Feeding the dragon

February 15, 2019

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.

Our observations

  • China is the world’s biggest food market and has the largest agriculture sector globally, with hundreds of millions of farmers. Although self-sufficiency has been central to Chinese food policy, agricultural productivity is low because the vast majority of farms are small and unlike the U.S., rural China is still far from being dominated by commercial farms, though this process has been under way since favorable policy was introduced in the 1990s. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the government further promotes “rural vitalization” and for the first time in history, the government has made imports part of its food strategy.
  • In 2018, China became the biggest food importer, with almost $80 billion per year. The top import countries included the U.S., France, Australia, the Netherlands and Peru. In terms of food category, meat, dairy products, fish, oil, grains, liquors, sugar and dried fruits were the main types of food imported into the country.
  • Especially with the ongoing trade war between Beijing and Washington, trade flows are remapped, such as the flows of soybeans. China will further try to reduce dependency on a number of U.S. suppliers and seek to increase grain imports from countries along the Belt and Road by supporting agricultural development in countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. In 2016, China’s investment in foreign agriculture in 100 countries reached $26 billion.
  • Chinahas also ramped up agriculture land purchases over the past years – it already owns land in 30 countries. Critics have labelled China’s land lease or purchase in Africa land-grabbing or neo-colonialism. Although Chinese agricultural investments have partially been beneficial to African countries, these were not without problems and concerns about the continent’s own food security, local community needs and ecological issues. Although it must be said that American food giants have also been accused of land-grabbing, most have adjusted their assessments under pressure of NGOs.
  • A wake-up call for global food corporations is the quick rise of the Chinese CIL, part of the state-owned foodgiant COFCO. It has the primary objective of “feeding the dragon” but it also sells to more than 50 countries, sourcing mostly from Latin America (CIL is the fourth largest soy exporter in Brazil). Its export routes further cover Europe, the Black Sea region, and North America.

Connecting the dots

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.


  • Developed food nations that rely on food exports, such as the Netherlands, will face competition from developing countries supported by China in the future. This is why the Netherlands is promoting Chinese Friendship Farming, has built Wageningen University dependence in Beijing and should create a future-proof strategy for its own agrofood sector.
  • While China seeks to remap trade flows to become less dependent on U.S. food trade, this dependency will remain a disadvantage for China. While the S. is highly-ranked in lists of countries that are food self-sufficient, soybeans were still the U.S.’ biggest export to China at $21 billion last year.
  • As the Chinese consumer is craving a more Westernized diet, the Chinese emergence in the global food system can also affect our diets, bringing Eastern diets to the Western table.

About the author(s)

At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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