Effects of Climate Change in China: How Can China Balance Food Security, Land Use, and Sustainability Amid Climate Changes?

China is addressing the intricate task of harmonizing food security, land use, and sustainability amid mounting climate challenges. To tackle the pressing demand for food, China is enacting strict controls on farmland use, emphasizing compensation for lost crop output capacity when conversion is necessary. Concurrently, the government encourages initiatives like solar farms on unused land, but stringent regulations ensure they don’t encroach on vital agricultural and ecological areas. Balancing these priorities is essential as China grapples with climate-induced threats to its food system and strives to build a sustainable future.
It’s important to note that all the data and references provided in this article are sourced from Carbon Brief, a trusted and reputable outlet for climate-related information and analyzed data.

Effects of climate change in China - Food security, land use, and sustainability strategies discussed.

Climate Change Challenges for China’s Arable Land

China’s agricultural landscape faces dire challenges, with climate change wreaking havoc on its arable land. A staggering 8 percent of the nation’s wheat-producing land, equivalent to 1.9 million hectares or 19,000 square kilometers, has fallen victim to an extended period of relentless rainfall, as per official data. This ongoing bout of unpredictable weather is expected to continue plaguing the agricultural sector for the rest of the year.

Climate Change and Its Impact on Chinese Farming

The repercussions of climate change on China’s farming industry are not lost on global institutions. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the World Bank both highlight the inevitable increase in loss and damage across the country’s agricultural sector as global temperatures continue their upward trajectory. But what are the specific challenges that China’s arable land faces, and what strategies does the nation have in place to mitigate these adverse effects on its overall food production system?

From Crops to Pork: Climate Change’s Multifaceted Impact

The impact of climate change on Chinese farming has been grim in recent years. In 2022, China experienced its most severe heatwave and drought in over six decades. Last August, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs held a press conference, where they highlighted the increasing risks faced by the agricultural sector. These risks stem from extreme weather events and shifting planting conditions induced by climate change.

This summer, China continued to grapple with Mother Nature’s unpredictability. June and July brought severe drought conditions, while August saw torrential floods, a consequence of typhoons. These relentless rains have taken a toll on corn and rice crops in the north. In central China’s Henan province, the losses were staggering, with over 20 million tonnes of wheat wiped out in June alone.


China’s recent agricultural performance paints a mixed picture. Despite the agriculture ministry’s insistence on a “summer harvest,” the numbers tell a different story. Summer grain output has dipped by 2.55 billion jin (equivalent to 1.53 million tonnes) compared to last year’s robust total of 147 million tonnes.

However, the US Department of Agriculture offers a glimmer of hope for 2023. It suggests that this year might not be entirely bleak for China’s harvest. Only sunflower seeds, barley, and cotton are expected to witness reduced production. The primary crops, including corn, rice, and wheat, are anticipated to surpass the five-year average.


Corey Lesk, a research associate at Dartmouth College in the US, offers an intriguing perspective. He notes that China’s crops may not be as susceptible to climate warming as one might think. China’s primary food crops, wheat in the north and rice in the south, display varying levels of resilience to extreme heat. The southern regions, already warm and sub-tropical, are better equipped to handle such conditions.


In the north, warming trends could extend the growing season, enhance wheat yields, and enable multiple crop cycles at higher latitudes. Consequently, crop models suggest that in the north, the impact of plausible warming scenarios on yields would be relatively minor.


Haishun Yang, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, concurs with this perspective, highlighting that globally, crop yields and total production have steadily risen alongside climate change.


However, Lesk injects a note of caution, pointing out that these crop models tend to underestimate the true consequences of extreme heat, a crucial aspect of climate change.

The latest IPCC report underscores the significant impact of climate-related extremes on agriculture and fisheries worldwide, with adverse implications for food security and livelihoods. China is no exception to these challenges.


Dr. Zhang Hongzhou, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, echoes this sentiment. He emphasizes that more frequent extreme climate events like floods, droughts, and typhoons pose substantial risks to China’s food security, both in the short and long term. While certain regions and crops may benefit from a warmer climate, the overall outlook remains pessimistic. In essence, climate change poses a substantial threat to China’s food security.

Impact on Rice Yield, Pork Production, and Soya Beans

China’s food security faces a looming challenge due to the impacts of climate change. A recent study, published in the journal Nature earlier this year, reveals that the country has experienced an 8 percent reduction in rice yields over the past two decades due to extreme rainfall. Moreover, a comprehensive review of numerous studies, as detailed in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, predicts that China’s rice yields could decline anywhere between 5 to 25 percent after the 2060s.

This concerning trend has not gone unnoticed. In China’s third national assessment report from 2018, authored by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, climate change is acknowledged as a significant disruptor of cropping systems. The report explicitly states that climate change has had a profound impact on crop growth, development, and yield. It also points to the emergence of less predictable rainfall patterns, the proliferation of harmful pests, and shorter growing seasons for many crops as concerning consequences.


Beyond crops, climate change is poised to directly impact another crucial facet of China’s food landscape—pork production, which represents the most consumed meat in the country in terms of volume, according to Corey Lesk, a researcher from Dartmouth College, who spoke with Carbon Brief. The threat to this cornerstone of China’s diet underscores the multifaceted challenges that climate change poses to the nation’s food security.

China’s enormous appetite for pork is a standout feature of its food consumption landscape. The nation devours approximately 45 percent of the world’s pork, more than twice the global average per capita consumption. This exceptional demand for pork has intricate ties to soya beans, which constitute up to 90 percent of a pig’s feed. Alarmingly, soya beans are susceptible to future climate extremes despite being predominantly imported from the Americas.


Corey Lesk, from Dartmouth College, suggests that while the climate risk to China’s own crops may be relatively lower compared to some other countries, its exposure to distant risks, like those affecting soya beans, is considerably high.

Tang Renjian, China’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, has underscored the colossal daily requirements of the Chinese population: 700,000 tonnes of grain, 98,000 tonnes of edible oil, 1.92 million tonnes of vegetables, and 230,000 tonnes of meat. To meet this demand, the nation’s cultivated land must be maintained at a minimum of 1.8 billion mu, approximately 120 million hectares, which Tang Renjian considers non-negotiable.

The question arises: Does China possess sufficient cultivated land?


To answer this question, it’s essential to consider China’s arable land. Officially, the Chinese government reported 127.6 million hectares of arable land by the end of 2022, constituting about 9 percent of the world’s total arable land.


However, recent Food and Agriculture Organization data paints a slightly different picture. It indicates that China’s arable land remained at around 119 million hectares, which accounts for 12 percent of its total land area, from 2012 to 2020. This figure is lower than China’s official data, which reported 128 million hectares as of December 31, 2019.


Here’s a reimagined version of the text with a different structure: China’s land transformation over the past decade is a topic of both official explanation and skepticism. The government attributes the loss of cultivated land to “agricultural structural adjustment and afforestation.” They claim that from 2011 to 2021, a substantial 7.4 million hectares were converted into forest land, and an additional 4.2 million hectares were transformed into gardens.


Further data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adds to this narrative by revealing that China’s forest cover expanded by a noteworthy 17.4 million hectares during the same period from 2011 to 2020.


However, these official statistics face scrutiny. The Oxford Institute of Energy Studies’ “Guide to Chinese Climate Policy 2022” casts doubt on their accuracy, suggesting that China’s reported “forest” cover exceeds international definitions due to what they term “systemic over-reporting of tree cover.” Global Forest Watch, an NGO, challenges the official accounts by reporting a loss of 3.7 million hectares of natural forest in China, equivalent to a 2.7 percent decrease, from 2013 to 2021.


Navigating this complex landscape, Haishun Yang, an associate professor from the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, points out the delicate balance between food security and forestry. He emphasizes that while food security is a tangible and unyielding concern, forestry represents a more adaptable and flexible aspect. Yang advocates for promoting forestry as a means to enhance ecosystem quality and sustainability once basic land uses like residential and transportation needs are met.


In contrast, the Chinese government maintains an optimistic outlook. Back in 2009, they proudly announced the “solving of the food problem.” More recently, in 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a new mission – to construct “a beautiful China” characterized by “harmony between humans and nature.” The key question now is how China plans to not only preserve but possibly expand its forests while ensuring the food needs of its vast population of 1.4 billion people are met.

Balancing Food Security, Land Use, and Sustainability

China faces a complex challenge in harmonizing food security with forestry and renewable energy initiatives. For over a decade, the nation has centered its agricultural policy on the “Sannong” policy, which encompasses agriculture, rural areas, and farmers. Since 2004, China’s annual “No. 1 central document,” a critical policy statement, has consistently prioritized food security. In 2006, the government took a significant step by demarcating a protective “red line” around 1.8 billion mu, roughly 120 million hectares of arable land, to safeguard food security.


In 2023, the No.1 document underscores the need to “ensure the national grain output remains above 1.3 trillion jin, equivalent to 780 million tonnes.” In the same year, the Ministry of Natural Resources reaffirmed China’s commitment to maintaining the “red line” on the size of its arable land. Haishun Yang emphasizes that achieving “enough food” is an uncompromising goal, stating that if China requires more food and cannot source it externally, it must utilize all available resources to meet this need.


China recently revised its land management law and introduced strict controls on farmland use. Notably, it stipulates that “permanent basic farmland” must not be converted into other types of land, such as forest land. If farmland conversion is necessary, it must adhere to two principles: “jin chu ping heng” (striking a balance between land “outflow” and “inflow”) and “zhan bu ping heng” (striking a balance between land occupation and compensation). These principles aim to maintain the overall quantity of arable and forest land.


Yang clarifies the concept of compensation, asserting that it should focus on mitigating the loss of crop output capacity. This entails converting other types of land, like forests or grasslands, into crop production. Typically, these converted lands have lower crop yield potential than current crop lands. To maintain crop output capacity, investments are necessary, such as in irrigation, land leveling, and soil fertility improvements.


Dr. Zhang emphasizes the need for investment in related fields, including international trade utilization, advancements in agricultural technology, diversified foreign agricultural trade, and improved global food governance to strike a balance between food security and sustainability.


China’s current policy also promotes construction, including solar farms, on unused land, such as deserts in the far west. However, it explicitly forbids these projects from encroaching on permanent basic farmland, basic grassland, “class I” protected forest land, and key state-owned forest areas, emphasizing the careful consideration of land usage in renewable energy initiatives.