The Van Trump Report

A Look at China’s Latest Plans to Boost Grain Output

China this year has released a string of policy priorities for agriculture aimed at boosting domestic production. According to state media, China has reached a “bottleneck” in these ongoing efforts where it is increasingly difficult to lift production any further. Roadblocks include an aging farm labor force and a lack of workers to take their place, as well as a lack of arable land and farming technology.

China has long been fixated on food security and nearly every year for the past two decades has released some sort of rural/agricultural revitalization plan. This year’s plans regurgitate a lot of long-standing policy goals, including reducing the country’s reliance on ag imports. According to an action plan published by the State Council, China’s Cabinet, the country aims to boost its grain production capacity by over 50 million metric tons (MMT) by 2030. They are particularly keen on cutting soybean imports which have more than quadrupled since 2004/05, declining only once (2018/19) in the past twenty years.

China’s policy directives tend to be light on details but a couple of the channels they are focused on to deliver this production boost stand out: utilization of saline-alkali land and agricultural “mechanization enhancement” or “smart agriculture.” Below are some details about the challenges and progress made so far.
Saline-Alkali Land:  China’s saline-alkaline desert ecosystem, also called “salt desert,” refers to areas that are comprised of severely salinized soil which inhibits most crops’ growth. As of 2021, it was estimated that China had close to 250 million acres of saline-alkali soil. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about one-third could be improved to produce crops. China has a goal of turning around 30 million acres of alkaline soil into potential farmland.

While China is massive – 3.7 million square miles or over 2.3 billion acres – it only has roughly 315 million acres of arable land. By comparison, the US land area amounts to nearly 2.3 billion acres with some 1.2 billion in agricultural use. Of course, China also has a lot more people to feed with a population of just over 1.4 billion versus 333 million in the US.

China has made some progress in reclaiming this land by adopting a salt and alkali-resistant rice, aka “sea rice,” designed to grow in tidal flats or other areas with heavy salt content. Researchers claim to have boosted corn production in salinized soils by as much as +60%. However, their yield estimate sounds completed fabricated at over 600 bushels per acre. China’s corn yield is typically less than 100 bpa versus around 170+ here in the US.

Ag Tech: To combat the decline in farm workers, China wants to build “unmanned farms” that would be run via driverless tractors and autonomous precision equipment for planting and applying chemical inputs. According to China ag policy blog DimSums, an “Unmanned Farm Development Report” issued in 2023 showed China’s unmanned farming is in its initial stages of development in which government demonstration projects are set up on state-run farms to inspire wider adoption. The 5-year plan aims to “fully popularize” intelligent agricultural machinery and equipment for production of main food crops in large contiguous fields in plains regions.

According to DimSums, by the end of 2022, there were about 100 unmanned farming projects covering nearly 50,000 acres in Shandong and Jiangsu Provinces. There are also at least eight model projects in Heilongjiang and Ningxia Provinces that cover close to 10,000 acres and are allegedly utilizing some 20,000 pieces of smart farming equipment.  

These unmanned farm concepts apparently are inspired by China President Xi Jinping’s “Thousand Village Demonstration and Ten Thousand Village Rectification” plan aimed at overhauling rural China. The vision includes planned villages surrounded by these unmanned fields. It’s not clear what the people living in them would actually do for a living but those farms are expected to boost production by about +10%.

China has trailed far behind the US and Europe in the agtech space. However, they aren’t expected to rely on foreign equipment makers as they want to keep their data walled off. Developing farm automation equipment is one of the key targets of the “Made in China 2025” initiative. (Sources: Reuters, China Daily, Beijing Review, DimSums)

新华社照片,阿拉尔(新疆),2023年10月14日 新疆沙漠边缘万亩连片耐盐碱水稻实测高产 10月13日,新疆阿拉尔市测产田块,人们操作机械收割水稻。 10月13日,由国家耐盐碱水稻技术创新中心组织相关专家在新疆阿拉尔市对耐盐碱水稻公开实收测产。经测产专家组现场评定,最终理论亩产结果为573.8公斤/亩。这是新疆耐盐碱水稻首次实现万亩连片高产。 新华社记者 高晗 摄

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