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China and (world) food security

Wheat field in China, 2014.
Wheat field in China, 2014. Photo: Flickr/International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

Food and agriculture has been of central, though understated, importance in China’s economic development miracle. After facing arguably the most devastating famine in human history only decades ago, per capita caloric consumption has doubled, and China has now become both the world’s largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. Although distribution remains very uneven in China, all components of food security—availability, utilization, access and stability—have been raised. However, with about 19% of the global population, but only 7% of its arable land and freshwater resources, both of which are diminishing, questions of sustainable development remain.  

Chart showing vegetable imports to the USA and East Asian countries from 1990-2015
Despite high levels of self-sufficiency, China has overtaken the USA to be the world's largest importer of vegetable products (including grains).

China’s food policies

In the 1990s, views that China’s growing food consumption would pose a threat to international grain markets and global food security emerged with the publication of Lester Brown’s book, Who Will Feed China?. In response to this alarmist discourse, as well as the realization that it did need a longer-term vision for national food security, the Central Government published a White Paper in 1996, 'The Grain Issue in China' which stressed China’s self-reliance. Food security, which in the Chinese context is defined as national food (grain) self-sufficiency, has been a high priority ever since.

Beyond a range of other supports, the government has set a red line of a minimum of 120 million hectares of arable land, and a grain self-sufficiency target of 95%, which it has maintained over the past two decades (albeit with some recent adjustments to the categories of ‘grain’). It maintains some of the largest grain stockpiles in the world. And for the thirteenth consecutive year, the Communist Party’s No. 1 Central Policy Document has dealt exclusively with questions of agriculture and rural development. As the 2014 iteration put it, 'ensuring long-term food supply and sufficiency is a necessary and basic policy for governing the country'. This prioritization has not only to do with developmental objectives of course; it also reflects both the historic and continued centrality of these issues on state legitimacy and sociopolitical stability, in what is still a highly agrarian society.

But this relentless focus on output-oriented growth—including of grain—has come at the cost of longer-term natural resource sustainability. Pressures brought by tremendous environmental degradation (which current agricultural methods have contributed to), encroaching urbanization and the negative impacts of a changing climate will constrain domestic food production unless more is done to address ecological security in the country. At the same time, the IPCC projects lower yields for a number of crops in parts of China as a result of global warming.

New policy adjustments are necessary. China’s 13th five-year plan, which places environmental protection among its main objectives, has 10 binding targets that make clear that the government is engaging in new development paradigms. But as dietary consumption patterns continue to move upwards, Chinese consumption will have an increasing transnational footprint with impacts on agro-ecological systems elsewhere.


China’s global impact

In 2004, China became a net food importer, and its dependence on the world market is now largely irreversible. It is already the largest importer of certain agricultural commodities. For example, it accounts for about 60% of the global market for soybeans, which are mostly used as animal feed for livestock. Projections are that imports of feed, oilseeds, meat as well as high value products will only increase. Indeed, in 2013 a new food security strategy was developed at the Central Economic Work Conference, which for the first time recognized that imports would be a part of China’s basic food security strategy, and called for ‘utilizing international markets and overseas resources in a way that ensures a dominant role for Chinese companies in the supply chain.’

Chart showing vegetable, food products, and animal imports to China, the USA and Germany in 2015
In 2015 China was the world's largest importer of vegetables (with 15% of the market share), the seventh largest importer of food products (with 5% of the market share) and fourth largest importer of animals (with 7% of the market share).

None of this shift towards external resources should be considered remarkable, except perhaps that it has taken China so long to reach this point when other advanced capitalistic societies—including its East Asian neighbours—have pursued such strategies for decades. But given the sheer size and heft of China, external concerns are perhaps understandably larger. Much of the finger pointing at Chinese ‘land-grabbing’ has often not been substantiated by facts, but Chinese companies have in the last decade engaged in a variety of land or food and agriculture-related acquisitions in South East Asia, Russia, Australia, Latin America and the USA.

China’s role in global food governance architecture has also made slight shifts. Though still somewhat inward-looking on this issue, its straddled role between developed and developing economies in multilateral trade negotiations, its engagement on the issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and its expanding development footprint are in general steps towards more stewardship on the world stage.

Whatever happens, it is clear that China’s food policies, demands and overall trajectory will remain important for global food security.


Dr Jiayi Zhou is a Researcher in the SIPRI Conflict, Peace and Security Programme.