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Limits to Growth or Growth to the Limits? Trends and Projections for Potatoes in China and Their Implications for Industry

Abstract

While output for potatoes in China averaged nearly 73 million metric tonnes in 2008–2010, the trends for production, area, and yield have been far more volatile than suggested in earlier studies. A new set of estimated growth rates for potato production in China during the last five decades based on FAO times series data found that periods of rapid expansion were then followed by ones of stagnation and decline. Although increases in potato output have been impressive, China’s share of both regional and global production has declined in recent years as a result. This paper analyses these and other dimensions to the evolution of potato production in China during the last half century by synthesizing previous research before reassessing alternative future projections, highlighting opportunities for industry, and identifying some key topics for future research.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to Henry Juarez of CIP’s Research Informatics Unit for sharing the data on rainfall in China and for the revised map of potato production in China.

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Correspondence to Gregory J. Scott.

Appendix. Some background on statistics on potato production in China

Appendix. Some background on statistics on potato production in China

Statistics on potato production in China have repeatedly been subject to both scrutiny and major revisions (Horton et al. 1984; Stone 1984; Horton 1988; Scott 1992; Anonymous 1995; Gitomer 1996; Scott et al. 2000; Wang and Zhang 2004; Xie et al. 2007; Xie 2008a). Part of that scrutiny has been driven by the concern about the accuracy of statistics on potato production and area harvested in developing countries in general. It also has emerged in the context of discussing trends for potatoes in industrialized versus developing countries (Scott 2002).

In the developing country context, it has been frequently argued that potato production and/or area and yields may be underreported because the crop is often grown by small farmers, in isolated production zones, in multiple cropping or relay cropping patterns, intercropped with other commodities such as maize, and characterized by staggered harvests in the same field (Horton 1988). In addition, a large share of output is often used for on-farm consumption and therefore is not traded to the same degree as other food commodities in either domestic or export markets. Given these circumstances, informed observers have contended that potatoes have not gotten nearly the attention of market monitors or tax authorities—hence, ultimately government statisticians—as the cereals, e.g., rice, wheat, or maize (Horton 1981). Consequently, potato production and consumption run the risk of being underreported and therefore the importance of the crop underestimated by policymakers, planners, and research administrators. At least one FAO specialist has noted that many of the same considerations apply to other crops and livestock in developing countries. Nevertheless, many of these concerns about the accuracy of agricultural and specifically potato statistics apply in the case of China (Walker et al. 1999) where given the vast size of the country, millions of growers, limited government budgets, and periodic profound changes in public administration the task of monitoring output, area planted, and yields are formidable indeed.

In the case of potatoes in China, the issue is further complicated by the fact that the tuber has long been treated as a “grain” crop by those authorities charged with compiling agricultural statistics (Gitomer 1996; Scott 2002; Wang and Zhang 2004). Furthermore, the method for converting potato production to grain equivalents has varied over time and from province to province (Xie et al. 2007). In addition, the richness of language in China and the various regional dialects mean that the crop goes by a multitude of names (Stone 1984) thereby raising at least the possibility of miscounting due to mislabeling. As evidence that labels matter, from 2003 to 2006 provincial potato output in Shandong province was not included in the tabulation and reporting of potato production in the annual Chinese Agricultural Yearbook (Xie 2008a) apparently because the crop was re-categorized by provincial authorities as a vegetable and no longer considered a food crop for statistical purposes. Xie et al. (2007) report that the same practice has occurred in a number of other provinces (e.g., Guangxi, Henan, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang). Moreover, the political and economic pressure on farmers and local and provincial authorities to meet production targets for basic staples such as rice and wheat during the period of China’s Soviet-style commune system from 1958 to 1978 (Gitomer 1996; Wang and Zhang 2004)–not unlike those observed earlier in some industrialized countries (Scott 2002)–have raised at least the possibility that potatoes along with other crops that fell outside the system of central planning may have gone underreported during that time. Lastly, in recent years, the profitability of the potato crop (Xie 2008a) has generated tax-related incentives to fudge farm-level figures for area harvested.

In the context of these various considerations, FAO data on potato production in China underwent substantial revisions in 1978 and again in 1983 (Horton 1987). FAO time series data for potato production in China published in Horton (1988) underwent another major revision shortly thereafter with previous estimates of output cut significantly again. Still in his recent report, Xie (2008a) presents annual statistics for production, area, and yield of potatoes in China 1961–2006 in which FAO data are listed for the years 1961 to 1981. Comparing the current FAO time series on potato production on which this paper is based with national statistics for annual potato production in China (Table 5) from 1982 to 2006 shows that the two data sets depict a highly similar evolution over the period 1982–2005 suggesting that a certain consensus has emerged regarding the statistics from 1961 to 2005. FAO data are far more conservative in their estimate of production, area, and yields in 2006, although in subsequent years they show output recovering (Fig. 1) to pre-2006 levels. In that sense, both sources depict a similar quasi-cyclical evolution of growth rates for potato production over the last half century, albeit with very different levels of annual output at the very end. However, in recent communications with potato scientists in China, reference was made to new revisions to official statistics for potato production, area harvested, and yields for the last 10 years. This suggests the need for follow-up research aimed at reconciling different data series for potato production for the most recent years.

Table 5 Potato production, area harvested, and yields in China 1982–2006, according to different sources

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Scott, G.J., Suarez, V. Limits to Growth or Growth to the Limits? Trends and Projections for Potatoes in China and Their Implications for Industry. Potato Res. 55, 135–156 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11540-012-9215-8

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Keywords

  • Area
  • Constraints
  • Government policy
  • Private sector
  • Yields