Abstract This paper analyzes China’s grain production during 1978–97. Using disaggregate approach to explore disparities in growth patterns of respective crops, the study reveals that during this period, almost all the increased output can be attributed to the growth of rice, wheat and corn. The contribution of other crops as a whole was almost negligible. The disparities in growth patterns were partly the result of crop adjustments, induced by changes in food demand, and dominated by substitutions of high-yield crops for low-yield crops. In this process, the adoption of new technologies played an important role. Varying opportunity costs of grain production in different areas also affected growth patterns of respective crops. The trend in China’s grain production in the past two decades suggests that the adherence to grain self-sufficiency has become not only increasingly costly but also unnecessary.