Is China’s growing appetite a threat to global food security?



by Tim Abington. Tim is a 6th Form student applying to study International Relations.

Over the course of the last two decades, China has become the blueprint for rising nations by becoming the dominant power across the East Asia and beyond. Yet, the People’s Republic is not without weakness and it is facing growing concerns, one of which is all too often overlooked in discussions of national security.

The Asian superpower is attempting to feed a population four times greater than that of the United States, on arable land which amounts to less 1/10 hectare per person, according to the World Bank. Historically, China has had mixed success in providing food for its growing population. The prized 95% grains self-sufficiency rate, enacted in 1996 following world cereal prices reaching a 15 year high, has contributed to a relatively stable food price. But then in stark contrast, the legendary photo of the ‘shopping bag man’ standing in Tiananmen Square and the protests which surrounded it were preceded by a year of high food inflation and panic buying.

The fear of further political unrest and desire for self-sufficiency has kept the People’s Republic on its toes in regard to food production. It heavily supports agriculture in each 5 year plan; tax-breaks, subsidies and direct payments all contribute to the national directive of 50 million more tons of grain annually by 2050.

Yet even those famously effective national plans may not be enough to reverse the worrying trends emerging within Chinese food markets. China is facing a dilemma that all rapidly developing nations encounter. Urbanisation and industrialisation inevitably result in an agrarian decline. Those areas of China which are most suitable for agriculture are those in which urbanisation occurs: the flat, well-irrigated, fertile land of the East coast proving ideal locations for factories, technology parks and high-rises.

In the last 20 years alone Chinese arable land has declined by 2%. This might sound paltry but equates to 187,764 km2, enough farmland to produce 1 billion tons of wheat- or 1 trillion loaves of bread. As the skyscrapers appear across Shanghai’s skyline, the rural population is moving, at an ever-increasing rate, towards the cities. It numbered 74% at the time of Tiananmen Square, it has now shrunk to 44%. In an effect mirrored around the world, the Chinese are struggling to keep farmers on the farms.

Instead, many are heading for the bright lights of the cities. They’re choosing the sparkling new university campuses, factories and laboratories over rural deprivation and squalor. This decline is posing greater problems than the lack of wheat alone. It is having an impact upon consumption od China’s new opium: pork. China has a rather unique relationship with the pig. It is the only nation in the world with a strategic reserve of frozen pork, (a reserve from which it was forced to release 3 million kilograms as pork prices rose 50% in April) and is said to have been the first area in the world to domesticate the swine.

The hog has become as much a part of the rural home as the iPhone has of the urban one. Mirroring its booming economic growth, Chinese pork consumption has only increased, to 56 million tons- half of the world’s total. Naturally, the total number of pigs matches the appetite, 482 million hogs strewn across China, all of which require feed and water. It is, therefore, of no surprise that a culmination of urbanisation and rising consumption of white meat has placed pressure upon China’s grain supplies. This has resulted in a shift from exporter to importer of soybeans, wheat and rice. The country now imports 70% of its wheat from the United States- a worrying step towards dependency for a state that is determined to be self-sufficient.

That said, this trend is traveling both ways across the Pacific. In what was a controversial move, the Shuanghui Group, China’s largest meat producer and whose chairman enjoys a seat on the National People’s Congress, purchased Smithfield Foods – the world’s largest pork producer – in a takeover which was the largest Chinese acquisition of an American company to date. Along with the markets it brought, the deal allowed Shuanghui to acquire vast acres of farmland across Texas and Missouri, the more to meet the demands of the hungry urbanised Beijingers and Shanghainese.

There is now significant Chinese investment in the US meat processing industry, the Australian and New Zealand dairy industry and several European agri-technology firms (along with their patents for GM crops and fertilizers). Even the humble Weetabix is in Asian hands as China eyes up prime farmland, infrastructure and technologies around the world in order to meet its domestic demand. This appears to be a trend set to continue as companies remain encouraged by the Government directive “to focus investments on agricultural logistics, trading, and production assets overseas in order to ensure a dominant role for Chinese companies in the supply chain for imported commodities.” A clear bid from the State Council to strengthen its food security.

Quite literally, the Chinese are eating the globe’s breakfast, lunch and dinner with elevenses to match. Or as Xinhua News agency nicely puts it, the PRC’s appetite increasing invokes the question “feed China, starve the world?”

There are severe implications of China’s attempts to satisfy its hungry population. Other nation states must wake up to these dangers and address this issue of food security in order to prevent food supplies go sailing into the sunset. It is quite easy to be reassured by defensive spending commitments but as numerous recent political turmoil shows, a rise in food prices on supermarket shelves inevitably results in political and economic turmoil.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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