More Food In A Changing Climate

By Feng Hu 4 February, 2016

CWR's Hu on how climate change and land & water constraints will challenge China's path to food security

Food security is paramount; 120mn ha dedicated farmland but under attack from urbanization & rampant pollution
Climate change may cause decline in farmland quality, which will make controlling fertilizer usage even harder
Water shortages will be the biggest limiting factor for agri; multiple-strategies needed for more grain per drop

Food is the first necessity of the people (民以食为天)” – the old Chinese proverb says a lot about the importance of food security for Chinese people. Around 2,500 years ago, Confucius already concluded “sufficiency of food” as one of the three requisites of a government, along with “sufficiency of military equipment” and the “confidence of the people in their ruler(子贡问政。子曰:足食,足兵,民信之矣). This has been well understood by most of the rulers of the Middle Kingdom with massive famines often resulting in social instability.

“The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people….”

The Analects of Confucius

For the current Chinese government, the task of making sure everybody has a full rice bowl has never been easy. It has to feed nearly a fifth of the global population with 7.6% of global arable land and 6.5% of global annual renewable freshwater resources. This means that you have to grow more food with less land and water, or you have to import. With consideration of national security, China chooses to stay self-sufficient for grain supply. Indeed, rice imports were merely 1.2% of domestic production in 2014, and such percentage was less than 2.4% for wheat. This is expected to stay so for a long time.

Issues related to “agriculture, farmers and rural areas” have been the key focus in the central government’s No.1 Document for 13 successive years. “Water” has also been brought into spotlight since 2011, with agriculture’s heavy reliance on it. The latest one, released shortly before Chinese New Year, stresses to further increase grain productivity and to secure the supply of grain & important agricultural products by 2020. There remain challenges to tackle given limited land and water. In addition, climate change could bring about other uncertainties.

120 million hectares of farmland under threat from rapid urbanization and pollution

The No.1 priority in China’s agriculture policy is to ensure the minimum 1.8 billion mu (120 million ha) of farmland – equivalent to the size of South Africa or twice of France – to grow food and other agriculture products. However, for a country as vast as China, the precious farmland is not easy to defend and is constantly encroached by rapid urbanization.

China wants to ensure a minimum 120 mn ha of farmland, equivalent to the size of South Africa or twice of France.
But the precious farmland is constantly encroached by rapid urbanization

Farmland encroached by rapid urbanization in a small town in Guizhou, China
Over the past two to three decades, China’s booming economy has greatly changed its urban landscapes but also its rural areas. As cities expand, surrounding villages and townships became suburbs and farmlands are claimed for other uses. Where I grew up, a small city on the eastern coast near Shanghai, I’ve seen small patches of farmland disappearing, replaced by concrete roads, factories and modern residential complexes.
Many people also left their land behind moving to cities to seek new opportunities and better lives. Since 2011, China’s urban population has surpassed its rural population. Now over 618 million Chinese or 45.2% of total national population live in rural areas. Among these, around 270 million of them work in agriculture, forestry, pasture or fisheries. These figures might continue to drop as more people want to share the same benefits of economic growth as their urban counterparts.

National survey shows up to 20 mn ha of farmland, almost the size of UK, is polluted

Meanwhile, rampant pollution adds further pressure on the already precious land resources. The latest nationwide survey results on soil pollution released in April 2014 showed that 20% of surveyed farmland was polluted. This could mean up to 20 million ha of farmland, which is almost the size of UK, is polluted. Some experts warned that it will take long time and great amount of investment to clean up polluted soil. All eyes are on the coming new plan to tackle soil pollution.

Climate change’s impacts on farmland quality may make controlling fertilizer use harder 

Even if China could clean up its soil in next 10 to 20 years, a great force of nature – the changing climate – will probably have deeper and longer term impacts on the soil. Already, the Third National Assessment Report of Climate Change in China warns that climate change is expected to ‘cause the decline of the farmland quality’.

“…climate change will cause the decline of the farmland quality.”

China’s Third National Assessment Report of Climate Change, 2015

The report adds that the impact on soil evaporating capacity “will lead to the decline of water content and the environment and health quality of arable soil”. So, more fertiliser might have to be used to compensate the decrease of organic carbon content and available nitrogen in soil. But this goes against the efforts by the government to flatten the consumption of fertilizers & pesticides by 2020.

The production and utilization of fertilizers also releases greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change. That’s why the target of controlling fertilizer usage is also included in China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). Therefore, alternatives ways to maintain soil fertility are needed.
Overall, agricultural activities (excluding land use) are China’s second largest GHG emission source. According to the same national report, agricultural activities emitted 800-900 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2010. This is around 10% of China’s total GHG emissions in that year. Agriculture will plays a central role for China to meet its commitment on CO2 emission reduction promised at COP21.

Shortage of water will be the biggest limiting factor

More importantly, the report highlighted that “the shortage of water resource is the biggest limiting factor for the sustainable development of the Chinese agriculture”. Agriculture already uses over 63% of China’s annual freshwater supply. Managing agricultural water use is key to hold the total water use in the ‘Three Red Lines’.

“…the shortage of water resource is the biggest limiting factor…”

Meanwhile, pollution exacerbates water scarcity. Agriculture itself contributes nearly half (48%) of the COD discharge in the wastewater in 2014. As the actions detailed in the ‘Water Ten Plan’ are broken down to local level, more pressure will be put on pesticide & fertiliser use as well as livestock wastewater management.
So, China’s strategy to alleviate the pressure in its water-food-land nexus will be to grow more grain per drop and per hectare of land.
China’s grain productivity has increased by 28% from 4.2 tonne/ha in 1995 to 5.4 tonne/ha in 2014. As the government continues with the modernisation of agriculture through technological upgrades, consolidation of small farms as well as carefully choosing the crop mix with consideration of both water resources and economic values, the productivity will increase. However, such increase will likely get more difficult and limited.

China needs to grow more grain per drop & per hectare of land.
Improvements in productivity & saving irrigation water might become more challenging

A small village with patchy farmland in Sichuan, China
The overall irrigation efficiency has also been improving, rising from 0.44 in 2002 to 0.52 in 2013, and is expected to reach 0.55 by 2020. But at the same time, China is also increasing its irrigated areas. Currently only 39% of the sown area is irrigated. By 2020, this percentage is expected to be over 55%, or 1 billion mu (66.7 million ha). Over the last ten years, although the share of irrigation water in total water use has dropped from 61.4% in 2002 to 55% in 2013, the absolute amount has been increasing steadily.
Moreover, we shall also keep an eye on the grain loss. If China can save its current 165 million tonnes of annual grain loss, it could save 10 billion m3 of water and reduce 12.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. This calls for an upgrade of the whole grain supply system from farmland to the market.

By adopting adaptation measures in agri, China can reach 99.2% grain self-sufficiency

The national report was confident that by implementing technology-based adaptation measures in agriculture, China’s grain self-sufficiency can still reach 99.2%. Indeed, a 15-year plan has been set out to develop sustainable agriculture by 2030, jointly issued by multiple strategies in May 2015. All the actions will need financing.
How China deals with all these challenges will dictate its path towards long-term food security. The changing climate will make it an even tougher job, but with better understanding of the interlinkages amongst water, food, energy, land & climate, we can come up with ways to innovate solutions and finance these efforts to make our food production cleaner, more water-efficient, low carbon and at the same time more productive.
It won’t be easy. But like water security and energy security, China will do whatever it takes to ensure ‘sufficiency of food’ for its people as Confucius foretold 2,500 years ago.

Further Reading


  • China Water Risk’s 5 Trends for 2016 – Prioritizing environment alongside employment signals a reshuffle. To show it’s serious, China will “kill a chicken to warn the monkey”. The Year of the Monkey brings with it wild swings, so check out our top 5 trends in water for 2016 for it is better to be in a position to disrupt than be disrupted
  • Be Green and Prosper – With increased fines, penalties and jail sentences, China Water Risk’s McGregor & Liu expand on China’s push towards ‘all things green’. Also hear from top business leaders in China on why it pays to be green to prosper
  • Developing A Global Water Stewardship System -Alliance for Water Stewardship’s Zhenzhen Xu, Ma Xi & Michael Spencer introduce the first ever global water stewardship standard and share lessons learnt from Ecolab’s pilot at their Taicang China chemical plant

Agriculture, climate change & water

  • COP21: What Paris Means For China – All eyes are on China, the largest contributor to global emissions as it transitions to a low carbon future. See what Paris means for China from carbon trading, peak emissions to carbon-intensive industries
  • Less Food Waste From Farm to Fork – China’s new plan on grain supply and storage says saving grain means saving water. CWR’s Hu mulls challenges & opportunities in reducing food waste in a hungry future
  • Water Ten To Revamp Chinese Agriculture – Takeaways from Shanghai’s Global Agriculture Sustainability Forum are reviewed in relation to the new Water Ten Plan. Fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation & product tractability markets look set to change. China Water Risk’s Hu on what the new plan means for the future of Chinese agriculture
  • 2014 State of Environment Report Review – China’s overall environmental quality in 2014 was “average”, but with polluters tampering with monitoring, can we even believe this data? We take a closer look at  the mixed news
  • Balancing Water For Agri & Coal – China’s coal mines lie next to its farmlands and it plans to save water used in agriculture to fuel coal growth. In “Towards a Water & Energy Secure China”, China Water Risk explores strategies to control water use between agriculture & coal to ensure both food & energy security
  • China: Gaps in Rainy Day Funding – Given increasing economic losses & negative impacts on food production due to extreme weather, China Water Risk’s Hu highlights gaps in flood control investment and expands on how the Chinese government expects to finance rainy days ahead
  • The State of China’s Agriculture – China’s limited water and arable land plus rampant pollution raises concerns over food safety & food security. Get the latest update on agriculture & water and see why these policies matter
  • Water Pollution May Lead to More Trade – Upon publishing “No Water, No Food: ensuring food safety & food security in China”, HSBC’s Wai-Shin Chan tells us why China’s war on pollution & the need for self-sufficiency may result in more agri trade
  • 8 Things You Should Know About Rice & Water – How much of water & farmlands are used to grow rice in China? What about exposure to Cadmium, Mercury, Lead & Arsenic? Can China ensure rice security? Here are 8 things you should know about rice & water in China
Feng Hu
Author: Feng Hu
Having previously led CWR’s work on water-nomics, Feng now sits on our advisory panel to help us push the conversation on integrating water considerations in planning sustainable transition and mobilising finance toward climate and water resilience. Feng currently works on ESG advisory at a regional financial institution. Prior to that, Feng worked as Sustainable Finance Research Manager APAC at V.E, part of Moody’s ESG Solutions. During his time at CWR, he initiated and led projects for CWR including the joint policy briefs with China’s Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the water-nomics of the Yangtze River Economic Belt. Feng expanded the water-nomics conversation beyond China by co-authoring CWR’s seminal report “No Water No Growth – Does Asia Have Enough Water To Develop?”. He has given talks on water-nomics and other water issues at international conferences, academic symposiums, corporate trainings and investor forums. Previously, Feng also sat on the Technical Working Group of the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) and worked as a senior carbon auditor on various types of climate change mitigation projects across Asia and Africa. Feng holds two MSc degrees – one in Finance (Economic Policy) from SOAS University of London and the other in Sustainable Resource Management from Technical University of Munich – and a BSc degree in Environmental Science from Zhejiang University.
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