In the late 1950s China experienced one of history’s most devastating famines when an estimated 35-45 million of its people perished. Since then, China’s population has more than doubled to 1.4 billion in 2020. Not only does the Chinese landmass need to feed twice the people it did in 1950, but rising living standards have increased the demand for more resource heavy produce like meat and dairy, further straining the land. Thus, China faces a food-security challenge which increasingly affects the whole world.
The Hurdles to Self-Sufficiency
The PRC has always strived for self-sufficiency in food production and thus far it has managed to increase the agricultural output of its land. This has, however, been made possible in large part through unsustainable farming methods. Chinese farmers use twice the global average of artificial fertilizers, which combined with heavy metals and other toxins released from the country’s factories has led to rapidly deteriorating soil quality. With 7% of the world’s arable land and 19% of the world’s population, the food-production equation is already difficult to solve. Should the area of arable land decrease further, China would require greater dependence on imports to meet the demands of its population.
Soil deterioration is not the only factor that might affect the area of arable land. China’s most fertile regions are under substantial threat from climate change. The northern plains are the site of the majority of China’s wheat and corn production. According to climate change predictions, this region may soon experience increasingly severe droughts, while southern lands around the Yangtze River face risks of more frequent flooding. Irrigation projects, flood protection infrastructure, and more long-term climate change resiliency efforts may mitigate negative effects on food productions, however, all such efforts come at added cost and effort.
Despite attempts at agricultural autarky, China is already the world’s largest importer of food, running a continuous trade deficit with regards to foodstuffs. China has opted for self-sufficiency in staple crops, such as corn, rice, and wheat, whilst relying on imports of more specialized products like soy. China’s demand for soy is by far the greatest in the world due to its use in meat production. Chinese demands for soy cannot be met at current global production rates if the U.S. produced crop is excluded. Thus, through current practices, Beijing has racked up a food trade-deficit and has built increasingly complex food supply-chains to compensate. This makes their food-security more vulnerable to geopolitics, as the China-U.S. trade-war has shown.
Regarding the Sea
China is not only at the mercy of global supply chains for food-stuffs produced on land. Rising living standards have also increased the demand for seafood. With Chinese fish-stocks being nearly depleted, the distant water fishing fleet has grown to 17,000 vessels, compared to the U.S.’ 400. The fleet is increasing its activity in international waters, and worryingly in other nations’ sovereign waters as well. These fleets pose ecological and environmental risks in the South China Sea and along the African and Latin American coastlines due to their use of unsustainable finishing methods, impacting vulnerable communities in the process. Chinese fishing boats have also become part of the security narrative in the South China sea, a worrying development which threatens to spread to other areas.
Chinese demands impact not only the global economy but also food security around the world. With climate change set to degrade farmers’ ability to maintain current agricultural practices, it seems likely that Chinese demand for certain foodstuffs will increasingly be supplemented by imports. High prices for select agricultural commodities also run the risk of increasing unsustainable farming and fishing practices abroad, as producers attempt to meet the immediate demands of the Chinese market, further aggravating environmental deterioration. Food security needs to be carefully managed, for if left unchecked, harmful practices can have an outsized and long-term impact on not only China, but the entire world.