How Does China Feed Its Billion-Plus Citizens?

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Street scene in Beijing
China has to feed 1.4 billion people. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

China is home to about 1.4 billion people, more than the population of Europe and North America combined. Such a large population inevitably demands large amounts of food. It is therefore no wonder that China is the number one producer of food in the world. However, not everything is safe and sound in China as far as food is concerned. In recent times, there has been a growing worry about food security. So how does China feed its large population?

Feeding the population

Feeding 1.4 billion people is a pretty tough thing in China given that it has one-fifth of the global population but only less than a tenth of the world’s farmland. Of the 334 million acres of arable land potentially usable for agriculture, almost 37 million is considered polluted and has been set aside for restoration.

Over 90 percent of China’s farms are 2.5 acres or less in size, one of the smallest average farm sizes in the world. The country’s total farmland is split into around 200 million farms. In addition, a good part of China is either desert or mountainous terrain. All these factors make Western-style giant farms impossible in the country. In 2019, the World Bank’s Food Sustainability Index (FSI) ranked china 38th out of 113 nations with regard to food security and quality.

The rapid economic development of the past two decades has resulted in a rising demand for food. Large-scale investments in agriculture have enabled China to roughly maintain a 1:1 ratio when it comes to grain production and consumption. However, several countries like the U.S. have a far higher production-consumption ratio in many food categories. For instance, America’s grain production-consumption ratio stands at 14:1, meaning that it produces 14 times the grain it consumes.

Tractor in a field
Chinese companies are buying up farmland overseas. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

During the 2003-2017 period, China’s food imports rose by more than 7 times, from around US$14 billion to US$104 billion. In the same period, China’s food exports only grew 3 times, from about US$20 billion to US$59.6 billion. This essentially means that rising food demand has far outstripped what China can produce. The government has been paying huge subsidies to boost agriculture. In 2018, almost US$206 billion was paid in agriculture subsidies, which is higher than what the EU (US$110 billion) and the U.S. ($44 billion) paid combined.

Chinese companies have started investing in agricultural land abroad to meet production shortfalls in the country. During 2000-2018, China bought around 3.2 million hectares of land in foreign nations, making it the second biggest foreign landowner, just behind the UK. However, such purchases have been met with resistance in the past several years as countries have grown wary of the communist regime and its intentions.

Food security

In the short term, concerns about food security have been rising in Chinese diplomatic circles. The devastating floods along the Yangtze River are believed to have negatively affected food production. In many areas, authorities are forcing farmers to plant staple crops instead of trees or other produce. In the long-term, the country’s population is expected to reach about 1.5 billion by 2030, at which time it will need an additional 100 million tons of grain every year.

wheat grain
China will need an additional 100 million tons of grains per year by 2030. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

In February this year, Beijing released its annual agricultural policy guidelines in which it stressed the importance of achieving self-reliance in the production of staple grains, especially wheat and rice. The policy calls for increased use of high-yielding crops, as well as rotational farming between corn and soybeans. During 2020-2021, the production of corn is estimated to fall by 4 percent. Rice production was supposed to rise in this period. However, some experts believe that the recent floods will cut down rice production by up to 5 percent.

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