How China is Responding to Food Insecurity Concerns
Food security is a top priority for Xi Jinping and the CCP, especially given the historical link in China between famines and regime collapse. Amidst international supply chain challenges, growing strategic rivalry, and a worsening climate situation, China is taking active measures to secure its essential food sources. The Red Line's Genevieve Donnellon-May dives into how the CCP is approaching the challenges.
In many ways, China’s history can be characterised by concern for food and famine. A Chinese idiom holds that "people regard food as their heaven" (民以食为天). Given the importance of food in the country’s culture, politics, religion, and medicine, food security has always been a key priority for the Chinese authorities for thousands of years and remains so today, particularly given the link between famines and food crises and the collapses of regimes in Chinese history.
For the past couple of decades, safeguarding food security has been a critical priority for the Chinese central government. In response to growing food insecurity concerns, Beijing has sought to strengthen its focus on food security through increased agricultural production and diversification of imports. In recent years, the importance of food security has risen to new heights, considered as important as energy and financial security in the face of increasing geopolitical uncertainties. To this end, China’s top leaders, including President Xi Jinping, have emphasised the importance of safeguarding food security for the country and publicly linked it to national security.
Amid an increasingly complex geopolitical environment, including growing tensions between the United States (US) and China over the trade war and the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict. The ramifications of this environment and other significant challenges like domestic deficits in agricultural production have forced Beijing to rethink how food security can be safeguarded.
A Dual Approach to Food Security
Despite its domestic production, China has been a net importer of agricultural products since 2004. At present, the country imports more of these products - including soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, and dairy products -than any other country. At the same time, between 2000 and 2020, China’s country’s food self-sufficiency ratio decreased from 93.6 per cent to 65.8 per cent.
TOTAL PRODUCTION OF GRAIN IN CHINA IN MILLIONS OF TONNES (2003 - 2019)
TOTAL GRAIN IMPORTS INTO CHINA IN MILLIONS OF TONNES (2003 - 2019)
IMPORTS AS A PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL GRAIN PRODUCTION
(2003 - 2019)
China’s enormous appetite for imported food (such as meat), sugar, and edible oils is pushed by an expanding urban middle class who, with their rising incomes, are wanting to eat safer and higher-quality food. Alongside China’s phenomenal economic growth since the “Reform and Opening-up” period, food preferences, diets, and lifestyles also began to change.. In 2021, the country’s edible oil import-dependency ratio reached nearly 70 per cent, nearly as high as China’s crude oil import dependence.
Since the 2013 reform of its food security strategy, Beijing has broadly adopted a dual approach to safeguard its food supplies. Domestically, achieving self-sufficiency in staples (rice and wheat) and key protein sources (particularly pork). Internationally, China has adopted a global agricultural policy to meet rising domestic demand for food while relying on the international market for supplies of non-staples, particularly soybeans.
Aside from increasing food imports from international markets (such as edible crops, grains, and sugar) and undertaking overseas agricultural investments and seeking a greater role in shaping global food governance, China is undertaking a diversification strategy in terms of the variety of agricultural products imported, the sources of imports, means of transportation, and agricultural trade routes.
Nonetheless, Beijing’s dual approach has met substantial domestic and international challenges in recent years. Domestically, China is hindered by significantly limited land and water resources, both of which are severely contaminated, along with labour shortages, a rapidly declining fertility rate, and climate-induced disasters. Internationally, China’s global quest for food security has met new threats, including growing Sino-US tensions, the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, and related food protection measures (such as export bans).
A Dual Approach to Food Security
In response to rising food insecurity concerns, Beijing is undertaking a number of interconnected responses. The first strategy is to improve China’s environment and land. The first aspect of this focuses on halting the decline in, and also eventually increasing, the amount of arable land. Between 2013 and 2019, China lost more than 5 per cent of its arable land due to factors such as excess fertiliser use and land neglect, according to official statistics in China. High levels and overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilisers have long been used by farmers to produce crops on China’s heavily exploited, limited arable land. Estimates suggest that Chinese farmers use an average of 305 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare per year– more than four times the global average.
In addition to the implementation of significant measures to improve water quality and quantity concerns, reduce pesticide use, increase black soil, and greater environmental and ecological protection, various policies and plans (such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Development Plan 2015-2030) have been implemented to improve soil health, sustainability, and protect the whole ecosystem for agriculture.
"Domestically, China is hindered by significantly limited land and water resources, both of which are severely contaminated, along with labour shortages, a rapidly declining fertility rate, and climate-induced disasters."
More recently, in February 2022, China’s State Council announced a survey of the country’s soil would be carried out by the State Council’s Vice Premier and supported by leaders of China’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, expected to be completed in 2025. This follows the publication of soil pollution studies in 2014 and 2018, the soil pollution action plan in 2016, and the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution in 2019.
The second aspect of China’s response to food insecurity is to increase domestic production and supply. As President Xi frequently declares, “The rice bowls of the Chinese people must always be held firmly in our own hand and filled mainly with Chinese grain”. At present, China is the world’s biggest producer of cereals (such as corn, wheat, and rice), fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs, and fishery products.
Aside from increasing stockpiles (such as the national grain stockpiles) for food and storage and embracing the concept of “Blue Granary” (which aims for improved utilisation of the “blue territories”, primarily marine fishery and mariculture), the Chinese central authorities have placed greater emphasis on local and provincial governments to take more responsibility for food security.
In addition to safeguarding the grain supply and other agricultural products and protecting China’s so-called “red lines” of 1.8 billion mu of arable land (equivalent to 120 million hectares), China’s top leaders have also reiterated the importance of preventing the “non-agriculturalisation” of arable land.
Moreover, Beijing has established a National High-Standard Farmland Construction Plan (2021-2030) to increase the amount of arable land for farming and increase crop yields per acre. The plan aims to reach a national target of 71.75 million hectares of “high-standard farmland” by 2025, and then 80 million hectares by 2030.
Grain security, an integral part of safeguarding China’s food security, has been the government’s main concern for the past several decades. Although China is one of the world’s largest grain producers, it remains a major grain importer, having become more reliant on imports from suppliers like the US. and Brazil in recent years. In 2021, China imported a record high of 165 million metric tons (mmt) of grain and a similar amount in 2022.
With the most significant risks to China’s food security lying in its animal feed supplies and China’s ability to maintain an adequate supply and stable prices, the country will likely continue to undertake efforts to reduce risks and improve grain storage technology while also supporting the compensation system for major grain-growing areas and the income guarantee mechanism for grain producers. The continued push to increase domestic grain production also fits in with Beijing’s grain security-related plans which include a draft law on the management of grain reserves, a new grain security law, and the current five-year agricultural plan on crop farming (2021-2025) under which China aims to stabilise its annual grain production and exceed a target of 700 million mmt by 2025.
Currently the world’s largest soybean importer and accounting for nearly 60 per cent of global trade, China imports an estimated 95 mmt of soybeans. Due to interlinked factors of rising consumer income, urbanisation, and greater meat demand, edible oils consumption and demand for soybean meal in animal feed continue to increase. In response to these challenges, China will strengthen domestic soybean crop and oil production capacity, helping ensure the country becomes independent of soy imports.
Technological Innovations and Continued Diversification
China is also showing a growing interest in agricultural technology and biotechnology. From Beijing’s perspective, improving seed quality, gene editing, and genetically modified (GM) technology for animals and plantsalong with “climate-smart” seeds, alternative proteins, and “future foods” (like lab-grown meat) could further reduce domestic food insecurity concerns.
In the latest hint that commercial planting of GM soybeans and corn will be approved, China’s agricultural ministry has designated around 4 million mu (267,000 hectares) – under 1 per cent of its corn fields – with GM varieties this year in certain counties of Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Hebei, and Yunnan provinces.
To support these innovations, China will also likely seek to modernise the country’s farming practices and technology (such as the breakthrough of key agricultural technologies such as BeiDou satellite technology), while also pushing for self-sufficiency in agricultural materials like chemical fertilisers.
The fourth key strategy is to reduce internal demand through various policies and campaigns. Although China has seen consecutive bumper harvests, Chinese leaders have frequently pointed out the necessity of preventing food waste. In response, President Xi has launched nationwide campaigns against food waste in 2013 and again in 2020 along with the 2021 national “Anti-Food Waste Law” and a new food security law, the latter of which is yet to be implemented.
The final main strategy is China’s diversification of its food supply markets, transport, and trade routes, to avoid dependence on one or several countries or regions through the emerging “Food Silk Road”. Under this strategy, China aims to diversify food imports from many regions around the world, including Africa and Latin America. To date, China has signed over 100 agricultural cooperation agreements with Belt and Road Initiative countries.
At the same time, China is using other methods like overseas free trade agreements, infrastructure investments, and farmland acquisitions in foreign countries such as in the US. where Chinese investors owned 383,935 acres – almost1 per cent of foreign-owned agricultural land in the US in 2021.
As part of broader efforts to reduce reliance on the US and amid worsening ties between China and Western countries, Beijing has, in recent years, sought to diversify its food and fertiliser import sources. In particular, Belt and Road Initiative countries in Central Asia (such as Kazakhstan) and Eastern Europe, have been considered by Beijing as viable alternatives for key imports such as wheat, soybeans, and corn. Using corn as an example, China, the world’s largest corn importer, had to import 28.35 million metric tons of the staple in 2021, up 152 per cent from 2020. The imported corn represented 9.4 per cent of domestic corn consumption. Most imports came from the United States, Ukraine, and Brazil, with Ukrainian imports accounting for a third of the total amount.
Challenges and Implications
Beijing finds itself in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment, facing growing geostrategic rivalry with both the U.S. and India. The ramifications of this unstable geopolitical environment and the Ukraine-Russia war (like food protectionism and disruptions to imports) exacerbate China’s existing food security concerns and global agricultural diversification strategy. Given this scenario, China appears keen to continue to seek alternative markets for food imports, likely due to fears of a ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and additional supply issues relating to global maritime chokepoints. China’s food import dependence is expected to continue rising while arable land continues to decrease.
Nevertheless, it should also be noted reliance on other countries for imports could put the diversification strategy at risk due to extreme weather events (such as droughts) impacting agricultural production in other countries, forcing China and others to scramble to find alternatives to import from.
Meanwhile, China’s ability to buy or acquire stakes in overseas farmland is likely to face difficulties, particularly in the U.S. where lawmakers have become increasingly concerned about China’s ability to buy U.S. farmland and have introduced bills at both the federal and state level seeking to increase scrutiny and restrict such acquisitions by China and other countries. In this light, Beijing’s responses to food insecurity concern further demonstrate the Chinese central authorities’ determination to increase domestic agricultural production to meet China’s growing food demand and achieve self-sufficiency, thereby protecting the country’s national security from external threats.
Should China succeed in significantly increasing yields and overall domestic agricultural production, particularly through agricultural technologies, itcould result in the freeing up millions of tons of soybeans and corn and other agricultural products like edible oil for other countries to import as feed for their animal industries, affecting global market supplies and prices. However, there could be significant public opposition to the adoption of such technologies. Although China was the first country to grow GM crops commercially, commercialisation has not (officially) gone ahead, partly due to public opposition to GM food and food safety concerns, further exacerbated by numerous food safety scandals caused by Chinese produced food.
Concerns about food safety in recent decades in China continue to worry Chinese consumers and officials. In recent decades, a number of deadly food safety scandals have resulted in Chinese consumers trusting foreign brands over local ones. Notably, in 2008, the infamous contaminated baby formula killed six babies and poisoned three hundred thousand children in 2008. With consumers trusting foreign brands over Chinese ones. Although the Chinese government did improve national food safety standards in 2022, the prolonged absence of strict food safety regulations means that some consumers remain wary about domestically produced agricultural products and packaged food.
"Concerns about food safety in recent decades in China continue to worry Chinese consumers and officials. In recent decades, a number of deadly food safety scandals have resulted in Chinese consumers trusting foreign brands over local ones."
Another major challenge to consider is China’s significant grain storage challenges. Aside from concerns like contamination and issues with pests and data accuracy, there are persistent concerns of grain corruption (such as profiteering and illegal distribution of storage quotas).
Making matters worse, an ageing population and a rapidly declining fertility rate, leave questions over who will make up the rural workforce in the future and grow the food needed to meet increasing demand. As wages for farmers are lower than factory workers and urban occupations, farmers have less incentives to continue working. Additionally, imports tend to be cheaper than local options because of higher costs and lower efficiency to grow certain food products in China. For example, the cost to grow soybeans in China is 1.3 times more expensive than it is in the United States, and the yield is 60 per cent less.
Furthermore, Beijing must overcome significant domestic interlinked challenges which could take years to achieve. Notably, severely polluted limited land and water resources along with climate change-related extreme weather events have caused significant land degradation along with damage. In 2022, the severe drought in the Yangtze River Basin drought, China’s worst drought on record, affected 17 provinces and 900 million people, destroying 2.2 million hectares of arable land and causing enormous damage to livestock. Aside from increasing fears of crop pests and diseases, the drought added to growing fears of domestic food insecurity, particularly regarding the production of rice given that the Yangtze River Basin produces an estimated two-thirds of China’s rice, the most widely consumed staple in the country.
Beijing’s push to increase domestic agricultural production reflects efforts to safeguard China’s food security and further develop the rural economy by becoming an agricultural powerhouse and exporter, while also supporting the independence of key technologies.
In addition to increased domestic production of agricultural products and materials (like fertiliser) strongly supporting China’s broader food security and self-sufficiency ambitions, it could present opportunities in many industries (such as agricultural technology, logistics, and biotechnology). It could also lead to significant export opportunities, particularly for fertilisers, given the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on fertiliser production and exports. With China seeking to reinforce its presence as one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses, this may result in the formation of alternative supply chains and even trade routes for agricultural products and related materials.
Nonetheless, the effectiveness of these aims remains to be seen. Although some measures (like improving grain storage) may succeed in safeguarding China’s food security in the long term and can also be supported by the local and central governments, other strategies are far less certain due to human-induced factors (like wars and food trade tariffs), extreme weather events, along with the country’s interconnected domestic issues, and significant competing interests of central and local governments.
From a short-term perspective, China appears to have managed to safeguard domestic food security given its reserves and willingness to snap up large quantities of grains from global markets. At present, China holds significant quantities of the world’s grain reserves. According to a report in the Nikkei Asia, by mid-2022, China is expected to hold 69 per cent of the world’s maize (corn) reserves, 60 per cent of its rice, 51 per cent of the world’s wheat, and 37 per cent of its soybeans. However, this was denied by the country’s foreign ministry. Nonetheless, as an official from the country’s National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration noted in November 2021, supply in the domestic grain market is “fully guaranteed” while grain reserves are at a “historical high level.”
However, the importance of climate change impacts should not be ignored. Climate change is shaping China’s economic, foreign, and security policy choices, as Beijing’s domestic policies and efforts to improve agricultural production in the face of climate shocks to avoid fears of food shortages and famines demonstrate.
Beijing is well aware that safeguarding the country’s food and water security amid geopolitical uncertainties and climate shocks is essential for not only national security. In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used food security and stability to maintain its legitimacy and power in China. For older generations of Chinese, including President Xi, fears of famines and political instability during and after the Great Famine remain in the minds of Chinese officials. In this context, ensuring China’s food security is not only about the safeguarding of national security but also about the survival of the Chinese Communist Party given that the absence of food security could lead to socio-economic and political turmoil.
Nonetheless, from a long-term perspective, China’s food security status remains much less certain. And this is worrying Beijing as the Chinese central authorities want the country to avoid its reliance on imports, despite growing demand from the expanding middle-class for better quality and imported food partly due to numerous food safety scandals related to agricultural products produced in China.
Furthermore, given increases in the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme climate events like droughts and severe flooding in China, alongside poor quality and quantity of water resources and severely contaminated land, it remains to be seen to what extent Beijing can solve these problems to increase domestic production to safeguard China’s food security.
If China’s response to the food insecurity concerns is successful in the long term, it would likely have enormous ramifications for both the domestic and international markets. While the central Chinese authorities have indeed made significant progress to increase domestic agricultural production while also strengthening China’s global agricultural food policy, considerable challenges, including those outside of China’s control, must first be overcome before food security can be safeguarded.
Written by Genevieve Donnellon-May.
Edited by Wade McCagh.