Urban construction and expansion of protected land challenges the already limited cultivated land resources. The situation worsened from 2009 to 2018. A policy to offset taking away agricultural land for construction around urban areas means finding an equivalent amount of land elsewhere, so previously uncultivated land is developed for farming.
Also, the Grain for Green ecological restoration project, which encourages farmers on marginal land to swap farmland for trees to combat deforestation, along with agricultural adjustments and natural disasters, significantly changed the quantity, quality and distribution of China’s cultivated land.
According to the third national land resource survey conducted from September 2018 to December 2019, the total area of farmland area fell from 2.031 billion mu (135.4 million hectares) in 2009 to 1.918 billion mu (127.9 million hectares).
In January 2021, a paper titled “Regional Characteristics and Evolution of China’s Farmland Changes in the past 10 Years” published in the Journal of Agricultural Engineering analyzed changes in cultivated land from 2009 to 2018. The conclusion was that the overall amount of cultivated land area in China is stable, but regional changes vary significantly.
Through analysis of the dynamics of cultivated land change, researchers found that cities, provinces and regions such as Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangdong and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region changed more significantly. Among the six regions, the amount of cultivated land in Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing decreased most significantly, while the changing dynamics of cultivated land in Shanghai, Guangdong and Xinjiang increased significantly.
Prior to 2010, experts thought the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong and the Yangtze River Delta near Shanghai faced the most serious farmland loss in China. But in the past decade, China’s central region has suffered the most serious farmland loss, and the cultivated areas in Guangdong and Shanghai have increased significantly.
Researchers found that the decrease in cultivated land in China occurs mainly within 30 kilometers from central urban areas, while newly cultivated land mainly appears 40 kilometers from the urban center. They concluded this shows that urbanization is still the dominant factor in the decline of arable land.
Arable land in 22 out of 31 provincial regions decreased by a combined 709,100 hectares. In the other nine provinces and regions, the arable land area increased by 315,400 hectares. “This shows that the policy goal of a dynamic aggregate balance is being basically achieved, but there are still regional differences,” Weng said.
Wei Houkai, director of the Institute of Rural Development, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told NewsChina that industrial and urban construction is the main reason for the decline in crop land area. Comparing data from the country’s second national land resource survey from 2007 to 2009 with the third national land resource survey from 2017 to 2019, urban, industrial and mining areas increased by 22.9 percent, and the land used for transportation increased by 20.3 percent, and this took away arable land. The second cause is ecological projects such as Grain for Green. From 2009 to 2019, forest cover increased by 11.9 percent.
Statistics indicate that per capital arable land has continued to decline over the past 40 years from 1.59 mu (1,060 square meters) per person in the 1980s to 1.36 mu (907 square meters) per person now. Li Baoguo said he does not feel optimistic as arable land continues to decline and he cautioned that the amount of good quality arable land has reduced quickly. “Once urban development encroaches on high-quality farmland in the suburbs of cities like Shanghai, Suzhou and Wuxi, it will permanently disappear,” Li said.
Fragmentation of arable land operation and low economic benefits for farmers only increases the pressure on arable land preservation. In southwest China and China’s southern coastal regions, authorities have zoned extensive areas of cultivated land for non-agricultural use.
Li Renqing, secretary-general of the Rural Social Issues Research Center, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told NewsChina in June: “Along with modernization, industrialization and urbanization, land use has been changing continuously. Farmers can barely make money, so it’s common to see them giving it up or not using the land as efficiently as they could.”