Why Food Security is a Top Priority for China

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Why Food Security is a Top Priority for China

As the world’s largest food producer and importer, changes in China’s domestic food production and agricultural trade policies may have a significant impact on global trade flows.

Why Food Security is a Top Priority for China
Credit: Matt Briney on Unsplash

At the recent Central Rural Work Conference in Beijing, China, held on December 18-19 and convened by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the challenges and current situation of the “three rurals” (agriculture, rural areas, and farmers) was discussed, with special attention paid to the country’s food security. 

This comes amid the growing importance placed on food security by Xi and the country’s policymakers for whom it is a “top national priority” (国之大者). Amid an increasingly complex geopolitical environment, climate shocks, trade disruptions, and an uncertain global food market, China has elevated food security and food supply resilience to the highest level in terms of political priorities in recent years.  

At present, China is the world’s biggest food producer, a leading food exporter, and has the world’s biggest food reserve systems. Yet Beijing remains concerned about safeguarding its food security over the long term, aiming to increase self-reliance in agricultural production through various measures. 

Increasing Domestic Agricultural Production

To increase domestic agricultural production as part of broader food security efforts, the Chinese government has put in place a wide range of policies.

First, China has initiated various efforts to increase domestic food production and self-sufficiency. While the principle of self-sufficiency in agricultural production continues to underpin China’s overarching food security strategy, there has been a discernible shift in focus from achieving self-sufficiency in grains to ensuring basic self-sufficiency in cereals (wheat, rice, and corn) and absolute security in staple crops (rice and wheat).

To support these measures, China has also implemented key policies and devoted substantial financial resources to support both national and provincial food-production policies, targets, and strategies. These include increased pressure on local governments to bolster grain production efforts alongside the implementation of stricter rules regarding the protection and usage of farmland and “red lines” specifying minimum levels for arable land. As Xi noted at the recent Central Rural Work Conference, party committees and governments at all levels should “fully implement the joint responsibility of the Party and government for food security.”

Second, China has heavily invested in agricultural research and development to help address agricultural production concerns. In addition to developing drought-and insect-resistant and salt-tolerant crops,future foods,” and agricultural autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, Beijing is also highly interested in seed technology. 

In recent years, Chinese policymakers have paid increasingly close attention to the importance of seeds, which are key to food security and agricultural productivity. Seeds have been called “the ‘computer chips’ of agriculture” by Tang Renjian, the minister for agriculture and rural affairs. Considered a weak link by the Chinese central government due to reliance on international seed companies, the Chinese central government is keen to improve the quality and efficiency of domestically-produced lines through national plans

Further linking biotechnology to measures aiming to increase agricultural production, the Chinese central government recently announced plans to expand its pilot planting of genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans to help boost the domestic production of the two crops. Although commercialization plans for GM crops remain implicit, they align with China’s broader food security strategy and local production plans. To this end, Beijing has consistently emphasized the need for increased local production, evident in policy measures, targets, national campaigns, and five-year plans

Third, Beijing is addressing soil, land, and water quality concerns. Domestically, China is hindered by heavy contamination of the country’s limited land and water resources and labor shortages. Although the country is home to nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, it has only 7 percent of the world’s arable land. The actual amount of arable land is also much less when considering the severe contamination of China’s land and water supplies, accelerated by the heavy use of fertilizers. 

Similarly, China is grappling with water concerns. Despite being one of the top five countries in terms of freshwater resources, the country faces serious water quality issues as well as quantity issues owing to highly uneven spatial distribution. These concerns are compounded by overuse and pollution. 

To address these concerns and increase local agricultural production, numerous measures have been introduced by the Chinese government. These include, but are not limited to, a soil and underground water pollution prevention plan, various planting acreage targets, national soil surveys, the establishment of the river chief system, and stricter water quality guidelines. As Xi and other top Chinese officials have publicly noted, these efforts will help ensure that “Chinese bowls are mainly filled with Chinese food.”

As part of broader efforts to support these agricultural production measures and increase self-reliance, Beijing has launched nationwide campaigns to cut food waste, look after the country’s grain, and reduce food demand. Although China has seen consecutive bumper harvests, the country’s leaders have frequently pointed out the necessity of preventing food waste, reducing undernourishment, and generating benefits for retailers and consumers. For example, Xi launched nationwide campaigns against food waste in 2013 and again in 2020. Alongside these campaigns, in 2021, the national “Anti-Food Waste Law” was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and came into effect immediately

Challenges and Implications

One of the biggest challenges to China’s food security and agricultural production ambitions is climate change. In recent years, climate shocks (such as severe flooding and droughts) have increased in intensity and frequency, affecting domestic agricultural production through crop damage, as well as resulting in increases in crop pests and diseases. 

Over the past 70 years, China’s average temperature has increased much more quickly than the global average. It is expected to remain high, making the country increasingly vulnerable to floods, droughts, and typhoons, as seen in 2021 in Henan province, which produces an estimated 10 percent of China’s pork, 10 percent of its corn and 25 percent of its wheat, received a year’s worth of rain in just three days. The following year, a severe drought across the Yangtze River basin, home to China’s rice production, laid bare 2.2 million hectares of arable land. In a further demonstration of the seriousness of the situation, some research found that extreme rainfall has reduced the country’s rice yields by 8 percent over the past two decades. Other research estimates that climate change and ozone pollution reduced China’s national average crop yields by 10 percent between 1981 and 2010.

Extreme weather events in China are expected to occur with growing frequency in China, challenging the country’s food security plans and putting more pressure on policymakers.

Although Beijing is heavily encouraging measures to increase local agricultural production, and also aiming to develop its own agricultural giants, much remains uncertain. Aside from climate change, other key factors like low wages for farmers and yield gaps should be considered. 

Growing certain agricultural products can be much more expensive in China than in other countries, such as the U.S., and the yield may be much lower too. Data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization shows that corn and soybean yields in China are about half of those of many exporting countries in the Americas, which have relatively high yields per hectare. When it comes to soybeans, for instance, the average yield for soybean in the U.S. is about 3.5 tonnes per hectare in comparison to China’s 1.6 tonnes per hectare. Similarly for corn, the average on-farm yield of corn is 11-12 tonnes per hectare in the U.S. while China’s average corn yield is 6.2 tonnes per hectare. Given China’s major water, soil, and arable land constraints, addressing yield gaps is important.    

Further adding to concerns, rural labor shortages due to rapid urbanization, an aging population and a declining fertility rate, have also raised questions over who will make up the rural workforce in the future.

Furthermore, increases in disposable income are leading to changing dietary preferences and tastes, as reflected in the country’s changing food consumption structure with consumers demanding greater quantities of more expensive animal protein and dairy, as well as sugar, edible oils, and processed foods. By 2025, China is expected to account for 31 percent of the total global increase of protein consumption.

The continued growth of the country’s middle-class means that China’s total food demand is projected to increase by 16-30 percent by 2050, while demand for meat such as beef and dairy products is expected to nearly double. To meet this demand, some researchers argue that up to 12,000 square kilometers of additional agricultural land within China is necessary. 

Given China’s domestic constraints and the complexity of the situation, Beijing may also place greater emphasis on the creation of alternative proteins (such as lab-grown meat) and other “future foods” to help meet demand, while also trying to reduce reliance on imports. 

Winning the Hearts and Minds of Consumers

While some measures have the potential to contribute to boosting local agricultural production and China’s food supply resilience, they are not without controversy. Given the increasingly complex geopolitical environment and domestic concerns, the country’s policymakers and scientists have advocated the use of biotechnologies and agricultural technologies, like GM seeds, to address these issues. 

Despite being an early adopter of GM crops, commercialization in China has stalled, partly due to public opposition to GM food and food safety concerns. In this light, addressing public opinion will become key in China’s strategy to navigate the challenges of embracing genetic modification in agriculture. 

Responding to public concerns, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has dismissed these claims, asserting the safety of approved GM products. Having acknowledged the need for a better public understanding of biotechnology, Beijing is also using Chinese state media as part of the public relations drive to dispel skepticism and win over consumers, and also seeks to improve national food safety standards

Recent actions by the Chinese central government indicate an awareness of the country’s complex challenges. Allowing greater use of GM technology in agriculture and announcing GM pilot programs suggest a gradual introduction to domestically-produced GM soybeans and other crops for human consumption. However, winning consumer trust is crucial, as their opinions influence both the policy formulation and implementation regarding GM crop commercialization. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the media push will be successful. 

Reshaping Global and Regional Food Trade Flows 

Greater local production has implications for regional and global trade flows. This is particularly the case for feed grains like soybeans and corn. As these represent the bulk of China’s agricultural imports, decreases in feed grain imports and overall demand, along with significant increases in local agricultural production, could help the country reduce exposure to vulnerabilities and fluctuations in the global food markets, not to mention avoid potential blockades of key trade routes by foreign powers. 

This is particularly the case for soybeans, the overwhelming majority of which – 88 percent – are imported from Brazil, the U.S., and Argentina. Soybeans, crucial in animal feed, human food, and industrial products globally, hold immense significance in China. Although the country ranks fourth in global soybean production at 20 million tonnes, China is also the world’s largest importer, accounting for more than 60 percent of global soybean trade.

With U.S.-China systemic competition and the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict having impacted soybean and broader agricultural trade flows, Beijing seeks to boost domestic soybean production, in particular, to address concerns about reliance on foreign soybeans exposed during the Trump-era trade war. As Xi stated in a note to the Central Rural Work Conference in December 2023, China should maintain the increased production of soybeans.

At the same time, Beijing aims to decrease soybean and corn use in animal feed in order to reduce demand for both food and feed grains. In 2023, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced a three-year plan to reduce the amount of soybean meal in animal feed to under 13 percent by 2025, to help decrease reliance on imports. Estimates suggest that by 2030, the ratio could drop to 12 percent, lowering China’s soybean imports from around 91 million tonnes (imported quantity during 2022) to 84 million tonnes. 

At present, China’s soybean production is around 20 million tonnes while corn production is estimated at 277 million tonnes. Yet in 2022, China imported an enormous 91.08 million tonnes of soybeans alongside a more modest 20.62 million tonnes of corn – in the form of feed grains. 

While the aforementioned statistics show that there is a significant gap between China’s imports and current production for soybeans, the country’s soybean imports have fallen over the past two years, partly due to efforts to boost domestic production and reduce feed grain demand, and partly due to soaring prices and ongoing supply chain disruptions. Reduction in China’s feed grain imports, particularly for soybeans, could continue given Beijing’s agricultural production targets and determination to rely on local agricultural production rather than imports.  

These policies carry implications for major grain/agricultural exporters too. As the world’s largest food producer and importer, changes in China’s domestic food production and changes in its agricultural trade policy can have a significant impact on both global and regional food trade flows. In the case of several major extreme weather events simultaneously affecting the country’s breadbaskets and local food production, could make the country much more reliant on imports and reduce China’s agricultural export capacity too. 

On the other hand, decreases in grain (such as corn or soybeans) or meat imports by China mean that millions more tonnes will be available for other importing countries, and could even see China exporting more agricultural products in greater quantities. These two scenarios may have cascading effects on grain and meat prices, forcing adjustments in exporting countries, providing opportunities for other countries to import surplus agricultural products, and influencing global market dynamics. 

It may also lead farmers in exporting countries, such as the U.S. — which exports around half of the value of its soybeans to China — to reduce production to avoid a major drop in prices, or continue to find alternative uses or destinations for these exports.  

However, other research is less optimistic about China’s food self-sufficiency ambitions, especially in light of the fact that since 2004 China has been a net importer of food. The country’s food self-sufficiency rate decreased considerably between 2000 to 2020, from 93.6 percent to 65.8 percent, while its reliance on food imports during this time has increased. By 2030, however, one estimate suggests that the country’s food self-sufficiency rate could decrease again to 58.8 percent.

On top of this, a report from the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggests that by the end of 2025, China could still face a food gap of around 130 million tonnes, including a grain gap of about 25 million tonnes. This suggests that China is likely to remain a major food importer, at least in the near future. 

BRI, “China-friendly” Countries, and Food Imports

Amid worsening relations with the West, China has steadily imported an increasing amount of agricultural products from friendlier countries (such as Russia), while also expanding agricultural investments in these regions. China’s food trade with Belt and Road Initiative countries alone reached over $139 billion in the first eight months of 2023, a 162 percent increase from the same period 10 years ago

As China is expected to be a major food importer and reliant on trade to meet consumer demands, due in part to middle-class consumption demands and a reduced self-sufficiency ratio, Beijing will likely place its political and strategic concerns over economic ones. Recent food-related agreements between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the former being the latter’s biggest trading partner, and agricultural cooperation agreements with Brazil, South America’s largest economy and the world’s biggest soybean exporter, suggest that Beijing will continue to prioritize relationships with “China-friendly”’ and BRI countries. 

In this light, China may increase Brazilian agricultural imports, for instance, while reducing those from the U.S. and other Western countries. Changes in China’s soybean import patterns could reshape global and regional trade flows, potentially resulting in greater Sino-Brazilian bilateral and intra-regional BRICS trade amid escalating global food insecurity concerns.


On the one hand, China is seeking to boost domestic agricultural production as part of broader food security efforts. This is seen through the many measures introduced in recent years and significant financial resources backing these efforts. As Beijing knows, food security is inherently part of national security. Rising food prices, exacerbated by export bans and climate change impacts, could lead to social, political, and economic instability, as recent examples show, with the potential to rebound even to those countries and regions able to source food from elsewhere.  

On the other hand, it remains doubtful if China’s goals can be achieved in the short term, given the complexity of the numerous interlinked domestic challenges Beijing faces, not to mention the fractured geopolitical environment. 

However, in the longer term, a more food-secure China with stronger local food supply resilience could also reshape the patterns of major agricultural exports, including grains and oilseeds. Aside from countries like the U.S. potentially having to find alternative markets for its agricultural exports, this could also result in China exporting more agricultural products to other countries and regions, and even competing against other major agricultural exporters in doing so.