The development of China as a global economic power is one of the most dramatic stories of recent decades. China’s economy has been the fastest growing in the world since 1980. Rapid growth has occurred in all sectors, including agriculture, accompanied by rapid poverty reduction. In the past 30 years, based on China’s official poverty line, the absolute level of rural poverty fell from 260 million (36 per cent of rural population) in 1978 to 26.9 million (2.8 per cent of rural population) in 2010 (NSBC, 2011). Moreover, the general welfare of most of the population has increased markedly. Many indicators of nutritional status have improved. In fact, by the middle of 2007, China had achieved many of its Millennium Development Goals.
China’s agricultural sector has changed dramatically since the late 1970s. It grew at about 5 per cent annually in the past three decades. While significant growth has occurred in almost all cropping sectors, the production of some crops has grown more rapidly (NSBC, 2011a). Hence, crop structure has been changing, diversifying out of staple grains into higher-valued crops (Huang et al., 2010). The same is occurring in terms of the shift out of cropping into livestock, aquaculture and off-farm employment (NSBC, 2011b).
While past accomplishments are impressive, there are still great challenges ahead. Income disparity, for example, rose with economic growth. Such disparities are significant between regions, between urban and rural populations, and between households within the same location (Cai et al., 2002; World Bank,2002; NSBC, 2010). The nation’s rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation have been accompanied by rising pressures of inflation, national food insecurity and environmental degradation.
In agriculture, while successful technology innovation has helped China to increase its productivity, China may face great challenges in the future. Rising demand for domestic and industrial water use poses a serious constraint to irrigated agriculture (Wang et al., 2006). Changes in national land policy helped China to increase agricultural productivity in the early reform period, and contributed significantly to the reduction of rural poverty. However, land holdings are so small that farming activities alone cannot continue to raise the incomes of most rural households.
One of the most conspicuous trends in production is for households to have smaller and smaller farm sizes. Between 1980 and 2000, the average size of land controlled by a household fell from 0.71 to 0.55 hectares (NSBC, 2011b). Moreover, while the rate of growth of production and marketing cooperatives (called Farmer Professional Associations—FPAs) has risen, only a small proportion of villages and farmers are members. According to Shen et al. (2005), as of 2005, in all of China, only about 2 per cent of farmers belonged to cooperatives, a level of participation far below almost all other East Asian nations (and many Western nations during their development years), where participation rates were almost 100 per cent.