Food Security and Safety in China: A National Issue Turned Global

22 April 2017

by Clémence Le Liepvre

Ensuring food security for a population that is expected to reach 1.4 billion in 2020 is not a new preoccupation for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but a new study has found that ozone pollution in China is expected to be more damaging to food production than climate change, making the challenge reach a new level of difficulty. This heightens the risk of food crises in the future, and further raises questions about the health impacts of food pollution. Furthermore, from these new findings we can expect a confirmation in the trend of increasing dependence on food imports for China. This could not only be a source of concern for Beijing, but could also have repercussions for other countries, especially developing and less developed ones. Indeed, an increase in the Chinese demand on the international food market could put pressure on global food prices. This could, in turn, lead to increasing geopolitical tensions, and possibly increase the risk of food crises in poorer countries.

The importance accorded to agriculture in China is evident as, for the thirteenth consecutive year, the focus of the CCP’s No.1 Central Document has been on agriculture, rural community and farmer related issues. With only 8 percent of global arable land, China is expected to feed 19 percent of the world population. While the government has established a set of policies aimed at supporting the agricultural sector, its objective of food self-sufficiency dating from the 1990s is increasingly difficult to achieve. The objective has now shifted from ensuring grain self-sufficiency (which included rice, wheat, corn, soybean, root tubers and coarse grains), to basic self-sufficiency in cereals (wheat, rice and corn). Although an official report from 2015 stated that “China will remain self-sufficient in its main food crops and consumption security will have guaranteed security by the end of the next decade,” it also stressed that the country is facing “unprecedented challenges” to achieve a stable and most importantly sustained development in agriculture. The report also estimates that the forecasted grain output of 129 million tons for 2024 will be surpassed by grain consumption, estimated to reach 132 million, by the same year. While the report appears optimistic in its expectations as compared to those from external observers, it is further challenged by the findings regarding the impact of ozone pollution on agriculture. 1 According to new research, if the rice yield reduction resulting from ozone pollution occurs throughout the whole country, about 2 million metric tons of rice could be lost each year. Already Chinese food imports have sharply increased, reaching 125 million tons between 2002 and 2015. These numbers moreover might be underestimated because of smuggling from neighbouring South-East Asian countries. With the rise of the Chinese middle class, a general increase in living standards and growing urbanisation, agri-food demand has significantly increased overall, but there has also been a change in the structure of China’s food consumption. Growing demand for high quality, protein-rich food, such as meat and dairy products, are characterising this new trend. As such the challenge for China is not only to increase the level of production and to find external resources but also to reshape the structure of production in order to match a diversifying demand.

The threat of non-aerial pollution is another source of concern. China’s air pollution problem is well known, and as mentioned in the case of ozone pollution, it has damaging consequences on China’s agriculture. Yet, air pollution is not the only issue. Soil and water pollution, while less visible, is non-negligible and has repercussions on China’s agricultural yields and food safety as well. Statistics published in 2016 revealed that more than 80 percent of Chinese wells, used by farms, factories and households, are unsafe for drinking or bathing because of water pollution. As China’s per capita farm water represents only about one quarter of the world average, Beijing cannot afford any further decline in water usable for agriculture due to pollution. The increasing gravity of the water pollution situation in China also heightens the risk of water shortages, an arguably even larger threat to food production. Additionally, water pollution aggravates soil pollution. China’s Environment Minister in 2015 revealed that 16 percent of Chinese soil already exceeded the country’s pollution limits. Sewage water, for instance, which is increasingly used for irrigation in situations of water shortage, was only treated at a rate of 75.5 percent in urban areas in 2010, and less than 10 percent in rural areas. A non-negligible consequence of sewage irrigation is that it represents one of the main causes of heavy metal pollution in agricultural soils. This has for instance resulted in cadmium contamination of rice, which poses a real public health risk. According to a review on food safety in China published in 2014, this cadmium contamination is only a “microcosm of food contamination caused by soil heavy metals,” which in addition to cadmium, include zinc and lead. At a time when the Chinese society is becoming increasingly health conscious and in search for high quality products, food safety scandals have resulted in distrust for Chinese food products, especially dairy, from Chinese people. This has led to a growing demand for foreign food products, believed to be safer, and the emergence of a national organic market, further increasing food imports. In addition, non-aerial pollution does not only affect food safety, but also negatively impacts crop yields’ levels

Overall high levels of air, water and soil pollution in China increase risks related to food security and further challenge China’s food self-sufficiency.  While Beijing is taking actions to tackle these issues in a comprehensive manner, the damages are so important that it will take a certain time to substantially alleviate pollution related to food security and food safety risks.

The substantial growth of China’s population, which is becoming increasingly urbanised and well-off, combined with severe pollution affecting both food safety and food production, has resulted in the expanding Chinese presence on international food markets. China became a net food importer in 2004, and is unlikely to reverse the trend in the near future as researchers have found that China would need an additional 21 percent of cropland to support its increasing food demand. In a country where memories of mass starvation are not so distant, the population expects the CCP to insure a sufficient supply of safe and affordable food. Failure to do so could result in political instability, and the challenge thus becomes increasingly linked to national security issues. In 2013, the Central Economic Work Conference acknowledged for the first time that Beijing will have to rely, at least partially, on external resources to meet internal demand, and called for “utilizing international markets and overseas resources in a way that ensures a dominant role for Chinese companies in the supply chain.”  As such China has not only increased its agri-food imports, but has also developed a strategy which aims at establishing control of the entire production chain. In this vein, China has been investing massively in the foreign agricultural sector, and according to high estimates, dating from 2012, Chinese actors had acquired more than 11 million hectares of land overseas. While China’s foreign investments in agricultural land might have positive spillovers in less developed countries, such as in Africa and Latin America, it can also create political tensions. Because it does not simply import but controls the land, questions of sovereignty could emerge. Effectively, domestic socio-political tensions could arise in situations of scarcity in countries where China controls an important portion of agricultural land, and where the major part of the production would be exported to China. These concerns are not limited to poor or underdeveloped countries. In fact the recent Chinese acquisition of hundreds of cereal-producing hectares of farmland in France provoked the outrage of French farmers, who argued that these kind of investments could jeopardise French food security. In a similar perspective, an increase in the demand of food commodities on global markets resulting from China’s new needs might lead to a general increase in prices. In time of good harvest this new Chinese demand will certainly be beneficial to exporting countries in terms of direct economic returns; however, in time of scarcity, because of  severe drought or natural disasters for example, this Chinese demand would put pressure on prices, which could have destabilising effects on world markets. Countries relying on raw materials would also face greater difficulties to supply themselves, which could result in food crisis and political instability. For instance Africa, which is becoming one of China’s main source of embodied cropland, is also the continent most at risk of suffering from food insecurity by 2050. Africa’s food insecurity challenge might be heightened if an increasing part of its food production falls under Chinese control and is exported to China.

Furthermore, China’s strategy to alleviate its national food security challenges, through agricultural investments and foreign land purchases, has exported environmental pressures. As highlighted by this study on the global implications of China’s future food consumption, China’s strategy  could lead to possible soil erosion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and reduced water quality in Southeast Asia where Beijing is seeking more accessible agriculture land. Another example given is the case of Argentina and Brazil, where a growing number of crops are being used for soybean exports to China, which contributes to regional deforestation. In Latin America more generally, 90 percent of exports to China were from agriculture, mining or drilling in 2015, the double of the share of Latin America’s exports to the rest of the world. This has resulted in numerous disastrous environmental consequences, notably as a result of high water usage which is twice as high for Chinese exports compared to non-Chinese ones, the production of 12 percent more greenhouse gases, deforestation and the consequent deterioration of local biodiversity.

Overall the growing food demand in China, combined with limited arable land and clean water resources as well as  serious problems of air, water and soil pollution, create food security and safety risks. While it aims to limit its growing imports, Beijing has nonetheless turned to external resources to fill the gap between demand and production of agricultural products. By doing so it has however exported many of these risks to its trading partners, especially in terms of biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. More generally the growing Chinese presence on global food market is likely to put pressure on certain food commodity prices, which can increase the risk of food crises in poorest countries at time of limited supply.


For instance a study on climate change impact on food security in China expects the Food Security Index (FSI) of China to be -4.5% in 2030, with supply per capita forecasted to be at 363 kg in 2030 and per capita consumption to be at 400g. However the study expects the FSI to increase after 2030, going back in the positive, because of a projected decrease in population size.


The Matter is a platform for discussion. If you would like to provide a response to this article, please send your thoughts to: