China’s Agricultural Productivity Imperative

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The enormity and complexity of the challenges facing China’s agriculture and food system are difficult to fully grasp.

Two decades ago, the Chinese middle class numbered just 2.5 million people. That number has increased by more than 100 times today.1 The middle class in China is expected to grow even further, reaching 950 million by 2030, roughly three times the current population of the United States.

A Chinese family enjoys a leisurely visit to a park in the Cixi wetlands in Zhejiang Province. The increased buying power of China’s rapidly growing middle class is transforming the country’s food and agriculture systems. Photo: You Ji / World Bank

The rise in population and incomes has radically transformed Chinese consumers’ food demand. Consumption of poultry, pork and dairy has increased exponentially.2 In response to domestic demand, China’s imports of fresh and chilled pork increased from 136,000 metric tons in 2000 to 1.62 million metric tons in 2016.3

Chinese consumers are also changing where they shop, and what motivates their purchases. Young urban consumers between the ages of 20-35 shop at modern retail food stores. Chinese consumers are focused on nutrition, with more than 82 percent of people willing to pay more for foods they know are higher quality and more nourishing.4

Chinese consumers are also concerned about the safety of the foods they eat, particularly domestic rice and other food crops that may have been grown in contaminated farm soil. They are willing to pay more for trusted international brands that they know are high-quality and safe.

Traffic in Beijing. Photo credit: Li Lou/World Bank

Urbanization to Promote Agricultural Productivity

China’s policies promoting and managing urbanization are also intended to stimulate consolidation and productivity in the agriculture sector. China hopes that urbanization will increase the average amount of arable land available per each family farm, promote mechanization, and increase average rural income.7

By moving people into cities, China also seeks to create dynamic economic centers that promote consumption and stimulate economic growth in the surrounding rural environments. Current urbanization policies are focused on the development of small- and medium-sized cities that can support an agricultural sector in the surrounding peri-urban areas.

Michael Shyer, former intern at the Global Harvest Initiative, contributed to this article.

Most young people leave rural areas for better job prospects in the cities. Attracting young, entrepreneurial farmers will be essential for productivity growth in China’s agriculture sector. Photo credit: Steve Harris/World Bank

China Ramps Up Peri-Urban Farming for Beijing Consumers

Many Chinese farms today are still quite small (on average less than 0.6 hectares of land per household) and provide low qualities of life for Chinese farmers. But China’s agri-food system has begun transforming over the past 30 years from a traditional, smallholder-based production system to a more modern form of peri-urban farming for cities.

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The China-Brazil Connection

Despite remarkable success in improving the productivity of its agriculture sector, by 2030, China will likely only be able to meet 74 percent of it demand through productivity growth.  Most of the remaining food demand will be met through trade.

The Latin America region produces a surplus of food and products. Brazil, driven by TFP (total factor productivity) growth, is expected to reach a level of agricultural output more than twice as large as its domestic demand.

Brazil’s agricultural productivity and output growth is largely the result of greater investments in agricultural research and technology, combined with successful economic reforms and infrastructural improvements.

As production has increased, Brazil has steadily increased exports to China, especially soybeans. Brazil exported 54 million metric tons of soybeans to China in 2017, principally for animal feed.8

Brazil’s soybean producers are poised to take even more of the Chinese market share. Because of the tariffs imposed on U.S. soybeans as part of the U.S.-China trade dispute, Chinese buyers are turning to Brazil as a cheaper source. From January to August 2018, Brazil exported 80 percent of its soybean production to China, up from 77 percent over the same period in 2017.9

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