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Decades of rising productivity ensure food security

Wang Xiaoyu
Updated: Sep 24,2019 10:06    China Daily

From the sweet potato fields of North China, where agricultural machinery digs up the root vegetable, to the golden-tan rice terraces and crimson grapes hanging from vines in the southwest, the autumn harvest is in full swing across the country.

The nation's food producers also celebrated the Chinese Farmers' Harvest Festival, an official event that fell on Sept 23.

They had plenty to celebrate. With a bountiful summer harvest and only a mild drop in rice yields in early autumn, the country is on track for a bumper year in which grain production will exceed 650 million metric tons, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said last month.

It would mark the fifth consecutive year that grain output has topped 650 million tons, nearly five times higher than during the 1950s, the early days of the People's Republic of China.

In the past seven decades, the country has also made great strides in other key metrics used to evaluate food security, the ministry said.

The rise in overall grain production has outstripped population growth, with per capita grain output jumping from less than 0.21 tons in 1949, the year New China was founded, to 0.47 tons last year. The population nearly doubled during the same period.

In recent years, the nation's self-sufficiency ratio for three major grains - rice, wheat and corn - has registered a robust 95 percent.

Over the years, President Xi Jinping has reiterated that China needs to hold its own food bowl firmly in its hands, and the bowl should be filled with grains grown in China.

According to Guang Defu, a spokesman for the ministry, supplies of a wide range of agricultural produce, ranging from fruit and vegetables to meat and dairy products, have risen markedly.

"China has not only solved the basic demand for food for nearly 1.4 billion people, but is also close to moving from supplying sufficient food products to providing rich and nutritious diets for its people," he said.

The path to food security is especially daunting for China. That's because the country has just 7 percent of the world's arable land and only 6 percent of its fresh water, but more than 20 percent of the global population, according to a policy document released by the central leadership in early 2013.


"Preserving the arable land and improving its quality has laid the foundations for overall agricultural production," Guang said, adding that China has firmly adhered to the "red line" policy, which requires that a minimum 120 million hectares of rural land must be reserved solely for agricultural use.

"Among the land designated for farming purposes, we have assigned 75 million hectares as key areas for the production of grains and major agricultural produce, and a national database has been established to help authorities administer those fields," he added.

In February, the central leadership announced that by next year it aims to have developed about 53 million hectares of high-standard farmland that will be resistant to floods and drought, planted with improved crop strains and equipped with advanced agricultural machinery.

Nearly 43 million hectares of such land has already been developed, Guang said.

Lacking supplies of freshwater to irrigate its vast farmland and feed the world's largest population, China has striven to promote and develop dryland farming, a cultivation method employed in arid and semiarid areas where stable irrigation is unavailable.

"The total area devoted to dryland farming has jumped tenfold to about 67 million hectares in the past seven decades. China is one of the world leaders in the development of dryland farming," said Mei Xurong, a vice-president at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

"For instance, water-use efficiency for both dryland wheat and corn has risen sharply and overtaken global averages thanks to systematic research on maximizing yields and conserving water during each stage of farming, from plowing and planting to fertilizing and harvesting," he said.

One of the technologies warmly embraced by farmers is the use of plastic mulch - thin transparent sheets that are used to cover crops to retain moisture from rainfall, trap warmth and, in some cases, hamper invasion by pests.

Li Wenping, a farmer who grows millet, rice and peanuts in Wuxiang county, Shanxi province, said the sheeting has helped raise her millet yield by about 50 percent.

After a prolonged dry spell this year, Li was delighted to see that rice crops she covered with the sheeting have grown to maturity.

According to the ministry, plastic mulch is now used on more than 13 million hectares of farmland nationwide, and has helped boost yields by 2.24 tons to nearly 3 tons per hectare.


Plastic mulch is just one example of a raft of new technologies and devices that have replaced the centuries-old image of hunched farmers tending tiny rice plots with one of well-equipped cooperatives harvesting high-yield fields.

"Agricultural technology is a major boost to overall food security in China, with the contribution of scientific and technological progress in agricultural growth approaching 60 percent this year," said Wan Jianmin, a vice-president at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

"China is home to 30 million hectares of rice, and the average yield is about 6.5 tons per hectare, nearly twice the global average."

According to Wan, scientists from the Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Sciences achieved the first scientific leap forward in rice production in the 1950s. Their discovery shortened the physical length of rice seedlings, thus shielding them from the adverse effects of the use of fertilizers.

The second leap is associated with Yuan Longping, who spearheaded research into a hybrid rice strain that can yield an average 20 percent more than regular strains.

After achieving breakthroughs in yields, Liu Chunming, head of the Institute of Crop Sciences at CAAS, said more research is underway to create rice varieties with higher concentrations of fiber, minerals and other nutrients.

"In February, we began construction of a brand-new seed vault designed to store a maximum 1.5 million seed samples," he said, adding that well-preserved seeds are indispensable to agricultural research.

The seed vault currently in operation was opened in 1986 in Beijing. It is the world's second-largest and houses more than 500,000 seeds.

"More than half of the seeds have become extinct in nature," Liu said. "Seeds are bound to gain greater significance in our future efforts to develop more advanced species and safeguard food security."


As farming technologies have advanced and rising productivity has helped make China an agricultural powerhouse, the country has also accelerated the process of sharing its practices with countries in need.

Globally, about 821 million people still live in starvation conditions, according to The State of Food and Nutrition in the World 2019, a report published in July by several international organizations including the United Nations World Food Programme, or WFP.

China's experience in defeating hunger has proved ever-more important at a time when the impact of conflict and climate change is threatening global food security.

"The world is increasingly looking to China's experience to bolster spirits and seek solutions," said David Beasley, executive director of the WFP, during a visit to China in November.

"China is one of the success stories in beating hunger. Not just for what it has achieved in the past, but what it is doing now and will do in the future to help the world achieve 'Zero Hunger'."

China has not received food aid from the WFP since 2006. Instead, the country has gradually expanded its foreign assistance programs to help other developing countries break the cycle of agricultural impoverishment.