• Geoff Donald

Food Security and China - Part 1

In our first post on China and agriculture, I chose to take a broad overview of the industry, the impact of agricultural industry within China and internationally and some of the challenges that it may face in the future. I also promised that I would look at food security as our next topic – so here we are.



If we look at the 2021 Global Food Security Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, China ranks 34th overall globally but it has shown the 4th most improvement of any country since 2012 trailing only Tanzania, Oman, and Algeria. While China scored quite well in most of the measured categories, it did lag in two sections – Low Natural Resources and Resiliency. As we will see, China is trying to take steps to improve in these areas.


Now before I dive into this subject little further, I want to make clear that China is not facing a food shortage problem or famine in the immediate future. While other analysts may look at the same information and come to different conclusions, I just don’t agree. And one of the reasons that I don’t agree is that the issue of food security is taken seriously in China and has been for a long time.


In December 2021, President Xi Jinping was quoted on television saying “The food of the Chinese people must be made by and remain in the hands of the Chinese. Everyone needs to take responsibility for food security.”


But what does President Xi mean by food security? Does China define this issue the same as other countries?



Defining Food Security

While there is no single definition of food security, the United Nations defines it as “as meaning that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” This definition is broad and focuses on accessibility, affordability, and quality of food.


As you may have guessed by President Xi’s quote above, China definition of food security is more narrowly defined than that used by the UN. Instead, food security in China can be more accurately described as “food self-sufficiency” or the ability for China to feed itself without the help of outsiders. This is not a recent definition for China, in fact self-sufficiency in domestic food production has historically been a goal for China.



Why is Food security important to Chinese leaders?

There are two main reasons why food security is so important for China’s leader – history and national sovereignty. Let’s deal with history first.


Historically, feeding the people of China was considered an essential part of an Emperor’s mandate to rule the country. Failure to feed the people resulted a decline of state legitimacy for the Chinese imperial government, and this decline often resulted in changes in government. Thus, in imperial China, food security was linked to political legitimacy.


For the current Chinese leadership, the famine of 1907 where an estimated twenty-five million died the North China famine of 1920-21 which came at a time of great political and social upheaval in China show the risks that famine can have on a country. Finally, China’s senior leaders were all exposed to this issue as they lived through the 1959 famine. To avoid a repetition of history and massive loss of lives, the government takes the issue of food security very seriously.


For national sovereignty, the issue of food security is straightforward. While China has the financial resources to fund food imports from around the world to feed it people, the possibility of food being used as tool of statecraft by other countries against China is viewed as being too much of a national security risk.


Under the CCP, the issue of food security has been a top issue with the government establishing self-sufficiency target for rice, wheat, and corn in 1996. In 2007, China set a minimum amount of farmland, 120 million hectares, that it needed to grow the foods necessary for meeting its self-sufficiency targets. In 2014, the government of China in their official documents said that “'ensuring long-term food supply and sufficiency is a necessary and basic policy for governing the country”. More recently, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (published in 2021) included a section on food security. The document lays out that Chinese leadership consider food security as a “prerequisite for national security.” The document also set a national food security target of 650 million tons of grain per year and called for increased protections on the farmland minimums that were set in 2007.


While other parts of the world look at food security as a social, economic, or humanitarian issue, China by its own words views the issue of food security through a national security lens.


In my next post, I ill examine what steps China is taking to improve its food security, what constraints does China face in obtaining its goal, what are the risks and opportunities of China’s focus on food security, and why China’s approach to food security matters to the world.

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