How does China feed its 1.4 billion people? China has limited agricultural resources and an increasingly affluent population that wants Western diets, driving demand for meat and dairy and imported foods. Although China has long valued self-sufficiency, its food security strategy has had to radically change in order to meet growing demand. And thus, over the last few years, China has developed a “Go Out” food strategy, with implications for the rest of the world.
China’s drive for food self-sufficiency is deeply-rooted in its 5000 years of history. The rise and fall of dynasties were closely linked to grain production. Rulers were responsible for producing enough grain for their people and those who did not take this responsibility would face losing the “Mandate of Heaven”. Political legitimacy was thus partially built upon securing enough food for the Chinese people. Moreover, the collective memory of famine even in modern times – the Great Chinese Famine of 1959 was the worst in the whole of human history –, shaped the wish for self-sufficiency. Especially since during this famine, the U.S. prevented China from buying grain abroad, creating China’s distrust in the international food market. Finally, food insecurity led to social and political instability for the country in the past. Grain price hikes in the 1980s triggered the Tiananmen Square Incident and mass protests across the country. Fencing the country off from the highly volatile global food market has thus fed into the wish to attain self-sufficiency.
However, particularly in modern-day China, self-sufficiency was rather a traditional guideline than a realistic goal. In order to meet growing demand, the country’s efforts to rapidly scale up farmers’ productivity over the last decades ended up in an accumulation of intensive farming methods. This led to overuse of arable land and excessive use of fertilizers. It further decreased the chance that the country could sustainably produce food in the long run. Also, it was very costly for the government to strive for self-sufficiency. Faced with these challenges, China took a historic step to reform its food security strategy in 2013. When Xi Jinping took power that year, he emphasized that China must still rely on itself to achieve food security (“our rice bowl should be mainly loaded with Chinese food”), but refined the country’s food security strategy and added that, for the first time in history, he would utilize international agricultural resources where needed (“domestic supply with moderate imports”).
However, relying on the global food market is risky for China. The total volume of rice traded globally is only approximately a third of China’s rice consumption per year and ways to regulate grain supply are limited on the global market. Moreover, U.S. food corporations (ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, collectively known as the ABCDs) tightly control most of the international grain trade. Thus, in order to avoid facing these risks, China has created its own strategy, its own food foreign policy, which is now becoming more visible. Over the past few years, Chinese agricultural investments overseas have grown steeply and the country has initiated international agricultural cooperation.
China is even creating its own “food champion”. To create global agri-business giants, China supports both state-owned enterprises (COFCO, Beidahuang Group), as well as private companies (Shuanghui, Bright Groups). While much emphasis is placed on the big tech companies and the competition between U.S. and Chinese tech giants, food giant CIL is challenging the U.S. dominance in the global food system when it comes to grain.
China will have a stronger foothold in the global food supply chain in the near future. The country will further build sustainable and strategic agricultural trade partnerships and it will keep on securing overseas agri-business investment and cooperation to improve risk management and conflict resolution. This increasing Chinese influence in the global food system has consequences on multiple levels. China is remapping food trade flows in order to primarily serve Chinese interests. An analogy can be drawn to the Chinese initiative to build an interconnected global network of power lines. Moreover, it will also affect the nature of food production. First, because China is more open to genetically modified crops and methods such as CRISPR than, say, Europe. In January, while eyes were on the trade war, Chinese regulators approved the import of five U.S. genetically modified crops. And second, as China has quickly learned from the ecological costs of rapidly industrializing farming, it will focus on sustainable, climate-smart farming. Although China is likely to first ramp up agricultural production (both in developing countries from which it sources and at home) in order to meet growing demand, they may also pursue sustainable practices, as their needs are long-term. An analogy can be drawn to the rapid construction of nuclear power plants and the long-term plans to switch to sustainable energy sources. China’s renewable energy sector is growing faster than its fossil fuels and nuclear power capacity. From these analogies, we can learn that China is on track to set the standards in the global food system.