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Land Use Efficiency, Food Security, and Farmland Preservation in China

Erik Lichtenberg and Chengri Ding, April 1, 2006

The government of China has been concerned about its ability to continue feeding its growing population since the mid-1990s. It has 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 cereal crops. China is land poor. Only about one-third of its total land area, which is roughly equal to that of the United States, can be utilized productively for agriculture. Several measures have been introduced with the aim of protecting farmland, especially farmland with the greatest production potential. For example, current regulations require each province to keep 80 percent of its land currently designated as primary farmland under cultivation. Other policies require each province to take measures to ensure self-sufficiency in grain production and to draw up farmland protection plans.

Cultivated Land versus Farmland

Most attention has been focused on “cultivated” land, that is, land used to grow major food grains, feed grains, soybeans, and tubers. Not included is land used for horticultural crops and aquaculture, which would be categorized as farmland in most countries. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of the observed reduction in cultivated land in China in recent years was due to its conversion to orchards and fish ponds (Smil 1999; Ministry of Land and Resources 2003).

Reallocation of cultivated land from cereals and tubers to fruits, vegetables, and fish is a natural accommodation to changing consumer demand and increased income rather than a sign of an inability to maintain staple food production. Urban Chinese households consume much less grain than rural households (Gale 2002). Thus, changes in diets caused by rural-to-urban migration have resulted in less consumption of grains in China between 1995 and 2002, even though total population increased by about one-eighth during that period.

Farmland and Food Security

Even after correcting for reallocations of cultivated land to other food products, China has lost a significant amount of cropland, although the exact amount is difficult to determine because of the poor quality of historical statistics. Estimates of gross cropland losses between 1987 and 1995 have ranged from 3 to 5 million hectares out of a total estimate of 125 to 145 million hectares. Some of that loss consisted of land that was marginal in terms of agricultural productivity, but was highly vulnerable to erosion, desertification, and other forms of land degradation; much of this land was subsequently allowed to revert to more sustainable uses, such as pasture, grassland, and forest. Because the productivity of this land was quite low, its removal from cultivation represents little reduction in agricultural production capacity.

Most observers believe that China can remain largely self-sufficient in food production because of its ability to increase the agricultural productivity of land. For example, China’s agricultural research system has been quite successful in developing and promulgating new crop varieties and cultivation methods that have increased potential grain yields an average of 1.5 to 2.5 percent annually (Jin et al. 2002). A study conducted under the auspices of the International Food Policy Research Institute indicates that China’s ability to remain self-sufficient in food production depends more on investment in irrigation, flood control, and agricultural research infrastructure than on farmland preservation (Huang, Rozelle, and Rosegrant 1999).

Water is likely to be more of a bottleneck than land. Many farming regions face shortages of water for irrigation, so farmers who rely on groundwater have been pumping at unsustainably high rates, causing water tables to fall rapidly. Even regions with abundant water resources have shortages because of poor maintenance and operation of irrigation systems. Improved flood control is also sorely needed to prevent natural disasters that affect cropland losses.

Impacts of Urbanization

Even if the loss of cultivated land does not threaten China’s food security, there are substantial inefficiencies in land allocation generally, and in the conversion of farmland to urbanizing areas in particular. The most worrisome aspect is that farmland conversion has been concentrated in the most productive farming areas of the country, notably the coastal and central provinces that have both fertile soils and climates that allow multiple crops and harvests. Net losses of cropland in these provinces alone between 1985 and 1995 were on the order of 2 to 4 million hectares. Urbanization, industrialization, infrastructure, and other nonagricultural uses have been the primary cause of farmland loss in these rapidly industrializing provinces.

The two sites selected for a recent Lincoln Institute/Ministry of Land and Resources farmland protection study illustrate the scope of this problem. Most of the land around Pinghu City, located halfway between Hangzhou and Shanghai in Zhejiang Province, is prime agricultural land that can be harvested two or three times a year. Cultivated land and orchards account for about two-thirds of the total land area, and little land is left unused. Land taken for construction increased eightfold between 1998 and 2001. The local government has used consolidation of plots to meet its “no net loss” requirements, but the scope for further gains from consolidation is quite limited. Recorded conversion of farmland to urban uses during this period of rapid growth amounted to almost 2 percent of Pinghu City’s 1998 farmland.

Jingzhou City, located in the Yangtze River basin west of Wuhan in Hubei Province, shows the limited impact of urbanization outside of the rapidly growing coastal provinces. Cultivated land and orchards together account for about half of the total land area. Between 1997 and 2003, cultivated land in Jingzhou also decreased by almost 2 percent, but only a tenth of that loss was due to transportation infrastructure and other urban uses. Over half of the loss was due to an increase in areas covered by water caused by flooding and new aquaculture facilities. The remainder was largely due to abandonment of marginal land brought under cultivation prior to 1978, which was either allowed to revert to forest or was simply left unused.

Institutional Impediments

The greatest impediments to China’s ability to maintain adequate levels of food production are not physical but institutional. Inefficient uses of existing farmland arise from policies that affect income generation from farming, including the lack of tenure security, water shortages and poor irrigation management institutions, and the lack of adequate marketing infrastructure.

Tenure Security: Economists have long argued that secure tenure is essential for efficient land use, including appropriate levels of investment in maintaining and enhancing land productivity as well as allocating land to the most efficient uses and/or users. Rural and suburban land in China belongs to village collectives and is administered by the village committee or economic organization, subject to oversight by township, provincial, and in some cases state entities. Rural collectives have the authority to allocate land to alternative uses.

Farmland is leased to households under contractual arrangements in which the household pays a fee to the collective in return for a residual claim on the products of the land. The contract may contain other stipulations as well (for example, requirements that the land be farmed and maintained in good condition). The size of each household’s allocation is based on the size and composition of the household, and may be altered as those factors change. Tenure insecurity has been documented as a deterrent to investing in agricultural improvements (Jacoby, Li, and Rozelle 2002; Deininger and Jin 2003).

Concerns over adverse effects of insecure tenure on long-term investment in land productivity have led the Chinese government to experiment with lengthening the duration of farmland contracts. In 1984 collectives were urged by the state to contract with member households for a period of 15 years, and in 1993 the state urged an extension of standard contracts to 30 years. Revisions to the Land Management Law in 1998 explicitly required that all farmland contracts be written and be effective for a term of 30 years with few or no adjustments allowed.

Farmers also have acquired some ability to alter land allocations by exchanges or subcontracting Exchanges of land among villagers to consolidate holdings were declared legal in 1986, and subcontracting of land to outsiders, subject to approval of two-thirds of the village membership, was declared legal in 1998. Fully implementing these enhanced tenure security and transferability measures remains difficult, however, because they run contrary to longstanding practices and principles of administration in China. For example, they limit the power of the village leadership, and may also result in less equitable land allocations by ruling out reallocations to accommodate demographic or other changes in circumstances.

Ensuring that farmland reforms take hold and preventing abandonment of productive farmland are likely to be increasingly important for maintaining agricultural productivity, especially in areas experiencing rapid urban growth. Urban employment opportunities for working-age men are widely available in fast-growing coastal areas, leaving the farm labor force to be composed primarily of women and the elderly. As many as 80 percent of the young men in the environs of Pinghu City (and 20 percent in Jingzhou) worked in industrial jobs in nearby cities. Lack of urban residency rights keeps farm-based families tied to the land, but since their main source of income is now nonagricultural, they have little incentive to invest in maintaining and enhancing land productivity. Moreover, limitations on labor time and capacity may induce them to leave some land uncultivated.

Such flows of labor out of farming can be accommodated by consolidating plots into larger operational units to exploit economies of scale, thereby lowering land productivity investment costs and increasing farming income sufficiently to make such investments worthwhile. But secure, transferable use rights are essential to accomplish these goals. In areas like Pinghu, for example, wages in urban employment are so much higher than income from farming that farmers have little incentive to invest in the maintenance and enhancement of land productivity by applying organic fertilizer or keeping irrigation and drainage systems in good repair.

Secure tenure rights can also serve as a check on the arbitrary exercise of authority by village leaders who have been known to expropriate land from farmers in order to lease it to rural enterprises or sell it to local governments, often without paying compensation and in many cases pocketing the returns themselves. Illegal land development of this kind has become a national scandal in China, and millions of farmers are known to have lost land as a result. According to the Ministry of Land and Resources (2003), farmers were owed at least $1.2 billion in compensation and relocation fees.

Water Management: The second type of institutional impediment to agriculture relates to water shortages, notably (1) lack of clearly delineated and enforced use-rights for water; (2) inadequate financing of water delivery infrastructure; and (3) failure to price water at its opportunity cost. The lack of clear use-right assignments results in upstream users taking too large a share of the water available, leaving inadequate supplies for downstream users—a phenomenon that applies at both the provincial level, where upstream provinces divert excessive quantities of stream flow, and the farm level, where farmers with land at the heads of delivery canals take excessive amounts, leaving little or nothing for those at the tails of those canals.

Funding for construction, maintenance, and operation of irrigation systems has been inadequate because these activities have no dedicated funding source, and maintenance varies with the overall status of government finances. According to local officials in Pinghu and Jingzhou, for instance, maintenance of irrigation and drainage systems virtually ceased around 1980. Recent attempts to remedy the neglect by investing in repair and upgrades of irrigation systems are hampered by lack of funds. In Jingzhou, for instance, officials estimate that at current funding levels it will take 50 years to repair all irrigation systems currently in need. Many systems that have been repaired recently are likely to require further maintenance before systems currently in need of repair have been upgraded.

Additional inefficiencies in water use arise in China because water prices are set below opportunity costs, leading to overuse. Many farmers are charged for water according to the amount of land farmed rather than the amount of water used. Charges may be set to raise revenue for the township or provincial treasury rather than to induce economically efficient water use. Experiments with water pricing indicate that farmers’ use of water conservation methods is quite price-responsive, so that water price reform has a significant potential to alleviate water shortages.

Marketing Institutions: Inadequate marketing infrastructure and institutions are the third major impediment to realizing potential gains from regional specialization as well as a deterrent to investment in agriculture in many localities. China has a long tradition of promoting self-sufficiency at the local and provincial levels, yet this self-reliance can become an impediment to economic growth by limiting the scope for gains from specialization. China has been moving away from this traditional stance. Grain trading, for example, has been partially liberalized and grain traders are creating more integrated national markets.

Greater market liberalization could contribute to farmland preservation and the maintenance of food production capacity generally. More closely integrated national markets should increase average prices and decrease price volatility, making farming more attractive relative to other forms of employment. Greater market integration should be especially beneficial in poorer inland areas where incentives to migrate toward fast-growing coastal cities have been especially strong.

This market liberalization will require significant investment in infrastructure, however. China’s transportation network has not expanded fast enough to keep pace with the growth of trade volume, and the country lacks sufficient warehouse and cold storage facilities. China has sufficient cold storage capacity to accommodate only 20 to 30 percent of demand, resulting in spoilage losses of perishable freight on the order of one-third (Gale 2002). Increases in such capacity could increase food availability substantially by reducing both spoilage losses and price volatility, giving farmers an incentive to increase their production of vegetables and other perishable products. Expanded provision of electricity could further increase the effective food supply by allowing consumers to reduce spoilage losses by refrigerating produce.

Urban Policies on Farmland Conversion

The current urban policy structure encourages municipal and regional governments to convert farmland, even in areas where the central government has made farmland preservation a top priority. Policies influencing government finance, residential construction, and urban land transactions combine to create a high demand for land. Policies governing payment for land also make farmland conversion the most attractive means of meeting that demand.

Urban land is allocated by a combination of administrative and market mechanisms that create substantial arbitrage opportunities for private enterprises and government entities. Private enterprises can lease land from municipal governments in return for payment of a conveyance fee. Local governments can acquire land by paying a compensation package set according to administrative formulas based on agricultural income, which is typically far lower than the conveyance fee. Revenue from land transactions is a major source of funding for local governments; according to some estimates, it can account for between a quarter and a half of all municipal revenue. As a result, local governments have strong incentives to expand into rural areas in order to finance their ongoing obligations in the areas of infrastructure and housing.

Current regulations also make it more attractive for local governments to provide housing for growing populations by expanding into rural areas rather than increasing density within existing urban boundaries. Redevelopment of existing municipal land requires governments to pay compensation to current tenants and to cover resettlement expenses. Compensation paid to current residents is much higher than that paid to rural inhabitants. In Beijing, for example, land costs (primarily compensation) make up as much as 60 percent of the redevelopment cost of existing urban areas compared to 30 to 40 percent of the cost of developing converted rural land. Tenants may also resist displacement tenaciously, which at the very least creates significant delays. In addition, it is more expensive to provide infrastructure to areas already densely developed.

Industrial development is widely seen as the key to economic growth and a rising standard of living for municipalities. Low land costs have encouraged local governments to acquire and set aside land for industrial development speculatively, in the hope of attracting industrial investment. Much of that land has remained idle as hoped-for investment failed to materialize. By 1996, there were roughly 116,000 hectares of idle, undeveloped land in economic development zones, over half of which was converted farmland that could no longer be converted back.

Low administratively set compensation levels for rural land also create incentives for illegal land transactions that allow rural collectives, rather than urban governments, to profit from conversion, thereby undermining the state’s control over land use. These low compensation levels also create incentives for other types of illegal land transactions, notably forcible takeovers by local officials of land whose owners are unwilling to sell.


The central government’s attempts to limit farmland conversion by administrative measures are likely to continue to be ineffectual as long as local governments and rural collectives continue to have such strong incentives to convert farmland. Institutional reform is thus critical for improving farmland preservation efforts and increasing land use efficiency in general. Reform efforts are also hampered by fragmentation of authority. The Ministry of Land and Resources has jurisdiction over land but not residential construction, industrial development, or local government finance; the latter are overseen by various ministries, each of which has its own distinct set of interests and concerns. Reform requires a cooperative effort that takes these diverse interests into account.


Erik Lichtenberg is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Chengri Ding is an associate professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is director of the Chinese Land Policy and Urban Management Program cosponsored by the University of Maryland and Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

This article summarizes their 2004 Lincoln Institute working paper, Farmland Preservation in China: Status and Issues for Further Research, which is available here.




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