A Chinese idiom holds that “people regard food as their heaven” (民以食为天). This saying reflects the importance of food security in China. For thousands of years, food security has been a key priority for the Chinese authorities and remains so today.
Since the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, domestic food production in China has rapidly increased following incredible economic growth. However, food consumption in China is also skyrocketing due to greater intake of essential food than in the past, changing diets, increased food loss and waste, and loss of farmland due to urbanization. The challenges presented by these factors have resulted in China’s domestic food production being unable to maintain current lifestyles and consumption habits.
In recent years, China’s food security has been closely linked to its national security. Food security has been listed as equally important as national energy security and finance security in the face of threats from the China-U.S. trade war and a “complicated global environment.” The importance of food security has been publicly noted by various top Chinese leaders. In April 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that “food security is an important foundation for national security.” The importance of food security was further emphasized by Tang Renjian, the new minister of agriculture and rural affairs, who additionally highlighted two key components of food security: seeds, “the ‘computer chips’ of agriculture,” and cultivated land, the “‘lifeblood’ of food production.”
Grain security was included in the Chinese central government’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) draft for the first time. Under the plan, which sets out China’s national economic and social development objectives, China must achieve an annual grain production of more than 650 million tons a year. Also included in the plan are specific arrangements for the implementation of a food security strategy, including improving the entire industry for grains, and the development of agricultural and rural areas.
However, this is not an easy task. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China’s food insecurity concerns have been exacerbated by many factors including power cuts, rising vegetable costs, and panic buying.
A much bigger picture is that safeguarding food security is increasingly seen as a high priority for Beijing’s new “dual circulation” development strategy. The “dual circulation” strategy seeks greater self-reliance to reduce external uncertainties. In November 2021, the Politburo, the decision-making body of the Chinese Communist Party, released the new National Security Strategy (2021-2025), which makes reference to food security.
After the rollout of an increasing number of policies, legal measures, and guidelines targeted at food security, the key focus points for China’s food security policy can be summarized into three main aspects.
Increasing and Diversifying Food Supply
The first area of emphasis is to increase domestic food supply, both through stockpiles and storage and increasing the amount of agricultural land. The Chinese central government seeks to achieve this through the implementation of various policies. In 1990, China established national grain stockpiles which “coordinate central state reserves and local reserves, and complement government and corporate inventories with each other.” Since then, China has continued to implement various policies to safeguard food security. For example, from 2015 all provincial governors are required to take full responsibility for food security.
Further, in December 2020, food security was also listed as a major priority at the Central Economic Work Conference. This meeting was attended by both Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. Referring to food security as a “problem of seeds and arable land,” the meeting emphasized that the key to ensuring food security lies in storing grain.
Aside from recognizing the need to safeguard the supply of grain and other agricultural products and the need to protect China’s so-called “red line” of 1.8 billion mu of arable land (equivalent to 120 million hectares), the meeting also reiterated the importance of preventing the “non-agriculturalization” of arable land in the management of grain reserves. It also pointed out the importance of creating a national food security and industrial belt to safeguard national food security.
The outcomes of this meeting were supported by the State Council and CCP Central Committee’s policy statement focused solely on food security in February of this year. This policy statement demanded that the provincial authorities maintain a minimum national level “red line” of 120 million hectares of cultivated farmland to protect limited land resources by avoiding further land degradation. In addition, Beijing has established a National High-Standard Farmland Construction Plan (2021-2030) to increase the amount of arable land for farming and increase crop yields per acre. The plan aims to reach a national target of 71.75 million hectares of “high-standard farmland” by 2025, and then 80 million hectares by 2030.
Aside from increasing its food supply, China is seeking to diversify its food supply markets so as to avoid dependence on one or several countries. Notably, the Chinese government’s emerging “Food Silk Road” aims to diversify food imports from many regions around the world, including Africa and Latin America. To date, China has signed over 100 agricultural cooperation agreements with Belt and Road Initiative countries. As part of the Food Silk Road, China is also attempting to reconstruct global food supply chains through overseas free trade agreements, infrastructure investments, and farmland acquisitions in foreign countries, as demonstrated by recent agreements with countries like Egypt, Cambodia, and Pakistan. China appears keen to continue to seek alternative markets for food imports.
China is also showing growing interest in agritech and biotech. For example, improving seed quality, gene editing, and genetically modified technology for animals and plants could offer solutions or partial solutions to food insecurity concerns. Nonetheless, concerns from citizens about the food safety are likely.
Reducing Domestic Demand and Consumption
The second method is to reduce internal demand through various policies and campaigns. Although China has seen consecutive bumper harvests, Chinese leaders have frequently pointed out the necessity of preventing food waste which can reduce undernourishment and also generate economic gains for retailers and consumers. As a response, Xi launched nationwide campaigns against food waste in 2013 and again in 2020. Although the 2013 “Operation Empty Plate” campaign targeted extravagant feasts and receptions held by government officials, the 2020 “Clean Your Plate” campaign is more comprehensive. In particular, restaurants and canteens display anti-food waste posters, and domestic media regularly publish content that encourages frugality.
To support these campaigns, in April 2021 the national “Anti-Food Waste Law” was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and came into effect immediately. The law was introduced in part due to a report by the Chinese Academy of Science on behalf of the Standing Committee. This report found that in 2015 residents in megacities, such as Beijing, wasted 17 to 18 million tons of food, or enough to feed 30 to 50 million people. Another study, which includes food loss, showed that over 35 million tonnes of food, or 6 percent of all the food China produces, is “lost” due to processing, transport, and storage.
Under the “Anti-Food Waste Law,” misleading or inducing excess food ordering could result in a fine of up to 10,000 renminbi. For food vloggers and livestreamers, it is illegal to make and distribute binge-eating videos online, commonly known as “mukbang,” with fines of up to 100,000 RMB handed out to those who do. The law also puts forward new requirements for governments to reduce food waste: Local governments at or above the country level must annually inform the public on developments related to their anti-food waste work and also propose measures to promote anti-food waste measures.
The response to this law has so far been fairly positive. A June 2021 survey by the China Youth Daily, for example, found there is increasing public awareness against food waste in China. According to the survey, 71 percent of respondents said they felt a greater sense of preventing food waste among the public, while over 65 percent of respondents said they would practice “Clean Your Plate.”
Using Legal Mechanisms to Create a Supportive Environment
The Chinese government’s third tactic is to ensure that demand and supply can be stabilized through legal mechanisms. In April 2020, the central Chinese government listed the “six guarantees” that it would prioritize in response to rising socioeconomic inequalities stemming from COVID-19, global supply chain issues, and rising food prices. This move was supported by November 2020 guidelines from the State Council, China’s chief administrative authority. The guidelines focused on preventing non-grain use of arable land and stabilizing grain production to safeguard food security. Noting that food security is the “top priority” for agricultural production in China and that grain production must be a priority in using farmland, the guidelines suggest the implementation of strict arable land protection policies. Under these guidelines, China must introduce incentive policies and economic compensations in major grain-producing regions to encourage both farmers and local government to increase grain production.
This was followed by the State Council’s draft law on the management of grain reserves in December 2020. In contrast to previous rules on grain reserves which only applied to central state stockpiles, the new draft law applies to local governments, which should build up reserves of oils and processed gains in medium and large cities, and also regions prone to volatility. The new law also specifies that the reserves should only be released in times of emergencies, such as grain shortages and major natural disasters.
The National People’s Congress began drafting a new grain security law in January 2021. The “Regulations on the Administration of Grain Circulation (Revised Draft)” aims to strengthen the supervision of grain by increasing the punishment for illegal and criminal acts and additionally using legal tools to maintain national food security. An official statement in Xinhua on the draft grain security law acknowledged that guaranteeing China’s food security “still faces many risks and challenges” and that “grain will be in a tight balance for a long time.”
This month, China’s Ministry of Commerce instructed families to keep daily necessities to meet basic demands in case of emergencies. Local media also published lists of recommended goods to store at home, which include instant noodles and flashlights. This suggests that food security concerns will remain a topic priority for the Chinese central government in the coming months and year when the country enters winter.
Food security has always been a top priority for China’s leaders and this is no exception for the current generation, for whom it remains as “eternal task,” as shown by the recent inclusion of food security as an additional dimension of the national security strategy. The central government’s three key tactics may achieve varying degrees of success. The first approach, increasing and diversifying food supplies, can be achieved by the government and various policies it implements. For instance, the establishment of “red lines” for farmland throughout the country are well within the government’s reach and control, and rely heavily on the support of local governments. In comparison, the second plan, reducing domestic demand and consumption, is more difficult. This approach requires strong citizen participation, which may be beyond the reach of government at times, in order to achieve success. The third method, however, represents the establishment supportive environment through legal and institutional frameworks by which the central government seeks to achieve the first and second strategies.
In addition, the implementation of these approaches shows increasing opportunities in terms of monitoring as well as changes to China’s institutional responses and governance structures. Other possible or partial solutions to China’s food insecurity concerns include reducing food wastage by recycling food waste in waste treatment centers (turning it into animal feed, soil enrichment, or energy generation), substituting potato for key staples such as grains and rice, and transitioning toward a circular economy in food consumption. Whether or not these efforts are successful in terms of ensuring food security, they present many opportunities in many sectors.
However, questions may be asked over the likelihood of the success of the three approaches. For instance, can people’s consumption habits really be changed? How can the “Anti-Food Waste Law” be applied at home or even through food delivery services? Who monitors this food consumption?
Questions may also be asked about China’s climate change commitments and food security. With Xi having promised that the country will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, how could these targets impact domestic agricultural production and food security measures when simultaneously trying to satisfy China’s food demand?
At the same time, 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?