China’s Food Security Challenges
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China’s Food Security Challenges

Against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising tensions with the United States, policymakers in Beijing are increasingly focused on the future of China’s food security. Drawing on newly translated scholarship, leading experts assess how Chinese analysts frame external and domestic risks to their country’s food supply, and the recommendations they have for Beijing to make this supply more resilient and secure.

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Newly translated documents discussed in these analyses include:

  1. Ensuring National Food Security: Simultaneous Efforts to Increase Production and Reduce Losses by Cheng Guoqing, distinguished professor at the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University of China; Li Chengxiu, master’s student at the Guizhou University School of Economics, and Zhu Mande, professor at the Guizhou University School of Economics.
  2. Research on National Food Security Strategy in the Context of “Dual Circulation” by Mei Xurong, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences; Tang Huajun, director of the Institute of Agricultural Resources and Agricultural Zoning at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences; Wang Jimin, deputy director of the Institute of Food and Nutritional Development at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development; Wang Xiudong, Director of the Agricultural Strategy Research Office at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences; Wu Kongming, president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences; and Yan Yan, associate researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Economics and Development, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
  3. The “Butterfly Effect” of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict and Geopolitical Risks to China’s Food Security by Li Wei, deputy dean and professor at the Renmin University School of International Relations and Zhao Lan, PhD candidate at Renmin University.
  4. Global Food Security in the Context of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict and China’s Food Security Policy Options in the New Era by Li Chunding, director of and professor at the China Agricultural University College of Economics and Management Department of Economics and Trade; Li Donglin, PhD candidate at China Agricultural University, and Li Juan, PhD candidate at China Agricultural University.

Jump to commentary from:

Caroline Smith DeWaal | David Michel | Xudong Rao

Caroline Smith DeWaal

Senior Manager, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition

The story of food security in China is one of success sustained over several decades. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has recognized its importance, especially as China is home to nearly one-fifth of the world’s population. China has nevertheless experienced food scares, such as the 2008 discovery of melamine in infant formula, which resulted in widespread consumer mistrust of formula produced there. A lack of transparency contributed to this mistrust, as the government delayed announcing the problem for over a week while China was hosting the Beijing Olympics.

Current concerns arising from the Russo-Ukrainian war and its impact on access to both fertilizer and grain imports are again drawing attention to China’s food security. How China addresses these concerns—such as the recommendations by various experts to buy land and actively develop the grain industry in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America—will have global effects.

Countries in Africa, for example, are among the hardest-hit by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. According to the World Bank, there are more than 20 times as many people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 per day) in sub-Saharan Africa than in the East Asia and Pacific region. While helping African countries develop farmland for grain is worthwhile, it is vital that the production benefits those living in them. This is not the clear intent of the Chinese firms buying and developing the land.

Countries in Latin America pose additional considerations, as they hold a unique position in the global fight against climate change. The Amazon Rainforest has a critical cooling effect on the planet, absorbing one-quarter of all carbon dioxide absorbed on land. This absorption rate is reduced when forest is cleared for agricultural purposes, so it is vital that the land China might buy and develop would not add to the burden of climate change.

Before looking beyond its borders, China should move aggressively to utilize fully the food and agricultural resources it already has. The United Nations estimates that 13 percent of food is lost between harvest and retail, and 17 percent is wasted at the consumer, food service, and retail levels. In a country as large as China, estimates are even higher, with food loss and waste at 22.7 percent of total production. Tackling this is low-hanging fruit that can immediately address food insecurity.

Food, even that which is not edible, has many applications, from animal feed to compost. Properly treated, it can provide a domestic source of valuable soil enrichment to address gaps in fertilizer imports. Eliminating excess consumption at restaurants is also important. China has a long history of advancing social norms through centralized messaging—so instilling the traditional values that food is an important commodity that should always be consumed or reused, never wasted, is well within the scope of Chinese government efforts.

Given China’s size—as well as that of other developed or developing nations with large populations—it is vital that the efforts to address the threat of food insecurity be addressed in a manner sensitive to the consequences (the “butterfly effect”). Production within China is the preferred method since it carries fewer environmental consequences. Production also should be sensitive to the needs of local populations. Finally, using locally sourced inputs such as compost or fertilizers can help improve land that may be exhausted from unsustainable farming practices.

David Michel

Senior Fellow, Global Food and Water Security Program, CSIS

China is the world’s largest food producer—and the world’s largest food importer. Its growing reliance on foreign suppliers to feed its population frames the national conception of food security. Under President Xi Jinping, China has striven to bolster domestic production and strengthen its supply chains to ensure that “Chinese people’s rice bowls should be firmly in their hands at all times, and . . . mainly contain Chinese grains.”

Yet China remains exposed to exogenous pressures outside Chinese hands: the turmoil of the Russo-Ukrainian war, which has cut off a key agricultural supplier; rising tensions with the United States that undermine trade; and the mounting impacts of climate change. As Li Wei and Zhao Lan note, China’s national food security is subject to international and transnational “butterfly effects.” Geopolitical frictions and climate stresses can ripple through global supply chains and environmental systems to disrupt agricultural imports and compromise domestic production. Though keenly sensitive to these external risk dynamics clouding China’s food security, however, Li, Zhao, and their colleagues largely overlook the other face of the coin. Beijing’s own policies and actions do not unfold in a vacuum but likewise reverberate through interconnected economic and environmental systems, with significant ramifications both at home and abroad.

For example, to promote domestic agriculture, China has sought to maintain a “red line” of arable land, offsetting cultivated territory lost to trends such as urbanization and desertification by reclaiming marginal lands such as marshes and riverbanks. But studies in northern China—where most reclamations take place—suggest these conversions are inflicting considerable countervailing ecological damage in the form of deforestation and loss of flood protection. Similarly, water tables across China’s northern breadbasket have plunged as farmers overdraw groundwater for irrigation and growing cities deplete aquifers to meet rising municipal demands. In response, Beijing has undertaken massive engineering interventions to channel water from southern rivers to the northern plain. But the South–North Water Transfer Project, in addition to displacing hundreds of thousands of people, decreases water flows in the source regions, diminishing water quality, degrading fishery habitats, and increasing saltwater intrusion in downstream estuaries. Plans for potential further inter-basin transfers not only set “source” and “receiving” provinces at odds within China, but also unsettle China’s Indian neighbors, who fear such initiatives will divert waters that would otherwise flow to them.

By the same token, China’s efforts to reduce external risks by diversifying its supply chains and food sources also carry substantial international implications. Chinese investments in “overseas farmland” to feed its imports can be a major source of funding, infrastructure improvement, and technical innovation in the agricultural sector for many developing nations. But the actual practices of Chinese engagements have often led to charges of inequitable terms and of exploitative land and water “grabbing,” spurring resistance in some host countries. So, too, as the world searches for strategies to feed an additional 2 billion inhabitants by 2050, experts project global consumption of “blue” foods from the sea will nearly double by mid-century. China possesses the world’s largest fishing fleet and brings in its largest catch. It is also by far the largest perpetrator of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which destabilizes local fisher communities, deprives other countries of resources and revenue, and significantly contributes to the unsustainable overexploitation of fisheries worldwide.

China is indeed vulnerable to prospective geopolitical and environmental butterfly effects in the world food system. But in the field of global food security, for better and for worse, it is also very much one of the elephants in the room.

Xudong Rao

Research Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Texas A&M University

In the Chinese context, the term “food security” is synonymous with national grain self-sufficiency most of the time. The strong emphasis on government-led policy to maintain sufficient levels of staple grains is deeply rooted in China’s cultural tradition and political institutions, as well as its not-so-distant experience of famine. Having this perspective in mind helps the audience better understand the arguments and policy propositions made in the four translated articles that were discussed in this workshop and similar conversations on many other occasions.

In these four articles authored by leading researchers from renowned Chinese universities and research institutions, fluctuations in the global food market and geopolitics are frequently cited as the primary causes for concern over China’s food security. As a result, carefully calibrated national trade and marketing policy naturally becomes the necessary instrument to stabilize China’s food supplies. Some of the policy propositions have been put into practice for a while, such as reducing China’s reliance on certain exporting countries for major commodities and diversifying its grain imports over regions and time. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict just corroborates the necessity and exigency of these efforts and reinforces China’s preference in using national trade policy to address its food security needs.

But national trade policy may turn out to be much less effective if China’s policymakers stick to it as the primary solution to national food security. As a major player in the global food market, China’s every move will likely cause other countries to react strategically. Furthermore, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has compelled more countries to adopt a similar preference by resorting to export restrictions and other national trade policies. In this way, China’s efforts to guard its national food security may be largely offset by the intended and unintended actions of other countries, leading to little improvement in its food security status or even creating potential trade conflicts. As the participants of this workshop have agreed, it is crucial to keep China engaged with other countries in the global endeavor to secure food supplies for all—although little has yet been done by any side.

The four articles do mention, although not with enough emphasis or elaboration, some measures that will likely provide the ultimate solution to China’s long-run food-security problem—whether at the national level or at the individual and household levels commonly used in other contexts. That solution is to improve China’s agricultural productivity so there is sufficient domestic food-producing capacity for such a large economy. Thanks to its adoption of modern agricultural technologies and market-oriented domestic agricultural policy, China has been able to lift many of its citizens out of poverty and malnutrition within several decades, although its recent agricultural productivity appears to have stagnated and agri-environmental issues have surfaced at alarming rates. Much painstaking work remains to be done to accurately measure China’s agricultural productivity growth over time and decipher the driving forces behind that worrisome trajectory. Perhaps more importantly, China should start investing much more in its own agricultural research and development (R&D) to develop the appropriate technologies that suit the country’s wide-ranging agri-ecological conditions and smallholder-dominated production system before its agricultural productivity gets into a downward trend that takes decades to reverse.

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