Agriculture in China

Agriculture in China
A farmer of the Hani minority, famous for their rice terraced mountains in Yuanyang County, Yunnan

Agriculture is an important economic sector of China, employing over 300 million farmers. China ranks first in worldwide farm output, primarily producing rice, wheat, potatoes, sorghum, peanuts, tea, millet, barley, cotton, oilseed, pork, and fish.



Beginning in about 7500 BC with classical millet agriculture, China's development of farming over the course of its history has played a key role in supporting the growth of what is now the largest population in the world. Jared Diamond estimated that the earliest attested domestication of rice took place in China by 7500 BC[1] Excavations at Kuahuqiao, the earliest known Neolithic site in eastern China, have documented rice cultivation 7,700 years ago.[2] Finds at the ruins of the Hemudu Culture in Yuyao and Banpo Village near Xi'an, which all date back 6,000 to 7,000 years, include rice, millet and spade-like farm tools made of stone and bone. The first signs of settled agriculture however was around 5000 B.C.

Farming method improvements

Ploughing with a buffalo, Hubei

Due to China's status as a developing country and its severe shortage of arable land, farming in China has always been very labor-intensive. However, throughout its history various methods have been developed or imported that enabled greater farming production and efficiency.They also utilized the seed drill to help improve on row farming.

During the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC), two revolutionary improvements in farming technology took place. One was the use of cast iron tools and beasts of burden to pull plows, and the other was the large-scale harnessing of rivers and development of water conservation projects. The engineer Sunshu Ao of the 6th century BC and Ximen Bao of the 5th century BC are two of the oldest hydraulic engineers from China, and their works were focused upon improving irrigation systems.[3] These developments were widely spread during the ensuing Warring States Period (403-221 BC), culminating in the enormous Du Jiang Yan Irrigation System engineered by Li Bing by 256 BC for the State of Qin in ancient Sichuan.

For agricultural purposes the Chinese had invented the hydraulic-powered trip hammer by the 1st century BC, during the ancient Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD).[4] Although it found other purposes, its main function to pound, decorticate, and polish grain that otherwise would have been done manually. The Chinese also innovated the square-pallet chain pump by the 1st century AD, powered by a waterwheel or an oxen pulling on a system of mechanical wheels.[5] Although the chain pump found use in public works of providing water for urban and palatial pipe systems,[6] it was used largely to lift water from a lower to higher elevation in filling irrigation canals and channels for farmland.[7]

During the Eastern Jin (317-420) and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589), the Silk Road and other international trade further spread farming technology throughout China. Political stability and a growing labor force led to economic growth, and people opened up large areas of wasteland and built irrigation works for expanded agricultural use. As land-use became more intensive and efficient, rice was grown twice a year and cattle began to be used for plowing and fertilization.

By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), China had become a unified feudal agricultural society. Improvements in farming machinery during this era included the moldboard plough and watermill. Later during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), cotton planting and weaving technology were extensively adopted and improved.

It should be noted that in c. 750, 75 per cent of China's population lived north of the river Yangtse. But by 1250, 75 per cent of China's population lived south of the river Yangtse. Such large-scale internal migration was possible due to introduction of quick-ripening strains of rice from Vietnam suitable for multi-cropping.[8]

People's Republic of China

A harvest in China

Following the Communist Party of China's victory in the Chinese Civil War, control of the farmlands was taken away from landlords and redistributed to the 300 million peasant farmers. In 1952, gradually consolidating its power following the civil war, the government began organizing the peasants into teams. Three years later, these teams were combined into producer cooperatives, enacting the Socialist goal of collective land ownership. In the following year, 1956, the government formally took control of the land, further structuring the farmland into large government-operated collective farms.

In the 1958, "Great Leap Forward" campaign initiated by Mao Zedong, land use was placed under closer government control in an effort to improve agricultural output. In particular, the Great sparrow campaign had a direct negative impact on agriculture. Collectives were organized into communes, private food production was banned, and collective eating was required. Greater emphasis was also put on industrialization instead of agriculture. The farming inefficiencies created by this campaign led to The Great Chinese Famine, resulting in the deaths of somewhere between the government estimate of 14 million to scholarly estimates of 20 to 43 million.[9] Although private plots of land were re-instated in 1962 due to this failure, communes remained the dominant rural unit of economic organization until 1982-1985 when they were replaced by townships.

Beginning in 1978, as part of the Four Modernizations campaign, the Family Production Responsibility System was created, dismantling communes and giving agricultural production responsibility back to individual households. Households are now given crop quotas that they were required to provide to their collective unit in return for tools, draft animals, seeds, and other essentials. Households, which now lease land from their collectives, are free to use their farmland however they see fit as long as they meet these quotas. This freedom has given more power to individual families to meet their individual needs. In addition to these structural changes, the Chinese government also engages in irrigation projects (such as the Three Gorges Dam), runs large state farms, and encourages mechanization and fertilizer use.[10]

By 1984, when about 99% of farm production teams had adopted the Family Production Responsibility System, the government began further economic reforms, aimed primarily at liberalizing agricultural pricing and marketing. In 1984, the government replaced mandatory procurement with voluntary contracts between farmers and the government. Later, in 1993, the government abolished the 40-year-old grain rationing system, leading to more than 90 percent of all annual agricultural produce to be sold at market-determined prices.

Lotus seeds and roots are a major crop in Hubei, Hunan, Fujian, and Jiangxi provinces

Since 1994, the government has instituted a number of policy changes aimed at limiting grain importation and increasing economic stability. Among these policy changes was the artificial increase of grain prices above market levels. This has led to increased grain production, while placing the heavy burden of maintaining these prices on the government. In 1995, the "Governor’s Grain Bag Responsibility System" was instituted, holding provincial governors responsible for balancing grain supply and demand and stabilizing grain prices in their provinces. Later, in 1997, the "Four Separations and One Perfection" program was implemented to relieve some of the monetary burdens placed on the government by its grain policy.[11]

As China continues to industrialize, vast swaths of agricultural land is being converted into industrial land. Farmers displaced by such urban expansion often become migrant labor for factories, but other farmers feel disenfranchised and cheated by the encroachment of industry and the growing disparity between urban and rural wealth and income.[12]

The most recent innovation in Chinese agriculture is a push into organic agriculture.[13] This rapid embrace of organic farming simultaneously serves multiple purposes, including food safety, health benefits, export opportunities, and by providing price premiums for the produce of rural communities, the adoption of organics can help stem the migration of rural workers to the cities.[13] In the mid 1990s China became a net importer of grain, since its unsustainable practises of groundwater mining has effectively removed considerable land from productive agricultural use.[citation needed]

Major agricultural products

Crop distribution

Agricultural regions of Mainland China

Although China's agricultural output is the largest in the world, only about 15% of its total land area can be cultivated. China's arable land, which represents 10% of the total arable land in the world, supports over 20% of the world's population. Of this approximately 1.4 million square kilometers of arable land, only about 1.2% (116,580 square kilometers) permanently supports crops and 525,800 square kilometers are irrigated.[14] The land is divided into approximately 200 million households, with an average land allocation of just 0.65 hectares (1.6 acres).

China's limited space for farming has been a problem throughout its history, leading to chronic food shortage. While the production efficiency of farmland has grown over time, efforts to expand to the west and the north have held limited success, as such land is generally colder and drier than traditional farmlands to the east. Since the 1950s, farm space has also been pressured by the increasing land needs of industry and cities.

Peri-urban Agriculture

Bok choy-like greens grown in a square outside of Ezhou railway stations

Such increases in the sizes of cities, such as the administrative district of Beijing's increase from 4,822 km² in 1956 to 16,808 km² in 1958, has led to the increased adoption of peri-urban agriculture. Such "suburban agriculture" led to more than 70% of non-staple food in Beijing, mainly consisting of vegetables and milk, to be produced by the city itself in the 1960s and 1970s. Recently, with relative food security in China, periurban agriculture has led to improvements in the quality of the food available, as opposed to quantity. One of the more recent experiments in urban agriculture is the Modern Agricultural Science Demonstration Park in Xiaotangshan.[15]

Food crops

Terraced rice fields in Yuanyang County, Yunnan
Peanut harvest in Jiangxia, Hubei

About 75% of China's cultivated area is used for food crops. Rice is China's most important crop, raised on about 25% of the cultivated area. The majority of rice is grown south of the Huai River, in the Yangtze valley, the Zhu Jiang delta, and in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces.

Wheat is the second most-prevalent grain crop, grown in most parts of the country but especially on the North China Plain, the Wei and Fen River valleys on the Loess plateau, and in Jiangsu, Hubei, and Sichuan provinces. Corn and millet are grown in north and northeast China, and oat is important in Inner Mongolia and Tibet.

Other crops include sweet potatoes in the south, white potatoes in the north, and various other fruits and vegetables. Tropical fruits are grown on Hainan Island, apples and pears are grown in northern Liaoning and Shandong, and citrus fruits are grown in South China.

Oil seeds are important in Chinese agriculture, supplying edible and industrial oils and forming a large share of agricultural exports. In North and Northeast China, Chinese soybeans are grown to be used in tofu and cooking oil. China is also a leading producer of peanuts, which are grown in Shandong and Hebei provinces. Other oilseed crops are sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, rapeseed, and the seeds of the tung tree.

Other important food crops for China include green and jasmine teas (popular among the Chinese population), black tea (as an export), sugarcane, and sugar beets. Tea plantations are located on the hillsides of the middle Yangtze Valley and in the southeast provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. Sugarcane is grown in Guangdong and Sichuan, while sugar beets are raised in Heilongjiang province and on irrigated land in Inner Mongolia. Lotus is widely cultivated throughout southern China.[16][17]

Fiber crops

Cotton growing in Yangxin County, Hubei

China is the leading producer of cotton, which is grown throughout, but especially in the areas of the North China Plain, the Yangtze river delta, the middle Yangtze valley, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Other fiber crops include ramie, flax, jute, and hemp. Sericulture, the practice of silkworm raising, is also practiced in central and southern China.


China has a large livestock population, with pigs and fowl being the most common. In rural western China, sheep, goats, and camels are raised by nomadic herders.[18] In Tibet, yaks are raised as a source of food, fuel, and shelter. Cattle, water buffalo, horses, mules, and donkeys are also raised in China, and dairy has recently been encouraged by the government, even though approximately 92.3% of the adult population is affected by some level of lactose intolerance.

As demand for gourmet foods grows, production of more exotic meats increases as well. Based on a survey data from 684 Chinese turtle farms (less than half of the all 1,499 officially registered turtle farms in the year of the survey, 2002), they sold over 92,000 tons of turtles (around 128 million animals) per year; this is thought to correspond to the industrial total of over 300 million turtles per year.[19]


China accounts for about one-third of the total fish production of the world. Aquaculture, the breeding of fish in ponds and lakes, accounts for more than half of its output. The principal aquaculture-producing regions are close to urban markets in middle and lower Yangtze valley and the Zhu Jiang delta.


Due to political and technological changes over the last half of the 20th century, the agricultural production of People's Republic of China greatly increased.

Crop 1949 Output (tons) 1978 Output (tons) 1999 Output (tons)
1. Grain 113,180,000 304,770,000 508,390,000
2. Cotton 444,000 2,167,000 3,831,000
3. Oil-bearing crops 2,564,000 5,218,000 26,012,000
4. Sugarcane 2,642,000 21,116,000 74,700,000
5. Sugarbeet 191,000 2,702,000 8,640,000
6. Flue-cured tobacco 43,000 1,052,000 2,185,000
7. Tea 41,000 268,000 676,000
8. Fruit 1,200,000 6,570,000 62,376,000
9. Meat 2,200,000 8,563,000 59,609,000
10. Aquatic products 450,000 4,660,000 41,220,000


However since 2000 the depletion of China's main aquifers has led to an overall decrease in grain production, turning China into a net importer. The trend of Chinese dependence on imported food is expected to accelerate as the water shortage worsens.[21] However desalination plants find few customers because it is still cheaper to over-utilize rivers, lakes and aquifers, even as these are depleted.[22]

Today, China is both the world's largest producer and consumer of agricultural products.[23][24] However, the researcher Lin Erda has stated a projected fall of possibly 14% to 23% by 2050 due to water shortages and other impacts by climate change; China has increased the budget for agriculture by 20% in 2009, and continues to support energy efficiency measures, renewable technology, and other efforts with investments, such as the over 30% green component of the $586bn fiscal stimulus package announced in November 2008.[25]

International trade

China is the world's largest importer of soybeans and other food crops.[26] China is expected to become the top importer of farm products within the next decade.[27]

While most years China's agricultural production is sufficient to feed the country, in down years, China has to import grain. Due to the shortage of available farm land and an abundance of labor, it might make more sense to import land-extensive crops (such as wheat and rice) and to save China's scarce cropland for high-value export products, such as fruits, nuts, or vegetables. In order to maintain grain independence and ensure food security, however, the government of China has enforced policies that encourage grain production at the expense of more-profitable crops. Despite heavy restrictions on crop production, China's agricultural exports have greatly increased in recent years.[28]

Governmental influence

Qufu Agricultural Pest Monitoring and Control Center

One important motivator of increased international trade was China's inclusion in the World Trade Organization (WTO) on December 11, 2001, leading to reduced or eliminated tariffs on much of China's agricultural exports. Due to the resulting opening of international markets to Chinese agriculture, by 2004 the value of China's agricultural exports exceeded $17.3 billion (US). Since China's inclusion in the WTO, its agricultural trade has not been liberalized to the same extent as its manufactured goods trade. Markets within China are still relatively closed-off to foreign companies. Due to its large and growing population, it is speculated that if its agricultural markets were opened, China would become a consistent net importer of food, possibly destabilizing the world food market. The barriers enforced by the Chinese government on grains are not transparent because China’s state trading in grains is conducted through its Cereal, Oil, and Foodstuffs Importing and Exporting Corporation (COFCO).[29]

Food Safety

As a developing nation, China has relatively low sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards for its agricultural goods. Corruption in the government, such as the bribery of former head of the State Food and Drug Administration Zheng Xiaoyu, has also complicated China's regulation difficulties.[30] Excessive pesticide residues, low food hygiene, unsafe additives, contamination with heavy metals and other contaminants, and misuse of veterinary drugs have all led to trade restrictions with developed nations such as Japan, the United States, and the European Union.[31] These problems have also led to public outcry, such as in the melamine-tainted dog food scare and the carcinogenic-tainted seafood import restriction, leading to measures such as the "China-free" label.[32]

About one tenth of China's farmland is contaminated with heavy metals, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People's Republic of China.[33]

Organic food products

Retail Industry


China has developed a Green Food program where produce is certified for low pesticide input.[13] This has been articulated into Green food Grade A and Grade AA. This Green Food AA standard has been aligned with IFOAM international standards for organic farming and has formed the basis of the rapid expansion of organic agriculture in China.[13]

See also

Portal icon Agriculture and Agronomy portal
Portal icon China portal

Further reading


  1. ^ Diamond, Jared (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31755-2. 
  2. ^ Y. Zong, Z. Chen, J. B. Innes, C. Chen, Z. Wang & H. Wang (2007). Fire and flood management of coastal swamp enabled first rice paddy cultivation in east China. Nature 449: 459-462
  3. ^ Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 3, Civil Engineering and Nautics. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd. Page 271.
  4. ^ Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd. Page 184.
  5. ^ Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 89, 110.
  6. ^ Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 33.
  7. ^ Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 110.
  8. ^ The World Economy, Angus Maddison, p.20, ISBN 9264022619
  9. ^ Peng Xizhe (彭希哲), "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's Provinces," Population and Development Review 13, no. 4 (1987), 639-70.
    For a summary of other estimates, please refer to this link
  10. ^ OECD Review of Agricultural Policies - China
  11. ^ Critical Choices for China's Agricultural Policy
  12. ^ NPR
  13. ^ a b c d Paull, J.,China's Organic Revolution, Journal of Organic Systems, 2(1) 1-11, 2007.
  14. ^ China: Geography
  15. ^ Jianming, Cai (2003-04-01). "Periurban Agriculture Development in China" (PDF). Urban Agriculture Magazine 9. Retrieved 2007-07-12. 
  16. ^ Guo H.B. (27 August 2008). "Cultivation of lotus (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn. ssp. nucifera) and its utilization in China". Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Retrieved 2008-10-20.  Available online (non-free) through SpringerLink.
  17. ^ Huang Hongwen (1987). "Lotus of China". Auburn University Lotus Project. Retrieved 2008-10-20. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Shi, Haitao; Parham, James F; Fan, Zhiyong; Hong, Meiling; Yin, Feng (2008-01-01). "Evidence for the massive scale of turtle farming in China". Oryx (Cambridge University Press) 42: pp. 147–150. doi:10.1017/S0030605308000562. Retrieved 2009-12-26. 
  20. ^ Beijing Official Website International
  21. ^ Aquifer depletion
  22. ^ Watts, Jonathan "Can the sea solve China's water crisis?", 24 January 2011.
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Watts, Jonathan. "China to plough extra 20% into agricultural production amid fears that climate change will spark food crisis." Guardian News, 5 March 2009.
  26. ^ China Drives Global Soybean Demand
  27. ^ "China to become world's top farm products importer: researcher." Reuters, 6 November 2011.
  28. ^ "Argument - Trends in Agricultural Policy." International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
  29. ^ Economic Reform and the Changing Pattern of China's Agricultural Trade
  30. ^ BBC News
  31. ^ Choices Article - Challenges for China's Agricultural Exports: Compliance with Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures
  32. ^ "The new 'China-free' label". Chicago Tribune. 2007-07-09. 
  33. ^ "Heavy metals pollute a tenth of China's farmland-report." Reuters, 6 November 2011.

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