When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.


How Old Fears Of Famine Keep China's One-Child Policy Alive

Food shortages are almost always a problem of supply, not demand, but don't tell that to some top Chinese officials maintaining a tight grip on national family planning policy.

Food security was a major reason for China's one-child policy
Food security was a major reason for China's one-child policy
Huang Wenzheng and James Liang

The review of China's one-child-per-family policy was one of the hottest issues at the recent National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Opponents of loosening China's birth control policy worry that there is not enough arable land and food to cope with the demographic change that it would bring.

Food is a livelihood issue so China has always had worry about a shortage of arable land. China uses 7% of the world's farmland to feed 19.5% of the global population. This is a story the Chinese people have known well throughout history.

However, different places have different food production conditions. For instance, with less than 3% of India's farmland, the Punjab produces 19.5% of that nation's wheat, 10.3% of cotton and 11% of the rice.

China is located in both temperate and sub-tropical zones with relatively fertile land. It has in fact much room to improve its food production even at a conservative estimate according to a recent study entitled "The comprehensive production capacity of China's agricultural resources and population-carrying capacity."

In the long term, here are the numbers: China's annual food production will surpass 700 million tons, more than a 19% growth relative to the 590 millions tons in 2012. Meanwhile, if China is to fully liberalize childbearing, and if its birth rate is maintained above 2%, China's future population peak will still not surpass 1.45 billion, which is less than an 8% increase on today's 1.35 billion.

The primary motor of food production growth is demand. In line with the demographic increase, the food supply continues to grow. According to UN data, every country's arable land yield is on the rise. China's output is still only 85% of that of fully developed countries.

Perhaps due to slowing pressure of demand, China's investment in agricultural technology is only equivalent to the level of low-income countries of the 1980s. Whereas progress in agricultural technology contributes between 70-80% of agricultural growth in the developed world, it is only 45% in China. All this goes to show that there's plenty of room for growth in China's food output.

According to the classification of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, agricultural land includes farm land, gardens and grassland. China has the world's largest amount of agricultural land - twice the size of Brazil and Russia, three times that of India. Its per capita agricultural land area is much greater than the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Southeast Asian countries. China's grassland area is four times its arable land area whereas the world average is only 1.5 times. Rich grass land provides a good foundation for China to develop grassland agriculture to raise the level of its diet and to ensure food safety.

Others worry that urbanization will eat away at the supply of arable land. This too is a groundless fear. As a matter of fact, cities cover much less surface than what people imagine. According to the China City Statistical Yearbook of 2011, the total constructed area of China's mid to large-sized cities is 30,000 square kilometers, which is 0.3% of the national surface, and equivalent of 2.4 % of its cultivated land. Even if China were to double the size of its existing urban areas, this would still have limited impact on its total farm land.

All in all, China has sufficient arable land and food production capacity to respond to any demographic changes caused by childbearing liberalization. Food security crises, in the end, come from a supply shortage rather than a change in demand. Even with an ultra-high birth rate, a natural population growth is a few percent a year. If the supply remains unchanged, a few percent more demand will not cause starvation.

Famines are almost always caused by a sudden reduction in supply, which can often be related to poor information, inaccessible transportation or mismanagement. Since the 1970s, with the improvement of communications and transport, the world’s big famines have mostly occurred in remote, sparsely populated or relatively closed areas. China is vast and has diverse climates. It’s well equipped to guarantee the stability of its food supply. 

China attaches great importance to food security. Its food self-sufficiency rate has stabilized at around 90%, and for grain it’s more than 95%. China’s food reserve is more than 30% of its annual consumption, which amounts to twice the world average. This is a lot higher than the safety line of 18% recommended by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Still, even if it won't necessarily increase the risk of outright famine, it is true that China's massive population may drive down the per capita food consumption and result in chronic under-nutrition. This was one of the major reasons advocated for the one-child policy originally. However, China's per capita food production continues to grow at a steady rate.

There is, however, a bona fide food security issue that China must face in the future. It is not linked to any supposed shortage in arable land, nor a growing population. Instead, as Chinese society gets more wealthy, it will push up the opportunity cost of agricultural production; that is, the increase in revenue of other industries will lead to the increase in the cost of the labor force engaged in agricultural production. This, in turn, will push up agricultural product prices -- and could spark a market failure in the food production business.

The solution is to raise China’s agricultural output efficiency, and provide agriculture subsidies according to need. Moreover, China’s food supply will depend more and more on the international market.

Ultimately, reducing the population cannot bring food security. Unless efforts are made to enhance the technical level of agricultural output, the comparative advantages of production will not necessarily be achieved. China's advantage is not in agriculture, but in manufacturing. To continue to limit people’s fertility instead of allowing an immediate and full liberalization of childbearing is a choke-hold that smothers the true potential of China's future.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest