China’s food-security drive to feed its people

4 Min
China’s food-security drive to feed its people

China’s leaders have been ramping up efforts for years to ensure there is enough food to feed the country’s 1.4 billion people, but this effort has been given greater impetus amid heightened tensions with the West and the war in Ukraine – geopolitical factors that affect imports and supply chains, says a report in South China Morning Post (SCMP) .

Beijing’s approach is to seek greater self-sufficiency by putting an emphasis on the domestic supply of staple foods. While government grain reserves have remained abundant, as Beijing has reiterated over the years, the country’s overall food self-sufficiency rate has been falling since 2000.

In this article, we explore six major challenges faced by China in its agricultural-security drive.

Low efficiency, lack of advanced technology

Despite annual grain harvests surpassing more than 650 million tonnes for the past eight years, China is facing growing pressure in stabilising or increasing that level, mainly due to inadequate productivity and efficiency, adds the SCMP report.

This output is supported by 490 million people in rural areas, or nearly 35 per cent of the Chinese population, according to official population data as of last year.

In comparison, the US produced about 570 million tonnes of major grains last year, with around 66 million people, or 20 per cent of its total population, living in rural areas, according to its 2020 census.

China is also in urgent need of technological innovation in seed breeding. Yields of domestically produced seeds of corn and soybean are only about 60 per cent of those growing in the US, which some officials said represents a “more than 20-year” gap, according to SCMP report.

Under a nationwide “seed industry revitalisation” plan issued in 2021, breeders are also urged to make breakthroughs in different seed varieties. But despite its large volume, Chinese agriculture still lacks advanced technologies in fertiliser, pesticides and farming machinery.

Loss of farmland, over-exploitation and pollution

President Xi Jinping has brought the importance of maintaining enough farmland to a new level in the past few years, with a nationwide campaign to reclaim farmland and a food-security law under deliberation that has prioritised farmland protection, the report notes.

With large areas of fertile land being used for commercial development and becoming severely polluted during China’s rapid urbanisation push, Beijing has warned that no more arable land can be lost. Its total size started rising in the past two years amid tough measures, according to national surveys by the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Chinese lawmakers passed a law last year to protect its rich soil in the northeast and parts of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, known as black soil, where about a quarter of the country’s grain crops grow.

The central government has, in the meantime, stepped up efforts to improve the quality of farmland, vowing to build 1.2 billion mu (80 million hectares) worth of “high-standard” farmland by 2030, compared with 1.9 billion mu of farmland in total.

The top leadership has also called for dietary diversification, looking at deep-sea aquaculture to supplement growing food demand.

High dependence on soybean imports

With limited land resources prioritised for staple food crops such as rice and wheat, China imports more than 80 per cent of the soybeans it consumes each year, mostly from the US, Brazil and Argentina, SCMP report points out.

Those three countries, led by Brazil, contributed to a combined 96 per cent of China’s imports of soybean last year, Chinese customs data showed.

While demand nearly tripled since the late 1990s, growth in domestic production has remained slow, mainly due to little yield improvement in domestically developed seeds as mentioned above.

Beijing has been diversifying the source of soybean imports in recent years as concerns over being “strangled” by certain countries grew, adding Uruguay, Canada and Russia to its suppliers’ list.

Uncertain global market

With high dependence on the international market for oilseeds and animal feed, China is facing mounting challenges amid growing tensions with the US and its allies, which are major food suppliers, and a volatile global market due to the war in Ukraine.

A deal aimed at safeguarding the Black Sea exports of grain from Ukraine, one of the world’s top agricultural producers, to the rest of the world expired on Monday after Russia quit it.

The deal between the two sides of the war, brokered by the UN and Turkey a year ago, is widely believed to have helped ease food-price inflation throughout last year. Now with Russia’s withdrawal, concerns that global food prices will surge again are widespread.

China, nearly 30 per cent of whose corn imports were from Ukraine last year, now needs to turn to more expensive sources to fill the gap, as it had built relatively mature infrastructure there.

Huge waste

At least 35 million tonnes of grain, or 5 per cent of China’s annual production, is wasted each year during transport, storage and processing, mainly due to substandard methods, according to a report submitted to the standing committee of the National People’s Congress in 2020, SCMP report says.

Seed technology is another factor. For example, domestically bred vegetables often perform worse than imported species in the Chinese market, in terms of resistance to transport loss.

Waste at the consumer end is also huge. Between 12 million and 14 million tonnes of food is wasted in public dining places in China’s urban areas every year, the same report said.

In response, an anti-food waste law was enforced in 2021, requiring individuals and restaurants to avoid excessive orders and pay fines when the amount wasted reaches certain levels.