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Along with remarkable economic growth, China's agricultural production and food security have improved a lot in recent decades. However, there are regional differences. Policies focus on delivering science and technologies to smallholder farms. The drylands cover 40% of the territory. Resilient dryland cropping systems are needed as land degradation and desertification affect a third of the population.

158 million – Number of undernourished people in China

400 million – People in China affected by desertification

Up to 3.3 degrees – Temperature increase in China forecast by 2050

50 tons/ha – Pigeonpea biomass production in Southern China

General context

About half of China's population lives in rural areas where two-thirds of the people rely on farming, fishing, livestock and forestry. Cities have grown rapidly in the last two decades due to the industrial boom. Agriculture plays an important role in the development of the economy. However, income gaps are increasing between cities and the countryside (three times higher in cities) and poverty remains a rural phenomenon, affecting especially women, the elderly, youth and ethnic minorities in remote mountainous regions. The migration of male rural laborers towards cities has “womanized” the agriculture sector in China.

China is a remarkable example of how smallholder agriculture can contribute to food security. Following economic reforms in the early ’80s, such as the household responsibility system and the phasing out of collective farming, poverty and food insecurity dropped drastically. Chinese rural households were allocated one mu of land, about 1/15th of a hectare. The rural poverty reduction strategy focused on smallholder productivity growth, providing the technology, infrastructure, institutional environment, and incentive systems that allow smallholders to grow.

Poverty tends to be higher in Central and Western China (11% in 2008 compared to the national average of 4.5%). In China, each province has its specific socio-economic level, food habits, health infrastructure and communication facilities. Thus, there are significant differences in nutritional status between provinces; statistics show that 56% of children under five were stunted in Guizhou Province while the percentage is 7% in Bejjing (FAO).

Food security is one of the top priorities of the Chinese government. Agricultural output grew 4.5 times during 1978-2011 following agricultural and rural reforms. However, food price inflation has been rising in recent years, and output is anticipated to slow in the next decade with increasing resource and rural labour constraints. Reducing the estimated 158 million undernourished remains a major challenge.

China has a varied landscape with vast seacoasts, fertile plains and valleys, rugged mountains and deserts. Drylands covers roughly 40% of the total land area. (source: GEF). More than half the drylands which cover 179 million hectares are degraded.

In the past decades, desertification has affected over 400 million people who struggle to cope with water shortages, unproductive land and the breakdown of ecological systems caused by rising temperatures, overgrazing and poor land management. The Gobi desert "eats" 3,600 square km of grassland every year, due to a combination of unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation, and mismanagement of water resources, thus creating sandstorms. About 27% of the country (more than 260 million hectares) is now affected by land degradation.

Regreening efforts (the “green wall of China”) have, according to official figures, rehabilitated between 40,000 to 70,000 square km of land, and a reversal of desertification has been reported in Ningxia province.

Climate change: Temperatures are expected to increase by 3.3 oC in 2050 compared to 2000, with an estimated  5-7% increase in rainfall (Ding et al 2007). Warming has already had some impact on crop yields in some regions. Plant diseases and pests cause about 25% annual losses in agricultural produce. Since 1995, the economic losses in agriculture due to droughts and floods have risen sharply, costing about 1% of national GDP. Farmers will have to shift to more resilient cropping systems.  Nutritious and resilient dryland cereals and grain legumes are therefore very important for China's future food security.

ICRISAT research in China

Since the 1980s, ICRISAT has been actively collaborating with China. In 2009, the Center of Excellence for Dryland Agriculture (CEDA) was opened together with ICARDA and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Its research focus is on eco-intensification and crop-livestock production to improve dryland resilience and livelihoods.

Drylands crops research

China is the world leader in groundnut production. Collaboration in groundnut research with partners such as the Oils Crops Research Institute and Shandong Peanut Research Institute covers aflatoxin management, genomics and crop breeding, utilization of wild species and mechanization.

Following the introduction of ICRISAT pigeonpea cultivars in the hilly areas of the southern China, where rainfall is over 1,000 mm, this legume has become popular. After extensive pigeonpea testing, research showed that despite poor grain yield due to damaging pod borer attacks, pigeonpea is a very interesting crop for fodder for goat and buffalo as it produces a large biomass of fresh leaves and tender branches, up to 50 t/ha. Currently, it is estimated that pigeonpea is grown on 150,000 ha in Guangxi and Yunnan provinces.

Chickpea is also grown in southwest China. ICRISAT breeding lines are tested for adaptation.

China is also among the world's largest producers of sorghum and millets. Small millets such as the foxtail millet are a key staple crop, especially among the poor in the dry north (boiled and eaten as a healthy porridge).

Genomics: Beijing Genomics Institute - Shenzhen has been a key partner for pigeonpea and chickpea genome mapping.

Integrated watershed management: In two benchmark watersheds in Guizhou and Yunnan Provinces, yields were very low due to poor farming practices and environmental degradation. Household incomes have more than doubled in 5 years, thanks to better water and soil conservation, diversification and better connection to markets. Yields rose dramatically, especially for vegetable production (6-7 times for tomato). Interventions included construction of small tanks to store run-off water, biogas plants as an alternative energy source to protect the forest, soil testing and advice on fertilization and better access to market information.  

Furrow and bed cultivation in China – promoting water-efficient cultivation (Wani and al).
In Xiaoxincun watershed, the success of integrated watershed management depends on the participation of the villagers.
A low-cost water tank to store run-off water.
In China, pigeonpea is grown on mountainous slopes to fight soil erosion.
Collaboration in smallholder crop breeding and genomics has led to research breakthroughs such as mapping of the pigeonpea genome.