China Power

China’s Food Insecurity

Meeting the food demands of its 1.3 billion population is a key challenge for the Chinese government.

An increasingly affluent population, with a growing appetite for agriculturally intensive food products like meat and dairy, has seen demand for pork and eggs become sensitive issues for the Chinese government. Food price inflation, meanwhile, has long been a key concern for wider social stability in China.

Significant inflation in 2007 was largely driven by 'blue ear' disease, a form of swine flu among pigs. As a result, the government maintains strategic reserves of pigs and salt among its major foodstuff resources.

But a 5,000 plus year history of farming has left soils depleted, while China's tumultuous history isn’t without its fair share of drought and famine. As a result, existing agricultural land has been intensively farmed with strong fertilizers and pesticides, many of which are on the World Health Organisation’s banned list.

Deforestation and soil degradation have ensured that the yellow sandstorms that descend from the Steppe to the urbanized east coast cities are no longer rare. In addition, urbanization is rapidly eating up what viable farm land exists around cities — since the mid 1990s China has lost around 8.3 million hectares of arable land. 

In essence, China's construction boom is driving up Chinese food prices. China has approved over 1,500 industrial development zones across the nation, but the government is aware of the threat to the country's arable land — ‘Grain security should be given priority’, noted the secretary general of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission.

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But aiming for self-sufficiency in staple crop production seems a thing of the past.

China has purchased and leased large tracts of farmland in countries like Algeria and Zimbabwe to produce crops for export, to fill China's diminishing rice bowl, a process that has been darkly captured by the recent film When China Met Africa.

The Forbes blog recently highlighted the idea of the United States being the world's largest grain producer, and China being the largest holder of US debt, noting that China is in effect Washington's banker, while the US is China's farmer

On the other side of the debate, the US Department of Agriculture has released a policy paper that suggests China's food security objectives may clash with its aspirations of energy independence and the country’s environmental objectives.

If you walked into any Chinese supermarket or small shop two weeks ago, you'd have found the shelves empty of salt and Japanese-produced milk powder. Beijing saw a salt shortage for about three days after the disaster that has so devastated northern Japan, in the belief that iodized salt would help stave off the effects of any nuclear drift that hit the capital.

The only twist on this kind of behavior, though, is the nuclear disaster angle — runs on garlic and ginger happen on an almost yearly basis.

Meanwhile, a slew of recently opened high-end Japanese restaurants here in Beijing's Chaoyang district, including the world renowned Nobu chain, are having to rethink their appeal in directly importing produce from Japan. 

For your less-cashed-up Beijinger on the street, who would rarely deign to enter a Japanese restaurant, recent news that low levels of radiation have been found on vegetables grown around cities like Shanghai and Beijing have added further to concerns about food

All this will invariably mean demand for imported, organic processed products and meat from countries like Australia – already products of choice amongst China's urban elite – will increase. Something else for Chinese policymakers to mull over.


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Catherine Chan is an environmental lawyer and journalist based in Beijing.

(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)