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Can china continue feeding itself? Climate change, water stress and the global food system

Time (GMT +01) 13:00 14:30


Professor Wang Jinxia - Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences

James Keeley - IIED


Steve Wiggins - Research Fellow,Protected Livelihoods and Agricultural Growth Programme, ODI


Roger Calow - Programme Leader, Water Policy Programme, ODI

Roger Calow, Programme Leader, Water Policy Programme, ODI, introduced the speakers and welcomed the audience

Professor Wang Jinxia - Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences, presented her most recent study entitled: Can China Continue Feeding Itself? The Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture

  • The study researched the impacts of climate change on Chinese agriculture, taking into account how farmers adapt to it (for example changing crops).
  • Adopting a Ricardian economic model, the study analysed the trends in Chinese agriculture for the past 50 years, with a sample of 8405 households across 28 provinces
  • The results of the study were mixed: warming is likely to have a marginal positive effect on rainfed farmers in very cold places but it will likely harm rainfed farmers in most of China and especially the far south. On the other hand, more precipitation is likely to be harmful to rainfed farmers in the wet southeast but will benefit farmers in the remaining regions. Irrigated farmers are less sensitive to temperature but will benefit from increase rainfall.
  • This model is good insofar as it provides an estimate of the benefits derived from adaptation, which is lacking in the studies conducted so far: Climate change’s effects on agricultural production will be mitigated by farmers’ switching crops and irrigation methods to adapt to the changing temperature and precipitation
  • However, this model fails to take into account the decrease of water availability, which could have a potential great negative impact on agriculture. China is already facing water shortage: declining surface water has led to the overexploitation of groundwater, and consequently to the falling of ground water tables. At the same time demand for water is increasing, not only for agriculture, but also for industrial and domestic use.

Professor Wang Jinxia concluded that China can continue to feed itself if climate changes, however:

  • Farmers’ adaptation -- such as crop switching and changes in irrigation patterns -is key to minimize the negative impacts of climate change on agriculture and the Chinese government should support these strategies.
  • The effect of climate change on water availability is very important
  • The effect of climate change varies by region: It is very important to explore regional adaptation measures (such as water policies) that fit to local conditions, rather than uniform national policies.

James Keeley (IIED) analysed the global dimensions of China’s food production and consumption, which he summarised into the following main points:

  • The current food crisis is not driven by China’s increase in demand for meat, but by a range of other factors including speculation, bad harvests, oil price increases, and bio-fuel.
  • There are several drivers of change that could lead to a deep crisis of agriculture and food production in the long term. Some of the main factors are:
  1. Climate change, which could bring a decline of 30% in wheat and rice production over the next 20-30 years
  2. Water pollution: 7 major river systems’ water is not fit for irrigation because of pollution
  3. Water availability
  4. Loss of farmland to urbanisation and land degradation
  5. Ground water table decline
  • China’s food security programme: there is the perception that China, being a big country, will consume most of the world’s food resources. China however has a strong grain self sufficiency policy which ensures that 95% of grain is sourced domestically. Production fluctuates in China but in past years China has shown that it won’t have problems feeding itself.
  • The impact of China’s global linkages on agri-food production is mixed. On the negative side China now imports key crops, like cotton (water hungry, from Africa) soy (soil depleting, from Argentina and Brazil through long term agreements), bio-fuels (domestic policy is that only non staple crops should be used to produce bio-fuels, so these are purchased from abroad) and timber (from Russia): this has an environmental impact on these countries.
  • China’s influence in Africa is rapidly expanding; however this is not a long term strategy to ensure Chinese food security, but it is done on an ad hoc basis. Chinese farming is mostly geared to local market and consumption. China is also a source of innovation and experimentation in sustainable agriculture, policy of supporting agricultural department centres, trying to reduce fertiliser use, promoting land rehabilitation, CC adaptation, water transfer, and use of bio gas and agricultural bio-technology.

Declan Conway presented the results of a recent study that looked at how crop yields in China will be affected by climate change:

  • The results are optimistic, up to 2050 there will be minimal impact on the yields of the three main crops (maise will be negatively affected and wheat positively affected) at national level. In the long term, when the temperature will raise more significantly, these positive effects will start diminishing and yields will be negatively effected.
  • Water is key to crop production: change in water availability caused by climate change and increasing demand will have a greater impact on crop yields than the direct effect of climate change itself
  • He concluded saying that here are several critical factors which will determine how climate change will effect agricultural production in China:
  1. We need to study the co2 fertilisation effect more;
  2. Demand side is important
  3. Adaptation policies in the agricultural sector can offset some of the negative effects of climate change
  4. China needs policies to support sustainable agricultural production to maintain increases in productivity in the future

Steve Wiggins, Research Fellow,Protected Livelihoods and Agricultural Growth Programme, ODI, commented on the presentations:

  • China has made amazing progress in the last 30 years, however there are still a lot of challenges, like climate change. From the studies it seems that CC will have a modest negative impact on agricultural production, less than 20% according to the worse projections, which should be overcome by improvement in technology over the time period
  • It is important to look at how food consumption is going to change in China: current increases in food (grain and staple) prices have not been caused by China, however oil seed prices have been affected by increasing imports of soy and vegetable oils by China
  • We need to understand Chinese self-sufficiency policy better and understand why china has reduced its grain stock
  • Improvement of technology, and institutional responses are key to respond to future challenges

The following issues were raised during the Q&A session:

  • Need to look into agricultural crops that require less water
  • Studies looked at progressive climate change but not at the increase of extreme events in the short term, which is going to have a great impact on agricultural production
  • Government should support adaptation: difficulty is always in implementation, due to regional variation on and impacts implementation and conditions.


China will shortly become the most water-stressed country in east and south-east Asia, yet maintains an unwritten policy of ensuring 95% self-sufficiency in grains. Is this realistic given current climate change predictions, changes in crop mix and shifting consumption? And can China's dwindling water resources take the strain?    

This meeting explored some of the issues around water scarcity and food production in China in the context of climate change and international trade. These are issues the government is taking seriously: the 11th five year plan with its emphasis on harmonious development, environmental protection and rural livelihoods marks a significant departure from the previous ‘GDP-ism’, and China has recently published a National Climate Change Programme (see: http://en.ndrc.gov.cn). Nonetheless, questions remain about how to protect water resources, support rural incomes and meet grain targets, particularly in the drier north where climate-induced water stress is expected to worsen.    

In this public event, ODI welcomed Professor Wang Jinxia from the Chinese Centre for Agricultural Policy (CCAP), one of China’s foremost research and advisory institutions. In addition to advising the Chinese government on issues related to water and agriculture, Prof. Wang has worked as a consultant for the World Bank, DFID, AusAID and many other donor agencies. She is the author of a recent report on climate change in China, exploring implications for rural incomes and food production.