Towards an uncertain future: China’s national food security

Elena Vardanian
5 min read

Since COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt food supply chains and logistics across the globe, the market and the public are spawning misconceptions about food security in the world's most populous country. But there are zero chances that China can be an immediate or long-term threat of food shortages.

Food security belt

As a country that has the largest population in the world, China made remarkable progress reducing the number of people suffering from hunger and fighting poverty. China is one of just 29 countries that managed to reach United Nations targets aimed at cutting world hunger rates in half by 2015 by covering two-thirds of the total reduction in undernourished people among Asian countries from 2010 to 2017 (1). 

However, the Government recognizes that almost 150.8 million people remain undernourished. Those who are undernourished are suffering from stunting (9.4 %), anaemia (19.6 %) and being overweight (25%). Those rates are a national and global burden (2).

While researchers (3) and FAO (4) put their efforts into qualifying the numbers of those who are malnourished and starving in urban and rural areas, economists are worried about China’s grain imports rapid growth. And when all components of food security are hard to define the question of food security arises (5).

Agricultural sector overview

According to a CSIS report, China’s grain consumption has more than tripled from 125 million metric tons in 1975 to 420 million tonnes in 2018 (1). High volumes of staple crops allowed China to achieve a roughly one-to-one ratio of production and consumption of grains. Unfortunately, this couldn't beat India’s “world’s leading exporter of rice” title in 2018-2019, but China never complained about being the sixth-largest exporter (1).

Beijing highlights the importance of grain security, which was included in the Chinese central government’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) draft. This plan set a goal for an annual grain production of more than 650 million tons per year and based on three key tactics:

  • increasing and diversifying food supplies (can be achieved by the government and various policies it implements)
  • reducing domestic demand and consumption (strong citizens participation is required)
  • establishing a supportive environment through legal and institutional frameworks (6)

China’s global suppliers

Largest population needs to be fed. The fact that China has become increasingly reliant on imports due to changing consumption habits led to rapid imports growing from just $14 billion to $104.6 billion between 2003 and 2017. Food exports nearly tripled from $20.2 billion to $59.6 billion over the same period (1). Looks like somebody is running a food trade deficit!

China’s grain imports are rapidly rising. During the first 9 months of 2021 it imported 128.27 million tonnes of grain, up 29.3% from a year earlier. China imported 3.53 million tonnes of corn in September, up 226.9% from a year ago, while the purchase of foreign wheat dropped 40.4% to 640,000 tonnes in September (7). The main reason for this growth is the increase in demand for livestock feed resulting from increased meat consumption. Expert from Mitsui & Co. Global Strategic Studies Institute says that “domestic grain demand is forecast to grow even further, with demand for wheat also expected to increase as diets become more westernised” (5).

More likely that China will increase its food and feed imports like soybean, maize, sugar, and dairy products in the coming decade. But global food security is out of danger (8).

Boosting food security

As emphasised in the 2021 No.1 Document (China’s top agriculture policy paper, usually published in February each year), seed technology is key to the next stage of agricultural modernisation. Meanwhile, the government highlights a food wastage topic, strengthening efforts to reduce the amount of grain lost at harvest and food wasted in kitchens across the country.

President Xi Jinping's growing worries transformed into a major campaign against food wastage in 2020. The Government already saw positive dynamics however, they strive to achieve "high-quality, more efficient and more sustainable national food security system" (9).

Country’s next breakthrough in productivity depends on higher seed standards and technology innovations such as multi-resistance crop varieties, new technology for precision planting of wheat and intelligent and efficient harvesters. 

The bottom line

Country’s high production capacity in agriculture, along with its ample national reserves, have guaranteed food supplies, particularly in staple grains. China's food security problem is mainly a problem of feed grain, because the country can’t produce enough feed grains (such as soybeans) to support its large and rapidly growing livestock industry and thus must rely on imports.