Shi Wei Jun Authors

Full Stomachs

February 25, 2021

China has made considerable strides in increasing food access and security across the country. Decades of economic growth have enabled China’s leaders to make considerable strides in increasing food supply

On a typical day, the bin for organic waste behind Huang Simei’s popular canteen restaurant in Shanghai would be overflowing with leftovers by the end of the lunch rush. But since mid-August in 2020, the bin has been barely half-full when the garbage truck comes to empty it later in the evening.

As in restaurants across the country, many of Huang’s customers used to order more than they could eat, creating huge amounts of waste, but a new government campaign reflected in posters plastered on the walls of her restaurant has changed that—the new mantra is “no waste, finish your food.”

“Operation Clean Plates” is the brainchild of President Xi Jinping who declared in August that China has to “maintain a sense of crisis about food security” and stop being wasteful. The national campaign also sparked a bout of speculation over the government’s ability to safely feed its 1.4 billion citizens amid crises on multiple fronts—locusts, once-in-a-lifetime floods, pandemic and rising tensions with major trading partners.

A message easier to swallow

Over the past 10 years, food self-sufficiency has been steadily declining, according to the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs. China had previously aimed for domestic supplies to cover 95% of demand. Over the last few years, however, self-sufficiency in grain alone fell to around 80%, due to a significant increase in imports of soybeans, largely used as feed grain for pigs.

But despite the posters and the agonizing as people digested the directive, most analysts view concerns over food supplies as misdirected. “Food security isn’t currently something citizens have to worry about,” says Matteo Marchisio, country director of China and representative for China at the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), a United Nations agency.

“However, the notion of food security has a powerful meaning for the population,” he adds. “Talking about food waste from the standpoint of food security has a stronger effect than in terms of preserving the environment or the economic benefits.” Linking the two also becomes easier to swallow when one considers that more than one-third of the food produced on farms—enough to feed 500 million people—is never eaten.

The campaign revealed how food security never strays far from the minds of policymakers—an anxiety summed up by the predicament that China must feed 20% of the world’s population with 7% of its arable land. “The mentality about food security is very necessary for the country,” says Si Zhenzhong, a researcher on food security in China at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

It is a staggering accomplishment that even with the most mouths to feed, China has been able to basically ensure food security and that the country is self-sufficient in its three major cereal grains—wheat, corn and rice. It is the result of massive amounts of research, major investment into crop technology and improved agricultural farming methods that taken together have turned the country into an agricultural powerhouse.

Nice to meat you

Diets have altered since the market-opening. In the late 1970s, the changes initiated sparked a prosperity boom that has allowed hundreds of millions of people to afford a new range of foods. As incomes have grown, so too have waistlines: Consumers have to a significant extent switched from traditional foodstuffs, characterized by grains and vegetables, to high-sugar and high-fat Western foods. Appetite for meat and animal products, including dairy has especially grown, says Chang Tianle, director of the Beijing Farmers’ Market, a pioneer in China’s organic farming movement, and a former program officer for the US-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Meat was a rare luxury during the era of Chairman Mao Zedong (1949 to 1976). But the average person last year ate 82% more chicken than 20 years ago and nearly 50% more beef and veal, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO).

Chart: A meatier diet in China, thanks to an improved food supply

But while the Chinese have become more carnivorous over the past few decades, appetites for different animals have varied. Rising demand for beef and poultry—seen as healthier alternatives to pork—has been accompanied by a slump in the consumption of pig flesh, which has declined by 22% since peaking in 2015. This, however, was also partly due to soaring prices for pork after African swine fever decimated the nation’s pig farms. Prices started falling toward the end of 2020 with the outbreak now resolved.

“The single biggest change to local diets is demand for fresh vegetables and salads, and meats that were not previously part of the Chinese diet such as beef and lamb,” says Kitty Smyth, founder of China strategic advisory firm Jingpinou. “These products are difficult to find and expensive to purchase.”

China produces most of the meat it consumes but remains a big importer. USDA data shows Chinese pork imports made up 44% of the global total and nearly 10% of domestic supply last year. Beef and veal imports accounted for 20% of world trade and 30% of domestic supply, although, again, the import and consumption figures for pork are skewed due to African swine fever.

A growing preference for beef has been followed by booming demand for dairy. China is now the world’s top market for dairy imports, valued at $11.1 billion in 2019. Consumption of dairy products has grown rapidly from a historically low base, rising from 2010 to 2017 by 18% in urban households and by 94% in rural households. But per capita consumption per year remains low at around 36 kg compared with 300 kg in Western Europe.

The huge appetite for meat means that while the country is self-sufficient in grains, for humans, its livestock are another matter. Domestic feed supplies have been unable to keep up with soaring demand, forcing imports of soybeans and other feed ingredients to expand rapidly. China, the largest global buyer of soybeans, increased imports by 15.5% year-on-year to 74.3 mt in the first nine months of 2020—putting shipments on track to comfortably beat last year’s 88.5 mt. Imports accounted for about 85% of domestic soybean consumption in 2019.

“Soybean is perhaps the biggest challenge for the stability of food supply,” says Si. “As a major source of animal feed, soybean import is critical for China’s livestock industry. If the global food trade market is significantly disrupted, the country’s livestock sector will be greatly affected.”

Huge appetite for grains

But grain is still the cornerstone of diets, supplying the bulk of calories for most people. Demand for the three staple cereals has been stable over the past years. Wheat consumption is predicted to reach a record 130 mt for the crop year from September 2020 to August 2021, a modest increase from 126 mt over the previous year and up from 117.5 mt in 2015-2016. Corn demand has tapered off at 270-280 mt since 2018-2019, while rice has been stable at 140-145 mt for the past five years.

Wheat, rice and corn cultivation are economically and culturally important—China is the biggest producer globally of all three. The self-sufficiency rate of wheat and rice exceeded 100% last year and was more than 90% for corn, according to a world food database maintained by Kyushu University in Japan.

Chinese people ate an estimated 145 mt of rice in the 2019-2020 crop year, maintaining its status as by far the world’s biggest consumer of rice since the USDA started keeping records six decades ago. Consumption per capita, however, peaked in 1991 and has been stable at around 100kg for the past decade.

Ensuring food security

China has been able to draw upon thousands of years of experience as an agrarian society in its pursuit of food security. “It’s a country especially recognized for her long tradition of sustainable farming knowledge,” says Si. This prowess has long been acknowledged by the West, he says—as evidenced by the 1911 publication of the influential book Farmers of Forty Centuries, which detailed the highly productive and fertilizer-free farming practices employed in East Asia for centuries. “It’s a demonstration of the rich knowledge of the country, accumulated throughout the long history of its cultural development.”

More recently, China has parlayed its economic clout into science and technology allowing it to become an agricultural powerhouse. UN FAO data shows that China’s spending on agricultural research in 2013 hit $9.34 billion—more than double the US, nearly triple India and nearly one-third more than Western Europe. Total government expenditure on agriculture, fishing and forestry has also surged since 2001, from $228 billion to $3 trillion in 2017.

The flood of money into farming technology has supercharged the sector. Many of the recent changes in farming practices aimed to reduce the demand for farm labor and at making that work physically easier as well, says Even Rogers Pay, an agriculture analyst at research firm Trivium China.

In the past few years, there have also been major efforts to reduce the environmental impact of farming. “Overuse of chemical pesticide and fertilizer was a particular problem in the early 2000s, and regulators saw it was risking public health and overtaxing the rural environment and soils,” says Pay.

One-way policymakers frame this shift in approach to food security as being from yield-based to capacity-based. “It’s a recognition that real food security means farms and the rural environment need to be healthy and productive in the long-term, rather than just maximizing yield through heavy chemical use in a specific year,” says Pay.

Mover and shaker

Chart: China's grain deficits and surpluses from 2000 to 2020

Even as the country works to boost agricultural productivity, imports will remain an important contributor to national food supply. “China was pretty much self-sufficient in food when people were mostly eating rice and noodles, but as diets shifted toward meat, it means that grain and oilseed imports are needed to feed huge populations of pigs and chickens,” says Pay.

“Meat and dairy imports have also risen to meet demand. Some food imports are ‘nice to have’—chocolate and wine—but other categories are important to keeping food prices affordable and supply of key products, like infant formula, stable.”

Imports have become more important in the aftermath of the African swine fever epidemic that wiped out half of the national pig herd in 2018-2019. “It was a monumental crisis,” says Smyth. “As a result, substantially more pork imports were needed, but it also had a ripple effect on the price of all protein sources, including beans, chicken and eggs.” This has had a knock-on effect on domestic food prices, consumer prices in general and pushed up inflation over the past two years.

The sheer size of the agricultural and food sector means China is a major player in the global markets for the soft commodities that it buys. “Whenever China changes its procurement plans, it can use that as potential leverage to affect political relationships—whether that is with Brazil, the US or any other country,” says Si.

Soybeans are the most prominent example of outsize influence. China purchased 61% of world soybean exports in the last crop year, dwarfing the second-placed Europe Union’s 9.0%. China also ranks as the largest importer of beef and veal, pork, fluid milk, milk powder, cherries and sorghum, encouraging exporters of these products to play nice with Beijing.

The half-empty trash bins behind Huang’s restaurant in Shanghai are a vivid sign of how Operation Clean Plates has resonated with the public. However, Beijing’s goals could be better served by reining in its fixation with self-sufficiency.

“If China needs to feed its own people it can do so, without question,” says Pay. “But from the perspective of whether China would want to grow and raise all its own food under normal circumstances, the answer is no. It’s much better off relying on international markets for some portion of its food supply.”

That view is seconded by IFAD’s Marchisio, who says shocking quantities of food are lost as they travel through the supply chain. He argues “China could optimize its system and make it more effective by implementing measures such as promoting the adoption of mechanized agriculture and more efficient farm machinery, increasing the number, capacity and functionality of storage facilities, and improving road connections and logistics. It’s really a matter of making the food chain more efficient than dealing with any perceived notion of food insecurity.”

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