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Population growth, industrialization, and increased food consumption have affected China’s food security

Food security has been a significant driver behind a number of acquisitions in recent years.

As industrialization and population growth have occurred, arable land and water sources have been affected, and this presents problems for the future of the country’s food security. What’s more, the Chinese population is consuming more food per capita than it has in the past, further squeezing the country’s resources.

China’s arable land has decreased

According to the World Bank, China feeds nearly 20% of the world’s population with less than 10% of the world’s arable land, and less than 6% of the world’s water. China’s rapid urbanization and population growth has led to a decrease in the amount of arable land: China has one of the lowest per capita cultivated farmland in the world, with around 0.09 hectares of arable land per capita, less than half the global average and six times less than the arable land per capita in the US. China saw 1% of its agricultural land disappear each year between 2000 and 2008 to make way for factories. That is the equivalent of the Netherlands and Belgium combined disappearing every year.

The government has set a “red line” mandating that its arable land never falls below 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares). According to China’s Ministry of Land and Resources, the total area of arable land has been steadily kept above 1.82 billion mu (121.6 million hectares) for the past few years. This is very close to the “red line”, and is further squeezed when the level of pollution is considered.

According to an FAO/OECD 2013-2022 report, 40% of China’s arable land has been degraded by erosion, salinization, or acidification, and nearly 20% is polluted. This pollution is largely as a result of industrialization, but the country’s arable land has also been affected by significant use of fertilizers in recent years.

Zhuang Guotai, head of the ecological department at the environment ministry, said in April 2013 that only 35% of fertilizer used in China is absorbed by crops, while the remaining 65% is discharged as pollution. According to The National Bureau of Statistics, amount of fertilizer used has shot up in recent years. Between 2000 and 2011, the use of chemical fertilizer rose by 38% to more than 57 million tons a year. According to a report by China’s environmental protection department, about 12 million tonnes of grain is contaminated by heavy metal every year. This represents economic losses of more than 20 billion yuan (approximately $3.3bn) per year.

These factors all contribute to a significant loss of arable land in China, which is particularly worrying as both the population and per capita consumption have increased.

China’s per capita consumption has increased

Figure 2 shows the rate at which population and food consumption in China have grown at between 1980 and 2008. The Chinese population grew by 40% from approximately 1.0 billion to 1.4 billion. In the same period, China’s consumption, measured in cereal equivalent (CE) grew by more than 260%, from 407 million tons in 1980 to 1,479 million tons in 2008.

pop growth

As the figure shows, CE consumption growth far outstripped population growth, indicating that something else has played a role in the increased food consumption in China. In fact, two thirds of this consumption growth is attributable to diet change, while one third is attributable to population growth.

The World Bank predicts that China’s population growth will peak in 2025, but that the primary driver of food consumption in this time is likely to be growth in per capita consumption. China’s dietary changes are largely consistent with global trends: food consumption of CE is closely related to income, and has risen as incomes have risen.

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