Thursday, September 2, 2021

China's Loss of Cropland: 7.5 mil ha over 10 years

China's latest survey shows that cultivated land comprised 16 percent of national land use. Orchards and plantations account for another 3 percent. Forests and grasslands are the most prevalent land use, covering a combined 68 percent of land area. Urban/industrial/mining covers 4 percent of land, according to the survey results. The land survey results were released in a communique by China's Ministry of Natural Resources and National Bureau of Statistics after 3 years of work. This survey measured land area as of December 31, 2019. The previous land survey had gathered land data as of 2009. 

Calculated from China 3rd National Land Survey.

The sum of land area categories reported by the Chinese land survey totals near 7.8 million square km, substantially less than the 9.4 million square km China total land area reported by World Bank statistics. China's 2020 Statistical Yearbook reported data for 2017 slightly different from the 2009 land survey totals.

Officials are congratulating themselves on the success of their "strictest" land protection measures because the 127.86 million hectare cultivated land exceeds the 2020 target of 124.33 million hectares (1.865 million mu) set in a 2016-2030 national land plan. The cultivated land total is down 7.53 million hectares (6.2 percent) from the amount reported ten years earlier. At an average grain yield of 5.5 metric tons per hectare, the net decline in cultivated land area implies loss of 41 million metric tons of grain production capacity. Official statistics say grain yields rose 15 percent over 10 years. A different statistic on the area sown to crops reported by the National Bureau of Statistics somehow increased 10.5 million hectares over the same ten years that the area of land under cultivation declined 7.5 million hectares.

The communique doesn't mention it, but China would be at the "red line" of 120 million hectares and below its 2030 target (121.7 million hectares) if cultivated land falls at the same pace during the next decade.

Chart shows difference between land use amounts reported in national land surveys for 2009 and 2019. Wetlands were not included in the 2009 survey, so the wetland change reflects the amount reported in 2019.

Urbanized land area went up 6.6 million hectares between 2009 and 2019, but the communique claimed there was no net loss of cultivated land to urbanization.  The main loss of cropland was conversion to orchards. The communique says 4.2 million hectares of cultivated land were converted to plantations/orchards while some forest/orchard land was also converted to cropland. The communique insisted that 5.8 million hectares of plantations could easily be converted back to cropland, and another 11.1 million hectares could be converted through engineering projects. The communique said 15.27 million hectares of cultivated land was converted to forest, grassland, wetland, river beds, lakes, while 14.47 million hectares of forests, grassland, wetland, riverbeds, and lakes were converted to cultivation. 

China has ratcheted up its cropland statistics over the years. Data showed a modest decline from 1960 to the 1990s, but that total was widely believed to be understated. A 30-percent upward revision after the first land survey in 2006 was followed by another decade of modest decline. The 2009 land survey ratcheted the cropland area up again, followed by another decade of modest decline. 

Ecological land uses are a new emphasis in this land survey. The 23.5 million hectares of wetlands had not been included in the previous land survey. The 30-million-hectare increase in forest land between 2009 and 2019 is consistent with new emphasis on ecological uses, but there was no explanation of the 22.8-million-hectare decrease in grassland. 

According to the communique, the survey will be the basis for land planning. Local officials will be responsible for protecting cropland and preventing unauthorized conversions to nonagricultural uses. Requisition of cropland for urban uses must be "balanced" with new cropland created elsewhere. Cultivated land may be used to grow grains, cotton, oilseeds, sugar, vegetables, and other agricultural products. Some cropland is designated as "permanent basic farmland" which can only be used for grain production. 

Detailed data on land area within the major categories reported in the communique are compiled below. No regional breakdown was reported in the communique. 

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