China Increasingly Relies on Imported Food. That’s a Problem.

China Increasingly Relies on Imported Food. That’s a Problem.

People shop at a supermarket in China’s Guizhou Province.
People shop at a supermarket in China’s Guizhou Province. CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images

China has so far been able to feed its 1.4 billion people, but climate change and a dependence on imports could pose challenges.

January 25, 2023 3:54 pm (EST)

People shop at a supermarket in China’s Guizhou Province.
People shop at a supermarket in China’s Guizhou Province. CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

China has increased its reliance on food imports over the past two decades, prompting concerns among officials who worry that disruptions to food supply chains could trigger domestic unrest. In particular, this reliance has heightened China’s sensitivity to food supply disruptions caused by geopolitical tensions, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine.

What is China’s current food security situation?

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With less than 10 percent of the planet’s arable land, China produces one-fourth of the world’s grain and feeds one-fifth of the world’s population. Data from the country’s National Bureau of Statistics showed that in 2022, China’s grain output reached a record high of 686.53 million tons [page in Chinese] despite delayed plantings, extreme weather, and COVID-19 disruptions. China ranks first globally in producing cereals (such as corn, wheat, and rice), fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs, and fishery products.

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Despite its domestic production, China has been a net importer [DOC] of agricultural products since 2004. Today, it imports more of these products—including soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, and dairy products—than any other country. Between 2000 and 2020, the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio decreased from 93.6 percent to 65.8 percent. Changing diet patterns have also driven up China’s imports of edible oils, sugar, meat, and processed foods. In 2021, the country’s edible oil import-dependency ratio reached nearly 70 percent [article in Chinese], almost as high as its crude oil import dependence.

Why does China now depend on imported food?

A primary factor has been Chinese people’s increasingly sophisticated dietary demands, driven by a growing city-dwelling middle class pursuing safer, more diverse, and higher-quality food. Concerns about food safety in particular have increased demand for imports. While the Chinese government improved its national food safety standards in 2022, the country’s prolonged lack of strict food safety regulations has allowed opportunistic domestic producers to produce unsafe or toxic food. Several deadly food safety scandals over the past two decades have hurt Chinese people’s trust in local brands, leading them to prefer foreign ones. For example, contaminated baby formula killed six babies and poisoned three hundred thousand children in 2008; today, Chinese parents still favor foreign baby formula.

Additionally, imports tend to be cheaper than local options because of higher costs and lower efficiency to grow certain food products in China. For example, the cost to grow soybeans in China is 1.3 times [article in Chinese] than it is in the United States, and the yield is 60 percent less. Because wages are lower for farmers than for factory workers and other urban occupations, farmers feel incentivized to abandon the profession altogether.

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China’s food import dependence will likely increase as the amount of arable land continues to diminish. Between 2013 and 2019, China lost more than 5 percent of its arable land due to factors such as excess fertilizer use and land neglect, according to Chinese government figures. Extreme weather, environmental degradation, water scarcity and pollution, and climate change could exacerbate the problem. Scholars from the United States and China estimate that climate change and ozone pollution together reduced China’s national average crop yields by 10 percent (fifty-five million tons per year) from 1981 to 2010.

What’s at stake for the Chinese government if the country suffers a food crisis?

Famines and food crises were graveyards for Imperial China’s dynasties. They repeatedly sparked peasant rebellions and political uprisings that led to regime collapses. Since 1949, Chinese Communist Party leaders and policymakers have consistently prioritized food security as an indispensable prerequisite to maintaining power.

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Since 1949, Chinese Communist Party leaders and policymakers have consistently prioritized food security as an indispensable prerequisite to maintaining power.

China’s last nationwide food crisis was the Great Famine in 1959–1961, the largest famine in human history. Sparked by the Great Leap Forward, a series of radical industrialization policies, it led to thirty million people starving to death and about the same number of lost or postponed births. The Great Famine sowed the seed for the decade-long sociopolitical turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in 1966–1976. Although current Chinese leaders do not publicly discuss such policy-induced catastrophes, they lived through these events. Their continued prioritization of food self-sufficiency suggests they would not want to repeat such mistakes.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, food supply disruptions and lockdown-induced food shortages showed that the political system remains vulnerable to food insecurity. Collective grievances aggravated by food shortages contributed to a burst of protests in more than a dozen cities, with demonstrators chanting, “We want food, not COVID tests,” in a rare show of dissent since China’s mass protests in 1989. Local officials apologized for food shortages in areas including Changchun, Guiyang, and Xinjiang. In Shanghai, three officials were fired for failing to resolve food shortage complaints during a lockdown.

How is the Chinese government trying to boost the country’s food security?

Today, Chinese leaders consider food security an integral part of national security, with Article 22 of the 2015 China National Security Law [PDF in Chinese] requiring the state to take comprehensive measures to ensure food security, safety, and quality. The “No. 1 Document,” [page in Chinese] the first policy document issued by China’s top authorities every year, has consistently focused on the “three issues of agriculture, the countryside, and farmers” since 2004.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s  approach to food security [page in Chinese] aims to achieve self-sufficiency with an emphasis on domestic supply. Since he took office in 2013, Xi has frequently said that “the rice bowls of the Chinese people must always be held firmly in our own hand and filled mainly with Chinese grain.”

On the domestic supply side, the government has established stockpiles of food such as corn, rice, wheat, and pork. In 2006, it introduced a support price for wheat to protect farmers from losses. It also set a “farmland red line” policy with a target of preserving no less than 120 million hectares (an area slightly larger than Sweden) of arable land for crop farming. So far, it has been able to maintain this target. The government has worked to boost high-quality farmland, achieving in 2020 [article in Chinese] a target to develop 53.3 million hectares of such farmland. In 2022, Xi raised the target for high-quality farmland to 66.7 million hectares and called for the protection of fertile black soil. The government has also worked to bolster food supply chains, providing funds to stabilize domestic agricultural production and investing in the global agriculture industry and overseas farmland. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chinese investors owned 383,935 acres [PDF] of agricultural land in the United States in 2021, slightly less than 1 percent of foreign-owned acres.

On the demand side, most notably, the government has worked to reduce food waste through initiatives such as the “clean plate campaign.” A Chinese Academy of Sciences survey found that Chinese consumers in big cities wasted up to eighteen million tons of food in 2015, enough to feed up to fifty million people annually. In addition, the government has used legislative measures to combat food waste, improve food safety, protect seeds and the seed industry [PDF] and safeguard farmland [article in Chinese].

The Chinese government has also sought to diversify import sources and advance global agricultural cooperation through its Belt and Road Initiative. The United States used to be China’s largest agricultural supplier, but its position weakened following the U.S.-China trade war in 2018. In 2021, Brazil replaced the United States as China’s largest agricultural supplier, providing 20 percent of China’s agricultural imports.

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