Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2016, Vol. 26 ›› Issue (4): 484-500.doi: 10.1007/s11442-016-1281-4

• Orginal Article • Previous Articles     Next Articles

An explanation of labor migration and grain
output growth:
Findings of a case study in eastern Tibetan Plateau

Jianzhong YAN1(), Yili ZHANG2,3, Xiaobo HUA1, Liang YANG4   

  1. 1. College of Resources and Environment, Southwest University, Chongqing 400716, China
    2. Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
    3. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 10049, China
    4. Institute of Geography, University of Hamburg, 20144 Hamburg, Germany
  • Received:2015-07-01 Accepted:2015-09-24 Online:2016-04-25 Published:2016-04-25
  • About author:

    Author: Yan Jianzhong (1972-), PhD and Professor, specialized in land use/cover change, climate change and regional adaptation. E-mail:

  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China, No.41071066, No.41571093 Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, No XDB03030500


Although there has been rapid rural-urban migration in rural China since the 1980s, the total grain production of China saw a continuous increase. As of today, the relationship between labor migration and grain output growth remains partial and contradictory. The main aim of this empirical study is to examine some specific measures adopted by peasants to deal with labor shortage and maintain grain output growth. Using tracking survey, participatory rural appraisal methods, and land plot investigation, we investigate 274 households and 1405 arable land plots in four villages in two stages in Jinchuan county, southwestern China. The results show that continuous emigration of labor from the four villages caused the abandonment of a small amount of land, decreased labor intensity, and reduced multiple cropping index, shifting from “corn-wheat” multiple cropping pattern to the “corn” cropping pattern, which means labor shortage in some households. At the same time, owing to surplus labor in the villages, the peasants utilize a series of means to offset the negative impacts of labor migration on grain output, such as cropland transfer, labor exchange in the busy seasons, and the substitution of capital and technology for labor. The econometric analysis also shows that labor migration boosts grain production. This study provides a reasonable explanation of grain output growth under rural-urban migration.

Key words: labor migration, land use change, labor intensity, capital intensity, grain output