On September 28, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency posted a video boasting about the country’s food supply.
The video said that all 1.4 billion Chinese are “eating well” and that China has achieved "basic self-sufficiency in grain and absolute security in staple food.”
Xinhua cited advances in soil improvement, seed productivity and farming technology. And it’s true that China produces a lot of food – about 20% of the global output, according to the University of California Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.
Yet, the impression the Xinhua video leaves is misleading. Despite improvements, many people in China continue to suffer undernourishment and poverty, with disparities in both urban and rural areas. Moreover, China’s changing diet and climate change each present long-term food challenges.
Though it is producing more food, China is importing more than it exports and increasingly finds itself “running a food trade deficit,” reports China Power, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Between 2003 and 2017, China’s food imports grew dramatically, from $14 billion to $104.6 billion, China Power said. Food exports also grew, reaching $59.6 billion by 2017.
China imports nearly two-thirds of the world’s soybeans, vital as livestock feed for raising pork, the No. 1 protein in China’s diet. And the Chinese consume twice as much seafood per person as the global average, filling the demand by dispatching voracious fishing fleets across the globe.
There is no official definition of food self-sufficiency, so that leaves some wiggle room for a declaration like Xinhua’s.
The Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO) provides that “a self-sufficient country produces as much or more food than it consumes, even if some of the actual food items consumed by its population are different from those it produces domestically.”
In other words, a country can be food self-sufficient even if it imports from other countries.
The FAO places China in a category called “Consumption below adequate nutritional intake.” This means it produces about the same amount of food its population consumes, but that some Chinese still experience “mild or elevated levels of hunger.”
According to Reuters, China grew to be the world’s sixth-largest food importer by 2019 thanks to its decades of rapid economic growth and a burgeoning middle class. Top food imports, besides soybeans, include pork, cotton, corn and poultry.
In 2020, the Netherlands, France, United States and Australia were the largest providers, respectively, of food products to China, according to data from the World Bank.
China’s food exports have been rising year-to-year, hitting 4 percent of global agri-food exports by 2019, according to the tracking firm IHS Markit. The country’s main agricultural exports include fish and seafood, animal and vegetable oils, and vegetables, fruits and nuts.
The country is widely given credit for rapid strides in agricultural output and poverty reduction, despite limited arable land. And the government under Xi has made food security a top goal.
China’s newest five-year agriculture plan, released in January 2022, outlines a multi-pronged strategy that even envisions growing artificial meat to cut greenhouse gasses from livestock. Scientists also are experimenting with “saltwater rice,” a strain suited to China’s alkaline soils.
A March 2022 article by the World Economic Forum said:
“China ranked 34th out of 113 countries in the 2021 Global Food Security Index, published in September, which measures food affordability, availability, quality and safety, and natural resources and resilience.
“It's one of the top five countries that has shown the most improvement over the past 10 years.”
But there are new challenges.
A study by Chinese researchers published in August said the country had basically eradicated poverty overall. Still, China now confronts the problem of “relative poverty,” a concept that measures disparities in living standards beyond just basic income and needs.
The researchers found that relative poverty rates surpassed 60 percent in some provinces and cities, including Beijing province:
“Relative poverty is no longer simply income poverty but entails multidimensional poverty including food, clothing, housing, education, recreation, health, society communication and capability. Therefore, we should pay attention to multiplex development, not only income, but also employment opportunities, personal ability and quality, development opportunities and so on.”
And hunger remains. According to the United Nations’ World Food Program, as of May 2021, about 151 million people in China were malnourished; 56 million in rural China live in poverty.
According to Xinhua, China has achieved “basic self-sufficiency in grain.”
Indeed, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report from March 2022 corroborates that view, saying China’s statistics show production surpassed baseline grain security for seven straight years.
At the same time, the report notes, “China could struggle to achieve this goal” this year because of uncertainty about summer wheat and rice production in five provinces where heavy rains swamped fields in planting season.
Longer term, the problem of food security is entangled with water security.
A December 2021 study published in the journal Agricultural Water Management, Chinese researchers wrote that “climate variation, population expansion, and changes in food habits have put tremendous pressure on the sustainable use of China’s agricultural water.”
The study predicts increases of 50 percent or more in agricultural water use by 2029-2033, when China’s population is expected to peak. “In China, the drastic shift toward protein-rich diets is the main cause of China’s water shortage,” the authors wrote, citing related research.
“With the rapid increase in income, the food habits of Chinese people ha[ve] undergone significant changes over the last 36 years. As the core of traditional Chinese food habits, the per capita consumption of grain (wheat, rice and maize) continues to decline,” their paper says.
China also has faced challenges in the seafood industry, including accusations of poaching. The country consumed about 36% of the global total of fish in 2017, “making it the largest fish consumer in the world,” according to China Power.
But China is the also world’s largest seafood exporter, selling to Japan, South Korea and the United States as the biggest customers, respectively.
China’s rapacious fishing practices – often in distant waters – have come under intense criticism.
Chinese vessels have been caught in prohibited areas and accused of falsifying catch counts. Overfishing by China has severely depleted the East and South China seas.
In 2012, Beijing took control of the Scarborough Shoal, an island in the South China Sea known for plentiful fishing. Fishermen have since “destroyed roughly half of the reef surface” while harvesting giant clams, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
In an article for The Diplomat published in November 2021, researchers Genevieve Donnellon-May and Mark Wang analyzed “China’s Evolving Food Security Strategy.” After examining Xi’s numerous initiatives, they conclude that whether Xi will succeed to meet China's demands in the future is an open question:
“China, like many other nations, is facing pressure on its agricultural industry from various domestic concerns. These include limited farmland and water supplies, which are required for agricultural production, as well as a smaller workforce, rapid urbanization, shifting demographics, balancing competing urban and agricultural water demands, as well as climate change and extreme weather events.
“China is also facing challenges from external pressure such as rising Sinophobia and trade tensions with other countries, global backlash against China in response to COVID-19, and uncertainty over the global food market.
“In the face of such challenges, are China’s current food security strategies actually realistic?”