Maize Situation in China

by Teresa Acklin
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China sets strategies to boost maize production as feed and industrial use expands.

By Li Kaimian, Chen Qiubo and Wei Jiashao

   China is the world's second-largest maize producing country, in terms of both planted area and total output, behind the United States. Most regions of the country are suitable for production, and maize can be sown year-round. In recent years, the area planted to maize has exceeded 20 million hectares, accounting for about 19% of the area planted to grains, and maize output has accounted for 22.3% of total Chinese grain production.

   China's feed industry is dependent on maize as its major raw material, and an expansion in maize production is one of China's most attractive options to assure adequate supplies. In fact, maize has become an important multiple-use crop, and it will play an increasingly important role in the further development of China's agriculture and the animal husbandry industry.

   Maize originated in America and did not start to take root in China until the middle of the 16th century, when it was brought by explorers. By the 18th century, maize was being planted across all of China.

   Initially, maize was planted in small fields and gardens for its nutritional food value, but plantings gradually expanded to large-scale operations. By 1947, maize sown areas totaled more than 8 million hectares with a total output of 10.7 million tonnes, making it a major grain crop.

   From the 1950s to the 1980s, China made great strides in maize production thanks to better technologies, improved water conservation, expanded irrigation, increased fertilizer application and the release of high-yield hybrids. The population boom in China in this period perhaps provided incentives for these developments.

   In the 1960s and 1980s, sown area remained stable, and production increases were based on higher yields. In the 1970s, maize sown areas also expanded rapidly, at an annual rate of more than 600,000 ha. By 1989, maize planted area had increased by 61.9%, while output had jumped by more than 400%.

   Today, maize is important to China's economy as a food and feed crop. The 1990s have seen maize sown areas grow to a little more than 20 million ha and total output has surpassed 100 million tonnes in each of the past two years, with a record 127.5-million tonne harvest in 1996.

   One of the benefits of maize production in China is that it can be grown year-round all across the country. Most maize is planted in a long and narrow belt that stretches across the eastern portion of China. This area, known as the “maize belt,” accounts for more than 85% of China's total maize plantings and output.

   More than half of China's maize growing areas are located in hilly, non-irrigated regions. This “rain-fed maize” has lower yields than in irrigated regions.

      Utilization Trends

   For many years, China has devoted every effort to solving the problem of providing enough food and clothing for the world's most populous country. Crop farming has focused primarily on food grain crops, while the poultry and animal husbandry industries have received little attention.

   Maize is one of the best grain and feed crops in the world. More than 50% of world maize production is used as feed, while 70% to 80% of maize (consumed) in developed countries is used as feed. Maize is still a major food grain in some developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In China, whether to use maize as a food grain or for feed depends on economic development and the population's living standards.

   Before the mid-1980s, maize was used primarily as human food. But with the further development and improvement of China's market economy and the people's living standards, maize has been used not only as food, but as animal feed, playing a very important role in the development of the feed industry.

   In recent years, the demand for feed in China has increased annually. This trend is seen in the proportion of feed grain to total grain consumption.

   The amount of concentrated feed consumption in China is the second-largest in the world, but the proportion of feed grain production to total grain production, at about 30%, remains lower in China than in many other countries. In the 1980s, the average proportion of world feed grain to total grain production was about 39%, with developed countries at 63%, the European Union at 60% and the United States at 75%.

   Demand for poultry and animal products is expected to increase in China, and the proportion of feed grain to total grain output also should increase steadily. It is predicted that China's proportion will be 40% by 2000 and will reach more than 50% by 2030.

   The development and promotion of township enterprises and the starch processing industry also has led to the rise of maize for industrial uses, and demand in this area also will increase in the future.

   From 1989 to 1991, Chinese maize prices decreased each year. But in late 1992, prices began to rise with the development and expansion of the feed industry. Maize prices reached their high point at the end of 1994, totaling about 1,800 Yuan per tonne (equivalent to about U.S.$217).

   After that, maize prices decreased, primarily because grain production increased and feed manufacturers turned to other ingredients, such as cassava, to reduce costs.

      Future Maize Production Prospects

   Maize planted area is projected to remain around 22.8 million ha until 2000, but the yield during that period is expected to increase to 5,460 kilograms per ha from (a recent average of) 4,917 kg. Total output should reach 124.3 million tonnes by 2000. To boost maize production to these levels, China has formulated several strategies.

   Maize development should adhere to the principle of stabilizing sown areas and increasing agricultural inputs to enhance yield. Low yields and inputs are the major constraints to expanding maize production. To break through to increased yields, more attention should be paid to new cultivation technologies, the release of new varieties, fertilizer application and field irrigation.

   To further consolidate the “maize belt,” the state government will establish a stable agricultural production system, with the government organizing and guiding production. The plan would set up major production bases in the regions to enable intensive cultivation of maize.

   A new approach to policy decision making will focus on distinguishing human food from animal feed and managing these markets separately. Finally, maize research efforts will be intensified, especially in the areas of maize quality breeding and value-added processing of maize-based products.

   With the continued development of the poultry and livestock industries as well as the starch processing industry, maize demand in China will increase. Maize production prospects are bright because of continuous improvements in technology. But much work remains to be done to realize the production target by 2000 and to keep production and consumption in balance.

   The authors are grain crop researchers at the Chinese Academy of Tropical and Agricultural Sciences. This article was presented by Li Kaimian at the Asia Grain Markets '97 Conference in Singapore.

Table 2
Total grain and coarse grain production comparison in 1997-98
in 1,000 tonnes
Total GrainCoarse grainCoarse grain as
percent of total
Developed countries646,870419,11164.8%
—European Union205,053108,83953.1%
—United States340,026265,42278.1%
Data are for 1997-98 marketing year ended June 30.
U.S. Department of Agriculture