growth in the production of major crops.

2.2 Economy of Crops and Internal Trade

Increasing cropping intensities in farming systems across China using the concept of horizontal diversification brought about economic emancipation to millions of farmers. As an important sector of China's agriculture and national economy, the production of farm crops occupies a very large portion and an important economic place in the gross domestic product of agricultural production and domestic commodity trade. However, because of the increase of consumption level of the increasing population, the proportion of output value of crops in the gross product of agricultural production and domestic commodity trade shows a declining trend.

2.3 Import and Export of Agricultural Products

In recent years, owing to the impact of Asia's economic crisis and the resultant lessening of the buying power of domestic consumers, China's import and export of agricultural products (Table 1) were also influenced in varying degrees and significant changes have taken place in the infrastructure of import and export policies.

Firstly, among food grains, the volume of export of rice increased (it reached its highest record of 3.745 million tonnes in 1998 since the founding of the People's Republic of China) and that of imports declined. The volume of export of maize and soybean declined and their volume of imports increased by a big margin (the volume of imported soybean reached 3.197 million tonnes for the first time in 1998). The volume of imports of wheat and barley also declined by around 20 percent.

Secondly, the volume of exports of raw cotton increased and its volume of imports declined substantially. The volume of exports of vegetable oil and sugar declined. Both the volume of imports and exports of vegetables and fruits increased by a big margin, but the income from their exports declined sharply.

Table 1. Import and Export of Main Agricultural Products in China in 1998. Unit: million US$

Classification of Agricultural Products



Net Export

Cereal grains




1. Wheat




2. Rough rice, rice




3. Maize




4. Sorghum




5. Other cereals




6. Processed cereal products




Other produce




1. Vegetables




2. Fruits




3. Processed vegetable & fruit products




4. Coffee, tea




5. Sugar and sugared food




6. Drinks, wine, and vinegar




7. Miscellaneous products




Source: Chen Liangbiao, The prospects of China's food security and selection of policy.

3.1 Research and Utilization of the Diversification Strategy for Crops

Agricultural scientists have developed a large number of new varieties and combinations of various crops with the characters of early maturity, high yield, high quality, and broad adaptability by using different methods. According to the preliminary statistics, there are 5,600 varieties or more of 41 species of field crops, and 516 varieties of 36 species of garden crops, including fruit trees and vegetables, which have been developed from 1949 to 1998 in the whole country. Among these varieties, there are 365 varieties that cover an area of over 67,000 km2.

It should be pointed out that intensive cultivation has always been a traditional cultivation method of the Chinese farmers and the main purpose of intensive cultivation is improvement of the level of farmland and resources utilization. The process in developing the high yield and high efficient model and system of companion cropping, intercropping, mixed cropping, and multiple cropping is just the developmental process of the diversification strategy among farmers in China.

Most of the early crop improvement work and adaptability studies were originally carried out by farmers themselves. From these early advances made in crop improvement and development, the Chinese scientists built upon the indigenous technologies to achieve the high degree of sophistication in agricultural technology that is currently existing.

3.2 The Formation and Development of the Diversification Methodologies for Rice

Rice is the first grain crop in China and China attaches great importance to selection and breeding of rice varieties. The indica rice (Oryza sativa, subsp. hsien) variety “Guanglu'ai” with the characteristics of tolerance to fertilizer, lodging resistance, and high yield was developed in 1959 and accomplished the incorporation of early maturity and dwarfing characteristics into new rice varieties. This was the first breakthrough made in China in the history of rice breeding. In the early 1970's, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences jointly organized national cooperation in scientific research on hybrid rice and made an important breakthrough in the “three-line” system of hybrid rice production, thus accomplishing a leap forward in the history of rice development. This achievement in scientific research not only provided a new method for raising rice yields, but also opened up a new way for the utilization of heterosis in self-pollinated crops, and thus greatly enriched the theory of genetic breeding. This achievement won the state the Special Grade Prize for Innovation awarded by the Chinese government in 1981 and won international prizes five times. The work carried out in China on the origin and evolution of rice, the response reaction of rice varieties to conditions of light and temperature, and the discovery, identification and utilization of thermo-sensitive genic male sterile line of rice, not only laid a foundation for the protection of germplasm resources of rice in China, but also made a great contribution to the diversification of rice culture systems in many parts of the world.

3.3 The Formation and Development of the Diversification Patterns for Wheat Production

Wheat is the second most important grain crop in China and the development and utilization of its varietal resources received much attention. Bima No. 1 and other varieties were bred in the 1950's. These possess the characters of rust resistance and high yielding ability, so they were well received by the farmers and were popularized over a large area. Jinan No. 2 and other varieties with the characteristics of disease resistance and high yielding ability were bred in the 1960's. They were popularized over a large area in the winter wheat growing area of northern China. From the 1970's, the original varieties were gradually replaced by the improved dwarf varieties which possess the characteristics of rust resistance and high yielding ability. Each change of varieties made a great contribution to improvement of per unit yield of wheat. In recent years, cooperation in breeding for resistance to diseases among the scientific research departments has been further strengthened and a number of rust resistant and high yield varieties of wheat have been bred and are under demonstration for extension on a large scale.

In addition, China has also made a great breakthrough in new breeding methods and increased knowledge of the wheat crop, such as the classification of wheat, analysis of wheat varieties and their pedigrees, the allo-octoploid triticale bred by hybridization between wheat and rye through chromosome doubling, and the new wheat varieties of Xiaoyan No. 4, No. 6 and No. 967 bred by hybridization between wheat and quackgrass (Elytrigia repens). These have made important contributions to the development of wheat in China.

These new advances in wheat breeding have helped Chinese farmers make significant advances in crop diversification. In view of the planting systems now being adopted in the field, the multiple cropping patterns now make it possible for three crops to be grown every two years or two crops per year with a combination of wheat-maize or cotton-maize which has become popular among farmers in northern China for some time now. Another success story in crop diversification in recent years is the popular planting pattern of autumn vegetables (radish and Chinese cabbage) intercropped with spring wheat in the north part of Northeast China where the per mu income increased by 200-250 yuan RMB, making this cropping pattern well received by the farmers.

3.4 The Formation and Development of the Diversification Strategy using Maize and other Crops

Maize is a major grain crop in China and its diversification changes continuously following breakthroughs in the cross breeding of maize. In the 1950's, inter-specific hybrids were mainly used in maize production in China. Early in the 1960's, in addition to the utilization of inter-specific hybrids, these were combined with double hybrids, three-way cross hybrids, top cross hybrids, and the advantage of heterosis was used comprehensively in maize production. In recent years new progress has been achieved in the selection and breeding of special purpose hybrid maize with high oil content, high protein content, and high lysine content as well as sweet maize and glutinous maize. These hybrids have not only played an important role in increasing the yield of maize, but also contributed to the development of diversification programmes using maize varieties.

Significant social and economic efficiency has been obtained in the selection and popularization of new varieties of other crops, for instance, the new combination of Qinyou cabbage (Brassica caulora Pasq.) bred by using three lines, and the use of new varieties of soybean, peanut, sugar cane, tobacco, tea, bast fibre plants, fruit trees, vegetables etc., in diversifying traditional cropping patterns.


4.1 Security of Food and Nutrition

China is a country with the highest population in the world. The Chinese government always attaches importance to grain production and takes grain production as the basis of national food security and social stability. In the past 20 years or more, since the implementation of the policy of reform and opening to the outside world, the total amount of grain required for consumption has been effectively resolved in China. China's grain yield per capita has reached about 400 kg. Along with the development of the economy, the urban and rural residents became more sophisticated in their demands based on specific varieties, quality and nutritive value of foods. In recent years, the type of crops grown has been regulated progressively, with a bias towards the reputed, special, high quality, new and rare agricultural products which have been developed rapidly.

4.2 Alleviating Poverty and Increasing Income and Employment

The Chinese government always attaches importance to the development and production of grain, increasing agricultural production, and solving the problem of self-sufficiency in food and clothing. In general, the problem of grain security has been largely resolved. However, owing to the unequal development between areas as well as the harsh natural environment in certain regions, and poor links in the distribution chain with poorly equipped transportation systems, there are still about 42 million people who have not enough to eat and wear even as recently as 1998.

To solve these problems, the government is trying hard to improve the conditions of agricultural production, quicken the economic development in poverty-stricken areas and guarantee grain security for the poor people in rural areas on the basis of the policy of stabilizing the rural areas and increasing agricultural inputs. Meanwhile, attention is also stressed on the protection and development of crop resources, guiding and encouraging farmers to adopt a market-oriented cropping structure, enlarging the scope of employment for farmers and enhancing their income. In 1998, the poverty-alleviating fund invested by the government exceeded 18.3 billion yuan RMB. This investment was used in planting and raising the production of poverty-stricken villages and families through a micro-credit scheme, which indeed promoted the economic development of poverty-stricken areas and helped in solving the problem of providing sufficient food and warm clothing.

4.3 Rational Utilization of Land, Water and other Resources

Protecting arable land, saving water and developing and using natural resources of the environment rationally is the base for ensuring national grain security, and achieving sustainable development of agriculture as well as preserving the national wealth of crops and safeguarding the ecological balance. The Chinese government always provides special protection to arable land. For instance, the basic farmland protecting system, which has been carried out for years, guarantees the dynamic balance of the total amount of farmland, resulting in a stable grain sown area of over 110 million ha for years. Meantime, water-saving irrigation farming is actively developing and the technologies of drip irrigation, spray irrigation, infiltration-protecting irrigation, pipe-borne water delivery systems etc., are being extended widely. Up to 1998, the area of all water-saving irrigation systems reached 13 million ha, and the irrigation water-utilization efficiency exceeded 40 percent. Besides, the Chinese government also strengthened the work of construction of ecologically friendly agricultural systems and environment protection programmes. For example, the construction of the pilot counties of ecologically safe agriculture, the construction of natural reserves of forest land and grassland, and the plan for implementing by stages and in groups the policies of returning the land on steep slopes over 20 degrees from farming to forestry and grass, returning the land for farming around lakes to lake conservation areas and so on. These policies and measures will be helpful in the development of better crop diversification programmes and ecological protection in China.

4.4 Sustainable Development of Agriculture, Environmental and Ecological Management

In the past, due to the indiscriminate exploration and utilization of grassland, wetland, forest, mountain areas, rivers and lakes for agricultural production, a great deal of wild plants and animals were lost or are close to extinction. Biodiversity was adversely affected, which directly influenced the sustainable development of agricultural production systems. In recent years, the Chinese government has already begun drawing up short-term objectives and a long-term plan to solve these problems. In order to achieve harmonious development between increase of agricultural production and protection of the natural environment, China has brought forth the plan of demonstrating to counties and villages the concept of ecological agriculture, and at the same time, the green project which is to protect the environment has also been started. To date, China has drawn up legislation to cover the “Law of Environmental Protection”, “Law of Forest”, “Law of Grassland”, “Regulations of Wild Plant Protection”, “Regulations for Protection of New Varieties of Crops” and so on. Four series of standards for rational utilization of fertilizers have been issued, in turn throughout China, which has further strengthened the protection, management, monitoring and proper utilization of agricultural resources and the environment. Meanwhile, in order to protect the resource base of agricultural biology and promote the sustainable development of agriculture, the government and the scientific research departments are also concentrating on sustaining and extending environment-friendly agricultural technologies such as combining traditional technology with highly sophisticated new technologies; selection and breeding of high-yielding, high quality, and highly resistant varieties; carrying out rational rotation cropping (conservation of land fertility, disease, insect pest and grass control); encouraging intercropping, relay inter-planting, and multiple cropping; carrying out biological control and integrated control of diseases, insect pests and grasses; rational application of fertilizers according to formulations; and utilization of water-saving irrigation as new crop diversification strategies.


At a certain point of time in the future, with the increase of the total population, improvement of people's living conditions and decrease of the area of arable land, enhancing the yield and quality of crops will be the primary task facing China's agriculture. After entering WTO, Chinese agricultural products will encounter stronger international competition and market pressures. These facts, to some degree, will promote intensity, scale and specialization of crop production, and these will also challenge the development of the crop diversification process. Besides, with the increase of agricultural produce trade after joining WTO, more attention should be focused on “biological incursion” or “biological contamination” of adventitious species and genetically engineered material, which will endanger our crops and their living environment as well as people's security. For instance, the black rot of sweet potato originated from America, entered China through Japan in the 1930's, spread over 20 provinces throughout China from the 1940's to 1960's causing great losses, and is still harming the crops up to now. Another case in point is that of fusarium and verticillium wilt of cotton that originated from America, entered China with seeds in the 1930's, and became the most serious diseases in the history of cotton cultivation in China. Therefore, strengthening biological quarantine and scientific prevention of “biological incursion” will become essential topics of crop diversification issues in the future.


The Chinese government attaches importance to and supports the broader concept of diversification of crops in China and significant social effect has been obtained. The administrative and scientific research departments at all levels have accumulated a wealth of data relating to the current status of resources and development and most of the residents have received or participated in the activities of the judicious use of resources and the environment. China is a developing country with a huge population. However, the development of the economy has brought increasing pressure on its natural resources and environment. The solution of the relationship between development and protection and the realization of sustainable development of resources and environment and improvement of the country's economy will be the challenge of the century that faces China in the future. Since China's population is daily on the increase while its farmland is daily on the decrease, more problems and contradictions between the development of agricultural production and the diversification of crops will need to be solved, so the burden is heavy and the road is long in the development of peasant agriculture through the diversification of crops in China.

With the development of a market economy, the role of administrative intervention is on the decline while the costs are on the increase. Therefore, under the present conditions of China, diversification of crops must find a broad living space under the theoretical guidance of coordination for sustainable development.

Policies, rules and regulations and other peremptory protections are necessary. However, as the development of the national economy is still at a relatively low level and the state finance is still insufficient, all social forces should be mobilized to participate in the crop diversification process. In addition, various departments and the people at all levels in the production areas in particular, must be mobilized for active participation and various methods should be adopted to coordinate the problems of resource utilization and environment protection. Special attention should be paid to encourage testing, adoption and popularization of various developmental models that combine the overall interests of crop diversification. Attention must also be paid to the adoption of suitable agro-technology for improvement of crop diversification, so as to lower the loss of agro-resources, enhance the sound management of agro-ecological systems, and guarantee the sustainable development of an agricultural system based primarily on the concept of crop diversification.

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