China’s Food Security Faces a Hidden Threat: An Aging Countryside
Every year, China gets a little bit older, its demographic gray hairs a little more prominent. The country’s population shrunk for the first time in 60 years in 2022, as fertility continues to fall despite policymakers’ attempts to boost birth rates. At the same time, the elderly are living longer than ever, with average lifespans now surpassing those of the United States.
The graying of China’s population has produced a cascade of social and economic side effects, particularly in labor-intensive industries. A survey published by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in February suggests that the labor pool — once one of the country’s greatest strengths — is no longer growing, leading some policymakers to once again raise policy solutions like delaying the retirement age.
But there’s another vital industry quietly bearing the brunt of a shrinking labor pool: agriculture. The percentage of rural residents over the age of 65 tripled between 1990 and 2020, with seniors now accounting for 18% of the total rural population. Young people leaving the countryside to seek work in the city have left many villages almost entirely composed of elderly empty nesters and left-behind children.
As migrants stay away longer and the empty nesters get older, agricultural production faces new challenges. Researchers around the world have found that older rural residents often have difficulty adapting to new developments in agriculture and prefer to cultivate smaller plots of land to reduce their investment. To see whether this pattern also exists in China, my research team analyzed data on 15,000 rural households involved in grain production. The resulting study, published in Nature this February, found a correlation between population aging, increased smallholder farming, and decreased output. It also highlighted the potential environmental risks of older farmers’ reliance on outdated agricultural practices.
Food security is arguably the Chinese government’s top priority: it is a fixture in government speeches and the motivation for its gargantuan 1.8 billion mu red line target aimed at restricting the loss of cultivated land. (There are about 15 mu in a hectare.)
But while agricultural messaging typically targets obvious risks like industrial and real estate development, population aging may pose an unexpected threat to the country’s food security plans. Our study found that a staggering quantity of arable land had been abandoned due to aging-related causes, most of it in mountainous regions such as the southwestern province of Guizhou. This phenomenon was accompanied by a decrease in agricultural investment, such as the purchase of machinery, chemical fertilizers, and manure. Together, these factors led to a decrease in both output and revenue; in the most affected provinces, farmers’ disposable income dropped by 33%.
Population aging spells bad news for the environment, too. The misuse of fertilizers releases ammonia, nitrous oxide, and nitrates into the environment, all of which have a detrimental impact on soil and water quality.
There’s little chance that current aging trends will be reversed in the near future. That said, our study offers a glimmer of hope. Young villagers have the potential to change Chinese agriculture for the better — if only they can be lured back to the countryside. Our survey results suggest that the current generation of young, rural Chinese are better educated than their forebears, more open-minded when it comes to adopting new technologies and farming methods, and therefore may be able to contribute new solutions to the challenges of food security and environmental protection.
Unlike their parents, who adhered staunchly to small-scale farming, younger farmers generally favor larger fields, cooperative initiatives where multiple families share machinery, or employment on industrial farms. Our survey shows that, compared to traditional smallholdings, the level of population aging in these new farming models is 35% lower, while levels of education are 20% higher.
For young people in the countryside, choosing farming means sacrificing the higher salaries and exciting experiences of the city. (In 2017, the average per capita disposable income in rural China was less than half the urban average). To make this sacrifice worth their while, they want to grow their businesses, either by running their family farms on larger plots or joining a collective, as well as by applying their knowledge and management know-how to optimize production. Indeed, among new model farms, we observed 41% more investment, 113% more manure use, and 68% more machinery use, all of which contribute to greater efficiency and output. At the same time, the use of chemical fertilizers per unit of surface area didn’t increase by a noticeable amount.
Unfortunately, there are only so many young Chinese willing to live and work on farms. Based on current population aging trends, without significant intervention from agricultural departments, the size of farms in rural China will decrease for the foreseeable future. The same goes for investments and output. This will not only make it harder for the government to fulfill its promise of maintaining at least 1.865 billion mu of cultivated land and 1.546 billion mu of “permanent basic farmland” until 2035. It will also prevent China from contributing to the eradication of hunger in an increasingly crowded and climate-challenged world.
It’s worth noting that rural China doesn’t need to completely do away with smaller farms. Although initiatives such as the European Common Agricultural Policy have effectively promoted the modernization of agriculture by emphasizing large plots, this progress has come at the cost of biodiversity, rural ecologies, and natural beauty. Nevertheless, allowing smallholders to conduct the bulk of rural farming is not always the greener or more efficient choice. To achieve sustainable agricultural development, China needs to avoid one-sided approaches in favor of striking a balance between traditional farming and more modern approaches.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Cai Yineng; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Farmers take in the harvest in Langxi, Anhui province, Sept. 21, 2010. Zhang Chen/VCG)