Assessing Farmland Protection Policy in China

Erik Lichtenberg and Chengri Ding (2005)

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The government of China has had pronounced concerns about its ability to continue feeding a growing population since the mid-1990s, when Lester Brown (1995) predicted that China would soon need to resort to grain imports on a scale massive enough to cause severe disruptions in world markets. Like Lester Brown, the government of China targeted conversion of farmland to industrial and residential uses, especially in the most productive agricultural regions, as the chief threat to the nation’s continued capacity to produce adequate levels of staple cereals. According to official government statistics, China lost over 14.5 million hectares of arable land between 1979 and 1995. While those losses were partially counterbalanced by the addition of 10.1 million hectares of arable land from reclamation activity, that additional arable land was lower in quality and located in areas with less favorable climatic conditions, suggesting that the loss of agricultural production capacity exceeded the net loss of arable land (Ash and Edmonds 1998). Farmland land losses on such a scale could well be significant for China: Even though it has a territory roughly equal in area to that of the United States, only about a third of that land area can be utilized productively for agriculture.

The government of China responded to these food security concerns by introducing a number of measures aimed at protecting farmland, especially farmland with the greatest production potential. Nevertheless, land planted to the staple cereal crops wheat and rice has continued to fall, as has the amount of “cultivated” land. For example, yields and sown area of wheat and rice, the principal staple food grains, peaked in 1997 and has fallen steadily since (Economic Research Service).

This paper assesses the performance of China’s farmland protection policies in light of its food security goals. We begin with a description of those policies. We then examine the extent to which those policies address actual losses in food production capacity. Next, we consider whether farmland protection is the most efficient—or even a necessary—means of meeting China’s food security goals. Finally, we discuss inefficiencies in farmland conversion, examine previously unrecognized causes of excessive land conversion and unintended consequences of China’s farmland protection policies, and discuss implications for future policy development.