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May 2024

Despite Bumper Grain Harvest, China Faces Challenge of Food Security

FILE — This aerial photo taken on Oct. 24, 2023, show combines harvesting rice in Nantong, China’s eastern Jiangsu province.


China had a record-high grain output this year, making it the 20th consecutive bumper harvest year, according to the Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily on Wednesday. However, experts say the country’s food self-sufficiency rate is decreasing as it relies heavily on imports.

According to the news report, China’s annual grain output exceeded 1.39 trillion kilograms this year. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced that in 2024, China’s overall goal for grain production is to stabilize the production of grain rations, corn and soybeans to ensure grain output in 2024 remains above 1.3 trillion kilograms, according to China’s Central Television on December 24.

However, other official data show that self-sufficiency in “food rations” does not equal having enough self-produced food to feed the entire population. “Rations” usually only refers to rice and wheat, but broader food stuffs such as corn, sorghum and legumes still need to be imported in large quantities.

A report by the Institute of Rural Development of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that by 2025, China may have a grain gap of about 130 million tons, about 10% of the projected 2024 output.

Food self-sufficiency rate drops

Although claims of China running out of food are overhyped, as the world’s largest food importer, “Beijing does remain concerned that food supplies and food imports could be weaponized by other nations, affecting China’s national security,” Genevieve Donnellon-May, a research associate at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told VOA in an email.

Last year, the country’s grain imports reached 140 million tons, compared with its total grain output of 680 million tons, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China.

Although China’s official statistics state that grain output has been above 1.3 trillion kilograms for the past 20 years, a report from the China Macroeconomic Development Forum last year stated that more than one-third of its food now relies on imports and that over the past 20 years, China’s food security level, or food self-sufficiency rate, has dropped from 93.6% in 2000 to 65.8%.

A report by the London-based Center for Economic Policy Research last month said the surge in China’s agricultural product imports has had a huge impact on the world. The study shows that China’s demand for food imports has led to a significant increase in global farmland, accounting for one-third to two-thirds of global deforestation.

FILE — This aerial photo taken on June 27, 2023, shows farmers working at a rice field in Haian, in China's eastern Jiangsu province.
FILE — This aerial photo taken on June 27, 2023, shows farmers working at a rice field in Haian, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province.

A large amount of farmland in China has been transferred to other uses. At the same time, rural urbanization and changes in dietary patterns will bring China “more severe challenges” in food security in the next 10 years, according to a report by Renmin University of China at the China Macroeconomy Forum.

Karen Mancl, professor of food, agricultural and biological engineering at the Ohio State University, said that in 2000, China was able to feed itself, but that has slipped partially because of the loss of agricultural land.

“The conversion of agricultural land from growing food to something else. So, growing cities, converting agricultural land to factories,” she told VOA over the phone.

“Five percent of agricultural land has been lost in China over the last 10 years to non-farm use. And that’s something that country really can’t afford,” she said.

Chinese agricultural experts reported at the Macroeconomic Development Forum that China’s soybean self-sufficiency rate was 62.4% in 2000 and 20 years later has dropped to 16.6%.

Higher land, labor costs

In the industrial field, cheap labor has laid the foundation for China’s manufacturing industry to take off, while in agriculture, it is almost the opposite. According to Chinese official data, the labor and land costs of grain cultivation in China are significantly higher than those in the United States. For example, the cost of wheat per acre is nearly 1,000 yuan, roughly $140.69, while in the U.S., it is only 318 yuan, or roughly $44.74, Xinhua reported.

Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “For the foreseeable future, China will need to rely on trade for some portion of its production.”

She said food self-sufficiency is only a “political desire” and is an impossible goal for most countries worldwide, including developed countries.

FILE — This aerial photo taken in Oct. 28, 2023, shows combines used on farms in Huaian, in China's eastern Jiangsu province.
FILE — This aerial photo taken in Oct. 28, 2023, shows combines used on farms in Huaian, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province.

China’s food is highly dependent on a handful of countries, especially the U.S., Canada and Australia, which are considered to have extremely high potential geopolitical risks. The Chinese government revealed last year that among all importers, the U.S. is the largest source of China’s grain imports, accounting for 37.3%.

In order to diversify its food sources, China has established some form of cooperation with more than 140 countries and regions for grain imports.

Cecilia Tortajada, professor at the School of Social and Environmental Sustainability at the University of Glasgow, told VOA, “China learns from previous events and would be better prepared should another trade war with the U.S. arise.”

Donnellon-May said, “Concerns remain in Beijing that the country’s food import supply could be affected by potential maritime embargoes by the U.S. in times of military clashes, or other issues.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this story. QR Code

Published Date: December 29, 2023

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