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RESEARCH ARTICLE
Environmental Stressors and Food Security in China
Jerry McBeath
&
Jenifer Huang McBeath
Published online: 22 November 2008
#
Journal of Chinese Political Science/Association for Chinese Politcal Science 2008
Abstract
This article considers the immediate forces influencing China
s foodsystem and food security. By immediate is meant events of the reform period, fromthe late 1970s to 2008. It begins by asking the question that has preoccupiedspecialists since the publication of Lester Brown
s
Who Will Feed China?
in 1995:How much arable land does China have? Is that land area sufficient to insure grainsufficiency? To insure food security? The article focuses on the human pressures onthe food production environment, and then treats the effects of socioeconomicchange: land, air, and water degradation. The core of the article examines sixresponses of the state to both perceived and actual environmental stressors: policyrestricting arable land conversion, China
s one-child policy, investment in irrigationsystems, the South
 – 
 North Water Diversion Project, large-scale afforestation andreforestation campaigns, and the program to convert marginal agricultural lands toforests and grasslands.
Keywords
FoodSystem.FoodSecurity.ArableLand.Urbanization.EconomicDevelopment .Erosion.Deforestation.Desertification.LandPollution.AirPollution.WaterSufficiency.WaterPollution.OceanPollution.One-ChildPolicy.South
 – 
 NorthWaterDiversionProjec.Afforestation.Reforestation.SlopeLandConversionProgram(
GraintoGreen
)
The Problem of Food Security and Environmental Change
Food is the material basis to human survival, and in each nation-state, providing asystem for the development, production, and distribution of food and its security is a primary national objective. Many forces have influenced the food security of peoplessince ancient times, with particular challenges from natural disasters (floods,
J OF CHIN POLIT SCI (2009) 14:49
 – 
80DOI 10.1007/s11366-008-9036-4J. McBeath (
*
)
:
J. H. McBeathUniversity of Alaska Faribanks, 1777 Red Fox Drive, Fairbanks, AK 99709, USAe-mail: ffjam@uaf.edu
 
famines, drought, and pestilence) and growing populations globally. From the latetwentieth century to the early twenty-first, however, analysts have riveted their attention on environmental change and crises, for example pollution of arable landand water, insufficiency of water, deforestation, desertification, and over-fishingamong others. Our focus is on the food security of the world
s most populous nation,China, and the impact on food security of vast environmental change in the last 50 years. First, however, we explain why China must be considered in any globaldiscussion of food security.China has 22% of the global population but just 7% of the world
s arable land.Food security has been a chief mission of the Chinese state since early in thedynastic era. It remains a primary state objective in the early twenty-first century.China in 2008 is largely self-reliant in food supplies, and its farmers produce about 95% of the staples consumed. Yet, any large disturbance in supply would haveglobal ramifications, for example, by increasing world food prices.China
s environmental conditions directly impinge on its food security. Manyobservers believe China
s environment is in crisis.
1
Population increases reducearable land and water sufficiency; indirectly, population stress increases deforesta-tion and desertification as well as over-fishing. New environmental stress such asclimate warming has an impact on plant diseases, pests, and invasive species too.China is a developing country, and its food security and environmental protectionregimes are relatively new and untested. It was this combination of factors
 — 
a huge population with limited agricultural land, severe environmental challenges, and political, social, and economic systems in the process of modernizing
 — 
which prompted Lester Brown
s 1995 book 
Who Will Feed China?
[3].
Loss of Arable Land
Brown
s alarmist prediction that China would have to import 200 million tons of grain by 2030
2
initiated a debate among scholars as well as government officials ongrain sufficiency. This debate focused on the amount of arable land in China, andwhether it was sufficient to sustain agricultural production of staples. In the late1990s, the official government estimate (now revised upward) was approximately 95million ha; on a per capita basis, this would equal 0.08 ha per person, makingChina
s land availability about one-fourth of the global average [4].The major critic of the Brown hypothesis has been Vaclav Smil, a geographer at the University of Manitoba. Smil makes a convincing argument that grainsufficiency pessimists underestimate the amount of China
s arable land by at least 50% [5]. He points out the several reasons why official statistics are wrong: (1) anon-standard accounting unit is used for the areal measurement of land
 — 
the
mu
1
For early studies, see [1], and [2].
2
Brown focused on what he believed was stagnating grain production in China of the early 1990s becauseof reduced arable land, lack of significant productivity gains, and environmental problems such as water insufficiency and large-scale soil erosion. He contended that China would need to import massivequantities of grain in future years to feed its population.50 J. Mcbeath, J. H. Mcbeath
 
(there are about 15 mu to the hectare
3
); (2) there were large incentives to underreport land in the Maoist era, for underreporting reduced land taxes and also allowed peasants (and collective leaders) to claim higher harvests per mu; and (3) under thesomewhat more privatized system of land use in China today, underreporting landallowed fairer apportionment of marginal, less productive land; it reduced the quotasrequired for delivery to the state at fixed prices; and it reduced taxes as well.
4
In the last two decades, analysts have made two improvements in landmeasurement: remote sensing and detailed land surveys. These have produced aconsensus among researchers that the range of arable land is between 131 and 137million ha.
5
(As we note below, government officials in 2008 used the figure of 121.8 million ha.) Smil finds confirmation for the recent estimates of Chineseresearchers and officials in results of the MEDEA study, a multi-disciplinaryscientific program using US intelligence satellites and a methodology employingstratified, multi-stage area estimation.
6
Even this approach is too conservative, in the view of Smil, because it omitsmeasurement of non-traditional land uses, which nevertheless produce goods servingnutritional needs of modern Chinese. Specifically, traditional land measurement doesnot include fish ponds and orchards, and both farmed fish and fruits play anincreasingly important role in Chinese nutrition. By adding these surfaces, Smilestimated that land devoted to intensive food production was in the range 146 to 160million ha in 1997
 — 
an average of 153 million ha or 63% higher than officialestimates (and on a per capita basis higher than figures for Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan).
7
In 2007, China listed the area of cultivated land as 130,039,200 ha. This is basedon the situation surveyed as of late 1996. Estimates of the National Bureau of Statistics for 2001 show 127,082,000 ha. Of this amount,
regularly cultivated land
comprised 105,826,020 ha and
temporarily cultivated land
was 21,256,000 [10].As mentioned throughout this article, attention focuses both on loss of arable land toother purposes and attempts to increase arable land. For example, in 2006 China lost 307,000 ha, mostly for new construction [11]. In the National Agricultural and RuralEconomic Development Program for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006
 – 
2010), theMinistry of Land and Resources predicted that grain-producing land would decline by 0.18% annually (based on loss of 8 million ha of arable land from 1999 to 2005).It estimated the need for at least 103.33 million ha in 2010 to reach a target  production of 500 million tons of grain [12]. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Landand Resources announced that between 1999 and 2006, China gained 2.4 million haof arable land (and during this period, grain production increased by 10% to 20% in pilot areas) [13].
3
The hectare is approximately 2.47 English acres. The
mu
(also spelled
mou
) is approximately one-fifteenth of a hectare. However, historically the mu has not been standardized. See [6].
4
Smil [5], 417. See also [7].
5
Smil [5], 419; also see [8] and [9].
6
Smil [5], 419
 – 
20.
7
Smil [5], 423
 – 
24.Environmental Stressors and Food Security in China 51

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