EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Reversing China’s Harvest Decline: Grainland Shrinking

Chapter 1 described “the Japan syndrome,” a set of interacting trends that explain why grain production declines in countries that are already densely populated before they industrialize. Each of the three countries discussed—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—had virtually identical experiences. In short, as industrialization gains momentum, grain consumption and grain production both rise, more or less together. In a relatively short time, however, grain planted area begins to shrink as farmland is converted to nonfarm uses, as grain is replaced by higher-value fruit and vegetable crops, and as the migration of farm labor to the cities reduces double cropping. This shrinkage in grain area then leads to declining grain production. 4

China is facing precisely the same forces that within three decades cut grain harvests by one third to one half in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But China’s challenge is even greater because it is also losing grainland to expanding deserts and it is faced with spreading water shortages that are shrinking the grain harvest—problems the other three countries did not have.

China’s deserts are advancing as its 1.3 billion people and 404 million cattle, sheep, and goats put unsustainable pressure on the land. Indeed, desert expansion has accelerated with each successive decade since 1950. The Gobi is marching eastward and is now within 150 miles of Beijing. Some deserts have expanded to the point where they are starting to merge. Satellite images show the Bardanjilin in north-central China pushing southward toward the Tengry desert to form a single, larger desert, overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces. To the west in Xinjiang province, two much larger deserts—the Taklamakan and the Kumtag—are also heading for a merger. 5

Wang Tao, Deputy Director of the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, the world’s premier desert research institute, reports that on average 156,000 hectares were converted to desert each year from 1950 until 1975. From 1975 to 1987, this increased to 210,000 hectares a year. But in the 1990s, it jumped to 360,000 hectares annually, more than doubling in one generation. 6

The human toll is heavy, but rarely is it carefully measured. Wang Tao estimates that 24,000 villages “have been buried [by drifting sand], abandoned or endangered seriously by sandy desertification” affecting some 35 million people. In effect, Chinese civilization is retreating before the drifting sand that covers the land, forcing farmers and herders to leave. Most of this abandonment has come over the last two decades. 7

Overplowing and overgrazing are converging to create a dust bowl of historic dimensions. With little vegetation remaining in parts of northern and western China, the strong winds of late winter and early spring can remove literally millions of tons of topsoil in a single day—soil that can take centuries to replace. For the outside world, it is dust storms like the ones described in the beginning of Chapter 5 that are drawing attention to the deserts forming in China.

The removal of small soil particles by wind in dust storms marks the early stages of desertification. This is followed by sand storms as desertification progresses. The growing number of major dust storms, as compiled by the China Meteorological Administration, indicates how rapidly this is happening. After increasing from 5 in the 1950s to 14 during the 1980s, the number leapt to 23 in the 1990s. (See Table 8–1.) The current decade began with more than 20 major dust storms in 2000 and 2001 alone. 8

While overplowing is now being partly remedied by paying farmers to plant their grainland in trees, overgrazing continues largely unabated. China’s cattle, sheep, and goat population tripled from 1950 to 2003. While the United States, a country with comparable grazing capacity, has 96 million cattle, China has a slightly larger herd of 103 million. But for sheep and goats, the figures are 8 million versus a staggering 317 million. Concentrated in the western and northern provinces of Inner Mongolia, Xingjiang, Qinghai, Tibet, and Gansu, sheep and goats are destroying the land’s protective vegetation. The wind does the rest, removing the soil and converting grassland into desert. 9

Even as overgrazing destroys forage, the number of sheep and goats continues to increase. While China’s cattle herd has scarcely doubled since 1950, the number of sheep has nearly tripled and goat numbers have quintupled. (Photo.) The disproportionate growth of the goat population is a telltale sign of a deterioration in forage quality, a shift that favors the hardier goats. 10

Millions of rural Chinese are being uprooted and forced to migrate eastward as the drifting sand covers their cropland. Expanding deserts are driving villagers from their homes in Gansu, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia provinces. An Asian Development Bank assessment of desertification in Gansu Province reports that 4,000 villages risk being overrun by drifting sands. 11

A report by a U.S. embassy official in May 2001 after a visit to Xilingol Prefecture in Inner Mongolia (Nei Mongol) notes that the prefecture’s livestock population climbed from 2 million as recently as 1977, just before the economic reforms, to 18 million in 2000. With the economic reforms, the government lost control of livestock numbers. A Chinese scientist doing grassland research in the prefecture notes that if recent desertification trends continue, Xilingol will be uninhabitable in 15 years. 12

The U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced some 2.5 million “Okies” and other refugees to leave the land, many of them heading from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas to California. But the dust bowl forming in China is much larger, and during the 1930s the U.S. population was only 150 million—compared with 1.3 billion in China today. Whereas the U.S. flow of Dust Bowl–refugees was measured in the millions, China’s will be measured in the tens of millions. 13

While the deserts are expanding, so too are the cities. With the fastest economic growth of any country since 1980, the voracious land hunger in the residential, industrial, and transportation sectors is consuming vast areas of land—much of it cropland. The sheer size of China’s population of 1.3 billion is impressive, but even more impressive is the fact that 1,193 million of them live in 46 percent of the country. The five sprawling provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia, which account for 54 percent of the country’s area, have only 81 million people—just 6 percent of the national total. (See Figure 8–1.) Thus industrial and residential construction and the land paved for roads, highways, and parking lots will be concentrated in less than half of the country, where 94 percent of the people live. People are crowded into this region simply because this is where the arable land and water are. 14

Local government enthusiasm for establishing development zones for commercial and residential buildings or industrial parks in the hope of attracting investment and jobs is consuming cropland at a record pace. The Ministry of Land and Resources reported in early 2004 that some 6,000 development zones and industrial parks cover some 3.5 million hectares. In 2003, the Ministry of Land Resources reported the conversion of a record 2.1 percent of cropland to nonfarm uses, alarming political leaders in Beijing. 15

Cars, as mentioned earlier, are also taking a toll. Every 20 cars added to China’s automobile fleet require the paving of an estimated 0.4 hectares of land (1 acre, or roughly the area of a football field) for parking lots, streets, and highways. Thus the 2 million new cars sold in 2003 meant paving over 40,000 hectares of land—the equivalent of 100,000 football fields. If this was cropland, and most of it probably was, it could have produced 160,000 tons of grain—enough to feed half a million Chinese. 16

If China had Japan’s automobile ownership rate of one car for every two people, it would have a fleet of 640 million, a fortyfold increase from the 16 million cars of today. Such a fleet would require paving over almost 13 million hectares of land—again, most of it likely cropland. This figure is equal to nearly two thirds of China’s 21 million hectares of riceland—land that produces 120 million tons of rice, the country’s principal food staple. When farmers in southern China lose a hectare of double-cropped riceland to the automobile, rice production takes a double hit. 17

Farmers throughout China are also converting grainland to higher-value harvests. In a country where farms average 0.6 hectares (1.6 acres), the only readily available option for boosting income for many is to shift to higher-value crops. In each of the last 11 years, the area in fruits and vegetables has increased, expanding by an average of 1.3 million hectares per year. This jump in area from 10 million hectares in 1991 to 26 million hectares in 2003 (see Figure 8–2) included hefty increases in asparagus, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, peppers, eggplant, garlic, onions, spinach, watermelons, tomatoes, apples, pears, and grapes. The huge expansion is in response to rapid growth both in domestic demand (as incomes rise and diets diversify) and in the export market. High-value, labor-intensive export crops are well suited to a country where labor is by far the most abundant resource. 18

In the more prosperous coastal provinces, the migration of farmworkers to cities has made it more difficult to double crop land. For example, the once widespread practice of planting wheat in the winter and corn as a summer crop depends on quickly harvesting the wheat as soon as it ripens in early summer and immediately preparing the seedbed to plant the corn. But with millions of younger workers moving to cities in search of jobs, many villages no longer have enough able-bodied workers to make this quick transition, and the double-cropped area is reduced.

Reversing the fall in grain production will not be easy simply because growth in the activities that are claiming cropland is so relentless. Reversing any one of these trends—conversion to nonfarm uses, desert expansion, the decline in multiple cropping—will take an enormous effort. While higher grain prices may temporarily increase multiple cropping and boost production, China faces an uphill battle in sustaining growth in its grain harvest for the same reasons that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan did. 19

The new economic incentives introduced by Beijing in early 2004 to boost grain production may modify some of these trends in the short run. For example, higher support prices for rice and wheat may slow the movement of rural labor into cities. They also encourage farmers to invest more in inputs, such as fertilizer and pest control. And if adoption of the new incentives coincides with unusually favorable weather, a modest, short-term upturn in grain production can occur, as it did in 2004. But restoring sustained growth in the grain harvest will challenge the leadership in Beijing. 20

Table 8-1. Number of Major Dust Storms in China by Decade, 1950-99














Source: See endnote 8.

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4. USDA, op. cit. note 1.

5. Population from United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision (New York: 2003); livestock population from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), FAOSTAT Statistics Database, at apps.fao.org, updated 24 May 2004; desertification in China from Wang, op. cit. note 2; U.S. Embassy, “Desert Mergers and Acquisitions,” Beijing Environment, Science, and Technology Update (Beijing: 19 July 2002).

6. Wang, op. cit. note 2.

7. Wang Tao, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental & Engineering Institute, e-mail message to author, 6 April 2004.

8. Table 8–1 from China Meteorological Administration, cited in U.S. Embassy, Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia (Beijing: 2001).

9. FAO, op. cit. note 5; historical data from Worldwatch Institute, op. cit. note 1; livestock concentration from Hu Zizhi and Zhang Degang, “China,” Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profiles, at www.fao.org/WAICENT/FAOINFO/AGRICULT/AGP/AGPC/doc/Counprof/china/ china1.htm, viewed 30 September 2004.

10. FAO, op. cit. note 5; historical data from Worldwatch Institute, op. cit. note 1; photograph from Lu Tongjing, Desert Witness: Images of Environmental Degradation in China’s Northwest (Beijing: Heinrich Boll Foundation and China Environment and Sustainable Development Reference and Research Center, 2003).

11. Asian Development Bank, Technical Assistance to The People’s Republic of China for Optimizing Initiatives to Combat Desertification in Gansu Province (Manila, Philippines: 2001).

12. U.S. Embassy, op. cit. note 8.

13. U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1930 Fact Sheet, at www.census.gov, revised March 2002; United Nations, op. cit. note 5.

14. China Internet Information Center, “National Conditions” at www.china.org.cn/english/

shuzi-en/en-shuzi/gq/htm/s.htm, viewed 1 September 2004.

15. “China Publishes Annual Report on Land and Resources,” Xinhua News Agency, 9 April 2004.

16. Calculations for paved area by Janet Larsen, Earth Policy Institute, based on U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Highway Statistics 1999 (Washington, DC: 2001), on Mark Delucchi, “Motor Vehicle Infrastructure and Services Provided by the Public Sector,” cited in Todd Litman, Transportation Land Valuation (Victoria, B.C., Canada: Victoria Transport Policy Institute, November 2000), p. 4, on Ward’s Communications, Ward’s World Motor Vehicle Data (Southfield, MI: 2000), on Jeffrey Kenworthy, Associate Professor in Sustainable Settlements, Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, Australia, e-mail message to Larsen, and on David Walterscheid, FHWA Real Estate Office, discussion with Larsen; cars sold in China from Peter S. Goodman, “Car Culture Captivates China,” Washington Post, 8 March 2004; estimated grain production from USDA, op. cit. note 1.

17. Calculations for paved area by Larsen, op. cit. note 16; grainland from USDA, op. cit. note 1.

18. Figure 8–2 from FAO, op. cit. note 5; average farm size from Roy L. Prosterman, “China’s New Market in Land,” Wall Street Journal, 7 March 2003.

19. Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, Statistical Yearbook of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (Tokyo: various years); Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, Statistical Yearbook of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (Seoul: various years); Taiwan from John Dyck, USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service, Washington, DC, private communication, 16 March 1995.

20. “State Raises Rice Prices,” op. cit. note 3; “Unprecedented State Subsidy Spurs China’s Grain Production,” World News Connection, 17 April 2004.


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