Science - March 4, 2004

China can produce enough food

Although the population in China continues to grow and consumption levels are increasing, China will probably continue to be able to produce enough food for its own people in the future. This will mainly be due to technological developments.

The Agricultural Economics Research Institute (LEI) collaborated with the Chinese Centre for Agricultural Policies in Beijing on a study that estimated the expected food production for the coming decades in China. At present about a quarter of the world’s population lives in China, but the country has only eight percent of the world’s agricultural land. Up to now China has been self-sufficient in food, but is now facing a big challenge. The Chinese population is likely to grow from 1.3 to 1.5 billion in the next quarter of a century, and the Chinese economy is growing rapidly, accompanied above all by an increase in the amount of meat consumed. This will require a big increase in agricultural production if China is to continue to feed its population itself.

The Dutch and Chinese researchers used models to predict the consequences of current policies, including the market liberalisation as a result of China’s entry to the World Trade Organization. Crops that take up a lot of land, such as wheat and cotton, will be exported less, while pork, chicken and fish will become important export products for China. The country is likely to remain self sufficient in staple foods. As biotechnology in rice production becomes more widespread, China is likely to start earning more from this crop. The study emphasises the importance of technology and agricultural research in general if agricultural production is to be increased. In the past few decades it is new technologies that have been responsible for almost half of the increase in rice yields.

The influence of China on the world market for agricultural produce is likely to remain limited because it will have to concentrate on production for its own people. There are also likely to be increased opportunities for Dutch agribusiness as China grows, especially expertise on machines and processing.

Joris Tielens