For many years, the Chinese government has maintained that the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio is within the safe range and that there is no real concern of a food crisis, as it has produced adequate amounts of food for several consecutive years.
But the US Department of Agriculture estimated that China stockpiles more than half of the world’s corn and other grains, and still imports more to maintain its domestic food reserves. As Russia’s protracted war in Ukraine continues to worsen the global food shortage, China’s declining food self-sufficiency ratio could further push up global food prices.
Within a span of 20 years, the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio has fallen from around 100% in 2000 to 76% in 2020...
Grain and food self-sufficiency ratios
The stability and security of China’s food supply is testing the Chinese government’s ability to deal with complex social, environmental and economic policies, and its governance capabilities.
Although China’s grain self-sufficiency ratio has always remained above 97%, its imports of oilseeds, soybeans, sugar, meat and dairy products have been growing. Within a span of 20 years, the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio has fallen from around 100% in 2000 to 76% in 2020, among which its edible oil and soybean self-sufficiency ratios declined from 81% and 60%, to 25% and 17% respectively.
Based on the document outlining China’s medium- and long-term plan for food security (2008-2020) released in 2008, the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio should be kept above 95%. However, the figure fell below 90% in 2012, which is lower than the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s standards for food security. In 2017, the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio further plummeted to around 82.3%.
Although officials reiterated that the country’s grain self-sufficiency ratio remained above 95%, the overall food self-sufficiency ratio is a more accurate indicator as it encompasses grains, potatoes and beans. Hence, while China’s grain self-sufficiency ratio meets the requirements, its overall food self-sufficiency ratio needs improvement.
Highly import dependent
China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that the country’s grain output has been increasing over the years, rising 2% year-on-year in 2021. Grain production has been on the rise since 2005, apart from a 0.6% decrease in 2018, while the largest increase of 3.3% was recorded in 2015. Chinese President Xi Jinping had said, “Chinese people should hold their rice bowls firmly in their own hands, with grains mainly produced by themselves.” But this remains difficult to achieve for the following reasons.
As the seed market is largely held by foreign companies, China spends huge amounts of money importing seeds.
Firstly, China is highly dependent on imported food, including seeds that are largely held by foreign companies. The “No 1 central document” for 2021 to 2023 prioritises advancing the progress on agricultural seed sources. China’s food imports have already climbed from 5% to 22% of the global share, with soybean and grain imports set to grow in the next five to ten years. As the seed market is largely held by foreign companies, China spends huge amounts of money importing seeds. The rising farming input costs have also resulted in a growing reliance on food imports, forming a vicious circle.
Secondly, China’s food self-sufficiency ratio is on the decline. In 2018, China’s overall food self-sufficiency was about 80%. In comparison, the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio was 94% in 2000, 89% in 2005, 83% in 2010, and hit a low of around 76% in 2020 because of weather and other factors.
This declining trend can be attributed to the shrinking number of farmers and farmland, aggravated farmland contamination and deterioration, and subpar agricultural technology. China’s limited arable land, land fragmentation problem, and the lack of economies of scale also hinder production efficiency.
China’s arable land also suffers from severe degradation, acidification and contamination from heavy metals.
Limited land available for farming
Next, land finance led to a decrease in arable land, in turn reducing food production efficiency. Under the name of “land finance” policies, local governments in China illegally acquired arable land and violated the “red line” drawn to protect arable land, thus reducing food production as a result.
The results of China’s third national land survey issued by the State Council showed that the country’s total area of arable land reached 1.918 billion mu (1 mu is approximately 666.67 square metres) at the end of 2019, a decrease of 113 million mu over ten years, or a loss of 5%. But it will be difficult to estimate the actual area of arable land that can be effectively used.
China’s arable land also suffers from severe degradation, acidification and contamination from heavy metals. Some statistics indicate that as much as 40% of China’s arable land has degraded, as northeastern China’s black soil becomes poorer, thinner and more compacted due to long-term intensive farming and heavy farm machinery. As a result, crop yields have declined.
At the same time, roughly 14.5% of arable land has severely acidified. A groundbreaking survey in 2014 revealed that China’s arable land has been largely contaminated by heavy metals, with an estimated 16% of soil contaminated by heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and arsenic.
Both the Central Rural Work Conference and the No 1 central document stressed that the country’s total arable land shall be no less than 1.8 billion mu. However, this “red line” is difficult to uphold. As China’s arable land is fragmented and contaminated, soil degradation and acidification have reduced agricultural production efficiency. Furthermore, the shortage of farm labour as more farmers and migrant workers move to the cities, as well as the relatively low level of agricultural mechanisation, have led to a decline in food production.
Lastly, China faces a series of natural disasters, including climate change, floods, and pest infestations, with the Covid-19 pandemic threatening food security in particular. The 2021 Global Food Security Index report released by The Economist ranked China 34th out of 113 countries, behind other economic powerhouses such as Canada (7th), Japan (8th), France (9th), the US (9th), Germany (11th) and Russia (23rd). Evidently, China’s food security system is relatively weak.
There are ten “agricultural powers” in the world, namely the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Israel and Japan, determined based on the proportion of people employed in agriculture, gross fixed capital formation in agriculture, agricultural productivity, urbanisation ratio, and GDP per capita.
Among the five indicators, China scores just slightly above the global average. Hence, if China hopes to become an “agricultural power”, it clearly needs to carry out innovative economic, social, environmental and agricultural policies that can realise the goal.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中国迈向农业强国之机遇及挑战”.
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