Agriculture in China

Agriculture is a vital industry in China, employing over 300 million farmers. China ranks first in worldwide farm output, primarily producing rice, wheat, potatoes, tomato, sorghum, peanuts, tea, millet, barley, cotton, oilseed and soybeans. Although accounting for only 10 percent of arable land worldwide, it produces food for 20 percent of the world’s population.

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. 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 met with 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

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.

Food crops

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 Zhu Jiang delta, and in the 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.

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.

Citrus is a major cash crop in southern China, with production scattered along and south of the Yangtze River valley. Mandarins are the most popular citrus in China, with roughly double the output of oranges.

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. Arabica coffee is grown in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

Fiber crops

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 fowls being the most common. China’s pig population and pork production mainly lie along the Yangtze River. In 2011, Sichuan province had 51 million pigs (11% of China’s total supply). In rural western China, sheep, goats, and camels are raised by nomadic herders. 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 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.

Increased incomes and increased demand for meat, especially pork, has resulted in demand for improved breeds of livestock, breeding stock imported particularly from the United States. Some of these breeds are adapted to factory farming.


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 the middle and lower Yangtze valley and the Zhu Jiang delta.



In its first fifty years, the People’s Republic of China greatly increased agricultural production through organizational and technological improvements.


  Crop[25] 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. However desalination plants find few customers because it is still cheaper to over-utilize rivers, lakes and aquifers, even as these are depleted.

Today, China is both the world’s largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. 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.


Inefficiencies in the agricultural market

Despite rapid growth of in output, the Chinese agricultural sector still faces several challenges. Farmers in several provinces, such as Shandong, Zhejiang, Anhui, Liaoning, and Xinjiang often have a hard time selling their agricultural products to customers due to a lack of information about current conditions.

Between the producing farmer in the countryside and the end-consumer in the cities there is a chain of intermediaries. Because a lack of information flows through them, farmers find it difficult to foresee the demand for different types of fruits and vegetables. In order to maximize their profits they therefore opt to produce those fruits and vegetables that created the highest revenues for farmers in the region in the previous year. If, however, most farmers do so, this causes the supply of fresh products to fluctuate substantially year on year. Relatively scarce products in one year are produced in excess the following year because like of expected higher profit margins. The resulting excess supply, however, forces farmers to reduce their prices and sell at a loss. The scarce, revenue creating products of one year become the over-abundant, loss-making products in the following, and vice versa.

Efficiency is further impaired in the transportation of agricultural products from the farms to the actual markets. According to figures from the Commerce Department, up to 25% of fruits and vegetables rot before being sold, compared to around 5% in a typical developed country. As intermediaries cannot sell these rotten fruits they pay farmers less than they would if able to sell all or most of the fruits and vegetables. This reduces farmer’s revenues although the problem is caused by post-production inefficiencies, which they are not themselves aware of during price negotiations with intermediaries.

These information and transportation problems highlight inefficiencies in the market mechanisms between farmers and end consumers, impeding farmers from taking advantage of the fast development of the rest of the Chinese economy. The resulting small profit margin does not allow them to invest in the necessary agricultural inputs (machinery, seeds, fertilizers, etc.) to raise productivity and improve their standards of living, from which the whole of the Chinese economy would benefit. This in turn increases the exodus of people from the countryside to the cities, which already face urbanization issues.


International trade

China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans and other food crops. China is expected to become the top importer of farm products within the next decade.

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.


Governmental influence

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).

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 the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration Zheng Xiaoyu, has also complicated China’s regulation difficulties. 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. 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.

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.