China Faces Risks of Food Shortage as Reliance on Imports Grows

Food security still remains a major concern for China despite the economic and technological advancements it has achieved. A top policy document released by the CCP and the State Council jointly in February 2023 gives utmost importance to safeguarding national food security and protecting farmland. The document calls it “the top priority” of the whole CCP’s work. 1The annual rural policy blueprint, known as the “No. 1 document” demands strong efforts to increase food production and prevent declining of farmland area in order to ensure the foodgrains output of six trillion kilograms to feed 1.4 billion population. Every day, around 700,000 tonnes of foodgrains, 98,000 tonnes of oil, 1.92 million tonnes of vegetables, and 230,000 tonnes of meat are consumed in China. 2The Asian giant has been trying hard to achieve food self-sufficiency for decades. However, it has not succeeded yet. China faced a shortage of food supplies during the Covid pandemic, which led the Beijing government to grow restive over the stability of food supplies.”The uncertainty and instability of the external situation has increased significantly. On grain security, we must not take it lightly for one moment,” said Chinese agriculture minister Tang Renjian.3

China has less than 10 per cent of the world’s arable land while it has to feed one-fifth of the global population. This has compelled China to rely on food imports to meet its domestic demand. 4China’s imports of agricultural products surpassed exports in 2004 and the trade deficit continued to expand from 2009. 5China has been importing soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, and dairy products. Now, new products such as edible oils, sugar, meat, and processed foods are added to the list of food import baskets. China is heavily dependent on edible oil imports as 70 per cent of domestic demand is met by imports. The risk of ensuring supplies of agricultural products such as soybeans and edible vegetable oils through imports is increasing, said Zhang Wenli, who is a researcher associated with the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. 6“The overall efficiency of oil production is relatively low, and the enthusiasm of farmers for planting is not high. Oil materials have become the most open products among my country’s agricultural products, and are extremely vulnerable to the international market,” he said.

The National Food Output (food self-sufficiency ratio) has declined from 93.6 per cent at the beginning of the century to 65.8 per cent in 2020. It is going to decline further to 58.8 per cent by 2030, said Cheng Guoqiang, a member of China’s national expert advisory committee on food security policy.“China will face greater pressure on resources and more severe challenges in ensuring grain and food security ahead,” he said. 7Chinese President Xi Jinping has been making urgent moves to boost domestic food production, which many are drawing parallels with the disastrous policies of the Maoist era.8 9 Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation drove the conversion of farmlands at a high pace. Moreover, a significant cropland suffered from severe degradation, acidification and contamination from heavy metals. Liu Chin-tsai, Associate Professor at FoGuang University, said “Under the name of ‘land finance’ policies, local governments in China illegally acquired arable land and violated the ‘red line’ drawn to protect arable land, thus reducing food production as a result.”10

China lost 6 per cent of arable land to 1.28 million square kilometres between 2009 and 2019. 11This affected China’s crop production and fuelled food prices. Sino-African relations analyst Andrew Leung Kin-pong said “China has a lot of mouths to feed. The nation is suffering from the tremendous effects of industrialisation. Food prices are increasing drastically in China because of climate change, urbanisation and pollution.”12 In 1995, environmentalist Lester Brown in his book “Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet” claimed that China would not be able to feed its population. His prognostic views are turning true now. Zhang Zhongjun, assistant representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in China, warned of the high potential risks China faces due to insufficient crop production and disrupted food supplies during the global crisis. “Once a food crisis occurs, no country will sell grains, and a series of social problems will come to countries dependent on food imports,” he said




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