The author is dean of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies and professor of School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University.
China is now the world's largest agricultural economy, as its grain production reached 657.9 million metric tons in 2018－22 percent of the world's total. Also, China's average grain output－at 1.2 times the world average－is remarkable.
China not only feeds 18.4 percent of the world's population despite having just 10 percent of the world's arable land and 6.6 percent of the world's freshwater, it has also greatly improved the quality of food, ensuring a relatively high level of nutrients.
Problem solved without being burden on others
Practice is the sole criterion for testing the truth, while time is the best witness. In 1949, in a 14-page letter of transmittal to the US president－included at the beginning of a US White Paper on China－then US secretary of state Dean Acheson asserted: "The first problem which every Chinese Government has had to face is that of feeding this population. So far none has succeeded."
Acheson implied that, with a grain output of about 110 million tons, China would be unable to feed its population of more than 500 million. Indeed, in 1949 China stood on the brink of famine, suffering catastrophic starvation due to food shortages.
But Chairman Mao challenged Acheson's contention. Not only did Mao claim that every kind of miracle can be performed so long as there are people under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, but he also said that "revolution can change everything, and that before long there will arise a new China with a big population and a great wealth of products, where life will be abundant and culture will flourish.All pessimistic views are utterly groundless".
In September 1994, Lester R. Brown, head of the Worldwatch Institute, published an article titled "Who Will Feed China?", in which he echoed Acheson's pessimistic outlook. Brown argued that, given China's population growth of 14 million a year, the prospected gap between the country's market demand for grain and its domestic production would dwarf anything the world had ever seen.
Brown said: "While China's grain production capacity is eroding, its demand is surging." And he predicted that China's grain production would fall by at least one-fifth (or 0.5 percent a year) between 1990 and 2030. The grain growing area in China would reduce by 47 percent, while the total grain output would fall from the 340 million tons in 1994 to only 274 million tons.
The domestic grain output would meet only 42.5 percent of the total demand (645 million tons), while the remaining 57.5 percent would rely on imports. Consequently, China would become heavily dependent on imports, which would drive grain prices upward everywhere. The resulting grain deficit, he said, would present one of the most difficult questions world leaders would ever have to face: Who will feed China?
Shortly after the publication of Brown's article, I issued a response challenging his gloomy prediction. In two articles, the first published in The Straits Times, and the second in Lianhe Zaobao (United Morning News), I pointed out that China produced 1.1 times more cereal than the United States, and fed its four-times-larger population with only half the US' arable land.
Brown's projection for the grain output lacked scientific basis. The predicted grain output of 267 million tons in 2030 was equivalent to the grain output way back in 1973. But China achieved a remarkable turnaround by achieving a grain-output growth rate of 72.2 percent from 1973 to 1993.
Currently, China's net import of grain is just 2 percent of its total consumption. So now it feeds its huge population without creating a burden on other countries.
Innovations and reform have been the solution
Indeed, over the past 20 years, China has caught up with and even surpassed the global average per capita in the production of major agricultural products. The only exceptions are soybean, sugar cane, fruits, milk and wool.
Such great achievements not only attest to China's success in rural reform and agricultural progress, but also represent a significant contribution to the world's grain production and agricultural development.
In fact, since 2006 China has been a major donor country to the UN World Food Programme.
The world is curious, and wants to know how China is able to feed its close to 1.4 billion population with less than 10 percent of the world's total arable land and only 6.6 percent of freshwater resources. By comparison, the US has 1.3 times as much arable land.
First, innovations in agriculture. The focus has shifted from increasing just the quantity of food to increasing both the quantity and the quality of food by means of scientific and technological innovations, enhanced competitiveness, sustainable development, and the conservation of resources.
Second, China's rural reforms have greatly promoted agricultural development. From 1978 to 2017, China's average annual agricultural growth rate was 4.4 percent, the best in the world. In current dollar terms, China's agricultural value added increased from 7.6 percent in 1981 to 28.9 percent in 2017. China has already surpassed the US to become the world's largest agricultural value-adding country.
Third, China's high multiple cropping index can be attributed to its expansion of land resources:the increased multiple cropping has been equivalent to additional one-third of cultivated land area. With less than 10 percent of the world's arable land, China's cereal-planting area accounts for 13.4 percent of the world total.
Fourth, the accelerated agricultural progress has enabled China to achieve better performance than India in terms of cereal output. Even though India's cereal planting area, accounting for 13.7 percent of the world total, is slightly higher than China's, its cereal yield per plant area is only 52.4 percent that of China, and the total cereal output is only 50.7 percent of China's output.
Fifth, the Chinese government has developed a grain safety strategy based on its national conditions. This national grain safety strategy includes centralization and coordination, aimed at streamlining self-sufficiency.
Although having only 18,000 grain-processing enterprises, China has produced 480 million tons of grain, accounting for 72.7 percent of the current year's grain output (660 million tons). This output was worth 2.8 trillion yuan ($441.07 billion)－which is about 3.8 percent of China's GDP.
Sharing experiences with other countries
China encourages its domestic agriculture enterprises and investors to export and transfer advanced experiences so as to help agricultural technology training and promote agricultural modernization and trade liberalization in other developing countries.
Well aware of concerns about food safety and food production, China will continue to meet the food demands of its people. More important, it will continue to promote and share its achievements in modern agricultural development and experience with the world.
These actions comprise China's dedicated efforts to facilitate global agricultural development, and share its modernization achievements with other countries. Despite concerns and skepticism over grain safety and grain production, China will surely weather the storm caused by its huge population. And it will promote and share its experiences and achievements in modern agricultural development with the rest of the world.