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Food Security Problem in China

The “Food Security” Concept Evolved since 1970

The term “food security” evolved in the mid-1970s at the time of a global food crisis. Primarily, it focused on food supply problems such as the assurance of availability of food and maintenance of stability of price of basic foodstuffs. As time progressed, the definition of food security has also been reviewed and redefined to fit with the changing circumstances. In 1996, new elements, such as safety and nutrition have been incorporated into the definition emphasizing their importance for maintaining a healthy population. Therefore, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), food security consists of three main components:

  • Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.
  • Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.
  • Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation.

Domestic Food Supply of China has been Improving since 2000

As a country with a population greater than 1 billion, food security is always an important issue in China. In the past, China has had to deal with hunger problems due to rural areas of the country suffering from a food supply shortage. Nowadays, China needs to assure the self-sufficiency of its major food supply as well as meeting increasing demand for food as a result of economic growth.

China has made significant improvements in preventing the country suffering from a food security problem in the past decade. One of the factors in this improvement is its enhancement in agricultural capacity since 2000. Comparing China’s agricultural capacity in terms of machinery and tools between 2000 and 2011, there is an obvious increase in large- and medium-sized agricultural tractors. In 2000, there were 974,547 units of large- and medium-sized agricultural tractors and this increased to 4,406,471 units in 2011; an increase of around 352%. Another significant increase was in the number of large- and medium-sized tractor-towing farm machineries, an increase from 1,400,000 units in 2000 to 6,990,000 by 2011.

Another reason that China’s domestic supply of food can accommodate the demand to a greater extent is the enhanced production capacity of cereal sowing areas. In the first place, the total area of cereal plantation (including rice, wheat and corn) has increased by 10.3% between 2000 (79.7 million hectares) to 2011 (87.9 million hectares) despite a decrease in total area during the period 2001-2003. Since 2006, the total sown area for cereal production was over 80 million hectares and this has continued to increase up to 2011.  Additionally, the production capacity of cereal-sown land has also improved. In 2000, the average production of cereal in a single hectare of sown land was 4,753kg. This increased to 5,707kg per hectare by 2011. The compound annual growth rate for the improvement in cereal land production capacity is 2.03%.

From 2006 to 2011, major cereal (include rice, wheat and corn) production in China saw a small but consistent growth rate. In 2006, the aggregate output of these three cereal products was 441.8 million tons and this increased to 511.2 million tons by 2011. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of these three cereal products during the mentioned period was 2.96%. Among these three cereal categories, rice and corn had, more or less, similar output of around 200 million tons in 2011. Wheat output was considerably less at about 117.4 million tons in 2011.

Pork, beef and mutton are major meats consumed by Chinese. Among these three types of meats, domestic production of pork was much greater than beef and mutton between 2006 and 2011. Pork output stayed constant at more than 4 million tons each year during this period whilst beef and mutton output accounted for less than 1 million tons. In 2006, total output of these three types of meats was 55.9 million tons and this increased by 9.0% to 61.0 million tons in 2011. In 2011, the outputs of pork, beef and mutton were 50.5, 6.5 and 3.9 million tons, respectively.

The Need for the Food Trade between China and Rest of the World

Although China has improved its arable land capacity and enhanced local supply of food, it only improves the food security standard from “suffering from serious food security problem” to “suffering from moderate food security problem” with regard to The Global Hunger Index (GHI). Consequently, China still needs to look overseas for supply of food. According to World Trade Organization (WTO) data, China’s agricultural product import value increased rapidly since 2000. Moreover, import value has also started to surpass export value since the same year. In 2011, the total import value was US$144.7 billion and the total export value was US$64.6 billion; the difference of US$80.1 billion is a record high in the past 30 years. For the trade of food products (excluded agricultural products), China has also transited from a net exporter to a net importer since 2008. From 2008 to 2011, there was a general trend of increased net import spending from US$13.6 billion (in 2008) to US$21.3 billion (in 2011).

Conclusion: China Needs to Look for Overseas Food Supply

The improvement in agricultural capacity does not mean that China is able to be self-sufficient in its food demand in the long term and there is the need for China to look for overseas food supply to meet the increasing demand. This assumption is based on four factors below.

  1. Although food production capacity has improved, China still suffers from a moderate hunger problem. In line with its economic growth, food demand in China has increased to the point where China needs to import more food from foreign countries. The increase in domestic food production is incapable of meeting the rapidly growing demand.
  2. In the past 10 years, sown areas of major cereals (corn, wheat and rice) have only increased by a small amount. For other major crop types, such as soybean, tubers, peanuts and rapeseeds, total sown area has even decreased. Moreover, it is expected that the total sown area in China may further decrease by growing urbanization.
  3. Drinking water resource is limited in China. As such, the capacity of agricultural production is also limited because water is an essential component for agriculture and water pollution is not likely to be improved in the short-term.
  4. The overall agricultural automation system lags behind international standards. This is evidenced by serious post-harvest losses (poor preservation), weak infrastructure for transportation and support systems, and a weak tendency of industrial cooperation within the agricultural industry.


A detailed research report on this topic is available here