China traditionally has struggled to feed its large population. Even in the twentieth century, famines periodically ravaged China’s population. Great emphasis has always been put on agricultural production, but weather, wars, and politics often mitigated good intentions. With the onset of reforms in the late 1970s, the relative share of agriculture in the gross domestic product (GDP) began to increase annually. Driven by sharp rises in prices paid for crops and a trend toward privatization in agriculture, agricultural output increased from 30 percent of GDP in 1980 to 33 percent of GDP by 1983.
Since then, however, agriculture has decreased its share in the economy at the same time that the services sector has increased. By 2004 agriculture (including forestry and fishing) produced only 15.2 percent of China’s GDP but still is huge by any measure. Some 46.9 percent of the total national workforce was engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing in 2004. According to United Nations statistics, China’s cereal production is the largest in the world. In 2003 China produced 377 million tons, or 18.1 percent of total world production. Its plant oil crops—at 15 million tons in 2003—are a close second to those of the United States and amounted to 12.6 percent of total world production. More specifically, China’s principal crops in 2004 were rice (176 million tons), corn (132 million tons), sweet potatoes (105 million tons), wheat (91 million tons), sugarcane (89 million tons), and potatoes (70 million tons). Other grains, such as barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, rye, sorghum, and tritcale (a wheat-rye hybrid), added substantially to overall grain production. Crops of peanuts, rapeseed, soybeans, and sugar beets also were significant, as was vegetable production in 2004. Among the highest levels of production were cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, and dry onions.
In 2004 fruit production also became a significant aspect of the agricultural market. China produced large crops of watermelons, cantaloupes, and other melons that year. Other significant orchard products were apples, citrus fruits, bananas, and mangoes. China, a nation of numerous cigarette smokers, also produced 2.4 million tons of tobacco leaves. Fertilizer use was a major contributor to these abundant harvests. In 2002 China consumed 25.4 million tons of nitrogenous fertilizers, or 30 percent of total world consumption and more than double the consumption of other major users such as India and the United States in the same period. Among the less used fertilizers, China also was a leader. It consumed 9.9 million tons of phosphate fertilizers (29.5 percent of the world total) and 4.2 million tons of potash fertilizers (18.2 percent of the world total).
With China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, food export opportunities have developed that have brought about still more efficient farming techniques. As a result, traditional areas such as grain production have decreased in favor of cash crops of vegetables and fruit for domestic and export trade. China’s livestock herds are the largest in the world, far outstripping all of Europe combined and about comparable in size to all African nations combined. For example, in 2003 China had 49.1 percent of the world’s pigs, 22.5 percent of the world’s goats, and 7.5 percent of the world’s cattle. Converted into food production, China’s major livestock products in 2004 were pork (47.2 million tons), poultry eggs (28.0 million tons), cow’s milk (18.5 million tons), poultry meat (13.4 million tons), and beef and veal (6.4 million tons). Other meats of significant amounts were mutton, lamb, and goat. Major by-products were cattle hides (1.6 million tons), sheepskins (321,000 tons), and goatskins (375,000 tons). Honey (300,000 tons) and raw silk (95,000 tons) also were major products destined for the commercial market.
Forestry products, measured in annual roundwood production, also abound. In 2004 China produced an estimated 284 million cubic meters of roundwood, the world’s third largest supplier after the United States and India, or about 8.5 percent of total world production. From the roundwood, some 11.3 million cubic meters of sawnwood are produced annually.
China also leads the world in fish production. In 2003 it caught 16.7 million tons of fish, far outcatching the second-ranked nation, the United States, with its 4.9 million tons. Aquaculture also was substantial in world terms. In the same year, China harvested 28.8 million tons of fish, an amount more than 10 times that of the second-ranked nation, India, which produced 2.2 million tons. The total fish production in 2003 was 45.6 million tons. Of this total, 63.2 percent was from aquaculture, an increasing sector, and 36.7 percent from fish caught in rivers, lakes, and the sea.