Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Reversing China’s Harvest Decline: An Aquacultural Initiative

One of China’s responses to land and water shortages has been to vigorously expand aquacultural output, taking advantage of this grain-efficient form of animal protein. Although fish farming goes back some 3,000 years in China, annual aquacultural output did not reach 1 million tons until 1981, shortly after the 1978 economic reforms. It then began to expand rapidly, climbing from 1 million tons in 1981 to 28 million tons in 2002. 21

China’s fast-growing aquacultural sector totally dominates world aquaculture. Indeed, as of 2002, China produced 28 million tons out of the world aquacultural output of 40 million tons, accounting for more than two thirds of the global total. 22

Within China, the area used for aquaculture production, both fresh water and offshore, totals some 6.8 million hectares—roughly the size of Ireland or West Virginia. This area consists of farm-built ponds; reservoirs, including many smaller ones used for water storage; and the offshore areas occupied by cages. China has some 800,000 cages used for fish production that are near offshore. 23

Carp dominate China’s output, at nearly 13 million tons—almost half of the 28-million-ton annual harvest. Other freshwater fish, including tilapia, push the freshwater finfish total to 15 million tons. There are also more than 5 million tons of oysters, mussels, and scallops produced, including both freshwater and saltwater species. The remaining 8 million tons consists of a variety of species, including crab, prawn, and eel. 24

As China’s aquacultural output has grown, it has spawned a huge aquafeed industry, totaling 16 million tons in 2003—11 million tons of grain and 5 million tons of soybean meal. Freshwater fish rations are now roughly one third soybean meal, substantially higher than the 18–20 percent soymeal content in livestock and poultry feeds. Traditionally, fish feeds relied heavily on fish meal to achieve the optimum protein content, but with fish becoming scarce, soybean meal has proved to be a readily acceptable substitute for China’s largely omnivorous fish species. 25

Consumption of farmed fish per person is easily two times higher in cities than in the countryside. Because cities are dispersed, so too is fish farming. Most of the fish are produced by small farmers who typically build their own ponds or use local reservoirs. 26

The extraordinary growth in China’s aquacultural output is largely the result of strong government support for the industry. China is also exporting substantial quantities of aquacultural products. The U.S. agricultural attaché’s office in Beijing reports that China exports some $2 billion of aquatic product a year to Japan. Other leading markets include the United States, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Germany, with totals ranging from $1 billion to the United States to $185 million to Germany. A recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization study projects that China’s aquatic product consumption will rise by 80 percent over the next five years. 27


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