In recent years, agricultural growth in China has accelerated remarkably, but most of this growth has been driven by increased yield per unit area rather than by expansion of the cultivated area. Looking towards 2030, to meet the demand for grain and to feed a growing population on the available arable land, it is suggested that annual crop production should be increased to around 580 Mt and that yield should increase by at least 2% annually. Crop production will become more difficult with climate change, resource scarcity (e.g. land, water, energy, and nutrients) and environmental degradation (e.g. declining soil quality, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and surface water eutrophication). To pursue the fastest and most practical route to improved yield, the near-term strategy is application and extension of existing agricultural technologies. This would lead to substantial improvement in crop and soil management practices, which are currently suboptimal. Two pivotal components are required if we are to follow new trajectories. First, the disciplines of soil management and agronomy need to be given increased emphasis in research and teaching, as part of a grand food security challenge. Second, continued genetic improvement in crop varieties will be vital. However, our view is that the biggest gains from improved technology will come most immediately from combinations of improved crops and improved agronomical practices. The objectives of this paper are to summarize the historical trend of crop production in China and to examine the main constraints to the further increase of crop productivity. The paper provides a perspective on the challenge faced by science and technology in agriculture which must be met both in terms of increased crop productivity but also in increased resource use efficiency and the protection of environmental quality.