Food security is critical to the well-being of all countries. Fragile states are often those that are the most food insecure, as limited access to basic staples can undermine a country’s social and economic stability. Decades of economic growth have enabled China’s leaders to make considerable strides in increasing food access across the country, but China’s economic boom has generated a new set of demographic demands and environmental strains.
China’s Food Trade with the World
The Changing Dietary Landscape
Rapid economic growth has fueled dramatic reductions in China’s undernourished population. Undernourishment is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as the condition of an individual not acquiring enough food to meet the minimum dietary energy requirements for a year, and is a key indicator of chronic hunger.
According to the FAO, China’s undernourished population rate fell from 16.2 percent in 2000 to 8.6 percent in 2017. This decline has taken place alongside a rise in annual per capita income from just $330 to $9,460 over the same period, and enabled China to reach United Nations targets aimed at cutting world hunger rates in half by 2015. China was one of just 29 countries that met its respective goals, and it accounted for two-thirds of the total reduction in undernourished people among Asian countries from 2010 to 2017.
China has historically strived for self-sufficiency in domestic food production. In 1996, the government issued a white paper that established a 95 percent self-sufficiency target for grains including rice, wheat, and corn. China’s domestic production has for the most part risen to meet the country’s growing demand.
Over the past several decades, China’s grain consumption has more than tripled from 125 million metric tons (tonnes, t) in 1975 to 420 million tonnes in 2018.1 Considerable investments in agriculture have enabled China’s farmers to produce high volumes of staple crops, allowing the country to achieve a roughly one-to-one ratio of production and consumption of grains. India has achieved a similar one-to-one ratio of grain production and consumption, but it has also positioned itself as the world’s leading exporter of rice. In 2018-2019, India exported nearly 9.8 million tonnes of rice – roughly 22.5 percent of the global total. China by comparison was the sixth-largest exporter over the same period, accounting for just 6.3 percent of global exports.
Agricultural leaders like the US and Australia have a higher grain production-consumption ratio. The US on average produces roughly 1.4 times more grain than it consumes. Australia, which boasts the most arable land per capita in the world, produces more than three times as much wheat as it consumes.
With regard to meat products, China has witnessed an astronomical increase in consumption. In 1975, China consumed a mere 7 million tonnes of meat.2 That figure had grown to 86.5 million tonnes by 2018, making it the largest meat consumer in the world At 55.2 million tonnes consumed, pork was China’s top meat source in 2018 by a wide margin. On a per capita basis, China consumed 48.9 kilograms (kg) of meat per person in 2018 – roughly half as much as the US (99 kg per capita) and Australia (93 kg), but slightly higher than Japan (43 kg).
This exploding demand for meat in China can be largely attributed to changing demographics. The emergence of China’s urban middle class has corresponded with a shift away from a grain-oriented diet to an increasingly meat-heavy intake. More affluent urban residents have likewise developed an appetite for other resource-intensive foods, such as dairy products.
China has become increasingly reliant on imports to account for changing consumption habits. Between 2003 and 2017, China’s food imports grew from just $14 billion to $104.6 billion. While food exports nearly tripled from $20.2 billion to $59.6 billion over the same period, China increasingly finds itself running a food trade deficit.
This has prompted Beijing to openly reframe its food self-sufficiency strategy. At the Annual Central Rural Work Conference in 2013, Chinese leaders acknowledged that the country would have to supplement its domestic supply with “moderate imports” in order to meet food security needs.
Threats to China’s Food Security
While economic development has allowed China to make enormous strides toward feeding its population, serious challenges remain. Chinese leaders faces the dual challenge of maintaining economic growth while feeding the country’s growing urban population with a countryside that features only 0.21 acres of arable land per capita.
A lack of arable land is further complicated by the reality that poor regulation has caused significant environmental damage, which greatly limits domestic production capacity. In 2018, 15.5 percent of China’s groundwater was labeled “Grade V,” meaning it was so polluted that it was unsuitable for any use. Widespread soil contamination, especially in southern areas like Henan province, prompted the government to prohibit the farming of 8 million acres of contaminated agricultural land until it can be rehabilitated.
A considerable increase in the number of groundwater monitoring stations likely contributed to the significant shift in groundwater quality in 2018.
These issues weighed down China’s standing in the 2018 Food Sustainability Index (FSI), which ranked China 23rd out of 67 countries in overall food sustainability, alongside South Korea (22nd) and the UK (24th). In the agricultural sustainability category, however, China wasclose to the bottom of the index at 57th, between Indonesia (56th) and Sudan (58th).
Major food safety scandals have also rocked the country. In 2008, tainted baby formula killed six infants and sickened more than 300,000. Additional scandals have included the seizure of $483 million worth of illegally smuggled meat in 2015 – some of which was found to be more than 40 years old – and numerous instances of the use of illegal “gutter oil” in restaurants. These scandals have eroded consumer confidence in many Chinese-made food products, and have compelled Chinese consumers to seek products made outside of China. A 2016 survey found that roughly 40 percent of Chinese consumers considered food safety to be “a very big problem,” up from just 12 percent in 2008.
|Agricultural Sustainability in Selected Countries (2018)|
|Country||FSI Agricultural Sustainability Ranking (out of 67)||Arable Land (acres per person in 2016)|
|China||57||0.21||Source: Food Sustainability Index (FSI); World Bank|
The Chinese central government made major revisions to the national Food Safety Law in 2015 to tighten food safety regulations and strengthen enforcement, but challenges persist. The 2019 Global Food Security Index ranked China 38th out of 113 countries in terms of food quality and safety. China not only placed behind wealthy European and North American countries (which occupy the top 10 spots), but also came in sixth among middle income countries, after Brazil, Belarus, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Mexico.
China is also heavily reliant on food imports from other countries. China’s demand for soybeans has skyrocketed in recent years, in large part because the crop is an important source of animal feed for livestock. From 2000 to 2018, Chinese soybean imports grew from $2.3 billion to nearly $38.1 billion,3 leaving China as the world’s largest importer of the legume, by a wide margin.
As US-China trade tensions escalated in 2018, Chinese imports of US soybeans nearly halved from $13.9 billion in 2017 to just $7.1 billion in 2018. China turned to Brazil in response, expanding soybean imports from the South American agricultural giant by 37.9 percent to $28.8 billion in 2018. Nevertheless, China’s appetite for soybeans exceeds the production capacity of Brazil and most of the world combined, leaving the US to fill the gap.
China’s primary meat source, pork, has also faced threats in recent years. In August 2018, China experienced its first outbreak of African swine fever. China was forced to limit the transport and selling of hogs at live markets to curb the spread of the virus, and it also culled more than one million pigs. Domestic pork production plummeted 21.3 percent in 2019, and pork imports from the US swelled by 258 percent that year. The outbreak of the disease proved costly for Chinese consumers. Domestic pork prices more than doubled from about $2.6 per kg in January 2019 to nearly $7 per kg in February 2020.
Shoring Up China’s Food Security
Both the Chinese government and Chinese companies have worked to accommodate the country’s changing appetite and respond to food security shortcomings. Beijing provides massive subsidies to its agricultural industry. In 2018, China paid out $206 billion in agricultural subsidies – nearly twice as much as the EU ($110 billion) and nearly five times as much as the US ($44 billion).
From a policy standpoint, the Chinese central government has put in place several measures designed to address the multifaceted challenges of food security and sustainable development.
Expand for a list of major policy measures
- China’s Thirteenth Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) emphasized improvements to efficiency and quality for modernizing the agricultural sector, as well as greater openness to imports and overseas food processing.
- The Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued a plan to cut underground water resource pollution by 2020.
- The Ministry of Agriculture and the National Development and Reform Commission announced plans for a capital-based push for public-private partnerships in agriculture in December 2016.
- The Ministry of Health released new dietary guidelines in May 2016 that recommended significant reduction in the consumption of meat.
- The State Council issued new guidelines on stabilizing grain production at 550 million tonnes by 2020, while placing greater emphasis on non-grain food quality rather than quantity.
- The State Council issued the National Nutrition Plan (2017-2030) in June 2017 to improve the nutrition and health standards.
- The State Council released a white paper on food security in 2019, setting goals on enhancing food production, improving emergency grain reserves management, and building a modern grain circulation system.
Chinese leaders also appear increasingly open to boosting the country’s agricultural production through genetically modified (GM) crops. GM corn and soybean species passed Chinese biosafety evaluations in January 2020 – a major step toward commercializing GM crops in China. Yet development of GM products has repeatedly faced public pushback, which has complicated efforts to ramp up the country’s use of GM foods.
Chinese companies have endeavored to counter domestic production difficulties through major investments in agriculture-based assets abroad. Between 2000 and 2018, China purchased an estimated 3.2 million hectares of land abroad, making it the fourth largest buyer in the world, behind the US, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Malaysia. In Australia, China was the second-largest foreign landholder in 2018, after the UK and ahead of the US.
Australia is one of the top global destinations for Chinese FDI. Where else is China investing abroad? Learn more.
China’s efforts to capitalize on Australia’s available land have, however, faced resistance. In 2015 and 2016, two Chinese companies were blocked from purchasing Australia’s largest cattle business, S. Kidman and Co., whose holdings comprise 2.5 percent of total Australian land area – roughly the size of South Korea. In both cases, then-Treasurer Scott Morrison cited national interest as grounds for the decision. China’s investment in Australian agribusiness plummeted accordingly from a record high of $857.1 million in 2016 to $63.5 million in 2018.
Chinese investments in food production have also extended to the US. In 2013, China’s largest meat processor Shuanghui International acquired American Smithfield Foods for $7.1 billion, marking the second-largest Chinese acquisition of a U.S. company in history.
Fishing Waters Near and Far
Seafood has long been an important staple of the Chinese diet. China consumed 55.2 million tonnes of fish in 2017 – about 36 percent of the global total – making it the largest fish consumer in the world. In per capita terms, China consumed roughly 39 kg of fish per person in 2017, more than double the average of the rest of the world (15.5 kg).
To keep up with domestic demand, China’s global fishing activities have increased dramatically in recent decades. China’s total aquatic food production jumped from 15.1 tonnes in 1990 to 81 million tonnes in 2018, which accounted for just over 38 percent of global production. Aquaculture production is a particular strength for China. At more than 66.1 million tonnes in 2018, China’s aquaculture production accounted for an impressive 58 percent of global output.
In 2017, China supplied the rest of the world with over $20 billion worth of fish, roughly twice the amount of Norway, the world’s second largest fish exporter. China nonetheless still imported $11 billion worth of fish in 2017, making it the world’s third-largest fish importer, behind the US ($22 billion) and Japan ($15 billion).
|Global Fishery Production (2018)|
|Metric tons (t)|
|Rest of World||66,616,454||22,376,254||88,992,708||Source: FAO|
A substantial amount of Chinese fishing occurs in waters far from China. According to the Stimson Center, China accounted for 38 percent of all distant-water fishing (DWF) from 2016 to 2017. The average number of Chinese vessels engaging in DWF activity rose from 1,830 in 2012 to at least 3,000 in 2019. In 2017, Beijing released a plan to cap the number of DWF vessels at 3,000 by 2020, but it remains to be seen whether the measures will be effective, or properly enforced.
Some Chinese DWF vessels have engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. According to a two-year investigation by Green Peace, Chinese boats have been found fishing illegally and falsifying their catch tonnage in the prohibited waters of Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau and other countries. In March 2016, the Argentina Coast Guard sank a Chinese trawler that was reportedly fishing illegally in its waters.
Closer to China’s shores, overfishing has contributed to the severe depletion of fishery resources. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has stated there are “practically no fish” in the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, Chinese poachers have devastated the delicate ecosystem. At Scarborough Shoal, fishermen intentionally destroyed roughly half the total reef surface (approximately 58 square kilometers) in their efforts to harvest giant clams.
In response to heightened pressure from the international community, the Chinese government has instituted several policy changes to protect the environment and stop IUU fishing. In January 2017, Hainan province amended its Coral Reef Protection Act to ban the processing and trade of giant clams. To limit IUU fishing, China’s Ministry of Agriculture pledged in January 2019 to deny known IUU fishing vessels access to Chinese ports. China’s fisheries law was also amended to include stricter regulations on IUU fishing, including the ability to blacklist offenders.
Nevertheless, Chinese vessels continue to pose problems for other countries. In October 2016, a Chinese fishing boat rammed and sank a South Korean Coast Guard boat, causing a diplomatic row that stalled bilateral efforts to crackdown on illegal fishing.
In the disputed waters of the South China Sea, China has used its coast guard and maritime militia to intimidate foreign fishers and defend Chinese fishing vessels operating in contested waters. In June 2019, for example, a suspected Chinese maritime militia vessel rammed and partially sank a Philippine fishing boat in the South China Sea. Philippine authorities stated that the incident was part of an operation by the Chinese maritime militia designed to expel Philippine fishing boats from the Spratly Islands.