China faces a daunting task to feed 22 per cent of the world population with only 07 per cent of the global arable land. There are 334 million acres of arable land, of which roughly 37 million acres are non cultivable.
Since 1949, China lost one fifth of its arable land to urbanisation and industrialisation and currently only about 10 to 15 per cent of the land is left good for agriculture (compared to 1 percent in Saudi Arabia, 50 percent in India, 20 percent in the United States, and 32 percent in France).
There is 545,960 square kilometres of irrigated land in China and about 40 per cent of China's crop land is irrigated. The average yield per acre in China is high as China uses more fertilizer that any other country in the world.
The mismatch between agricultural (grain) supply and demand in China, is high. China has struggled to feed its 1.4 billion people, amidst recurrent natural calamities (floods, draughts), shrinking arable land, severe water shortages, depleting workforce, etc. China estimates that by 2030, when its population is expected to reach 1.5 billion, it will need to produce an additional 100 million tons of food grains each year.
As per China's Ministry of Emergency Management, this year rain-triggered floods and draught earlier, have threatened China's Three Gorges Dam, disrupted rice, wheat and other crops production in South China, and in the Yangtze River basin. Floods have affected 54.8 million people, causing economic loss of US$ 20.8 billion.
Another serious problem that threatens China's food supply is insect infestations. The fall armyworm (FAW), which feasts on corn, has been detected in five Chinese provinces this year, pushing corn prices to five-year highs, despite the release of 1.4 billion bushels of corn from the country's reserves.
China's real threat to food security comes more from food wastage than epidemic or floods. Per capita food waste in China is 93 grams per person per meal, with a waste rate of 11.7 percent. According to a survey data, Chinese consumers wasted roughly 17 to 18 million tons of food each year from 2013 to 2015, enough to feed 30 to 50 million individuals annually.
Outside China, the pandemic had an impact on global grain production and trade. Vietnam and India have suspended rice exports and other countries have also done so subsequently. Further as per, China's Commerce Ministry in June 2020, Brazil, Canada, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia and other key producers of wheat, soybean and rice have cut their exports, including to China, to first replenish their own stocks. And this is indeed hurting China the most, as being the world's largest food importer .
The coronavirus, locust swarms and severe floods across much of China's key farming areas are all putting pressure on supplies. At the same time, worsening security disputes with key import sources such as the U.S. and Australia have raised new questions about the nation's long-term food security.
China's food prices climbed about 13.2per cent in July 2020 from a year earlier, while pork prices surged 86per cent, as per the National Bureau of Statistics. Surging prices prompted China to buy a record volume of meat, and China boosted wheat imports to a seven-year high in June 2020. During the first part of 2020, Chinese agencies resorted to release of more than 60 million tons of rice, about 50 million tons of corn, and over 760,000 tons of soybeans, (surpassing the volumes released during the whole of 2019), to arrest the rising food prices. And consequently the price of rice remained stable temporarily.
The problem of food security has been the focus, when Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed (Aug 11) on putting an end to wasting food and called for promotion of thrift. Xi highlighted the need to maintain a sense of crisis on food security, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not the first time China has launched an anti-food waste campaign. In 2013, the 'operation empty plate' was launched and thus this campaign may be considered as 2.0 version. Following Xi's assertion, the Legislative Affairs Commission of China's National People's Congress Standing Committee set up (Aug 13) a special group to start legislative work to stop food wastage and various ministries followed suit. Xi's initiative sparked speculation by some media over whether China is in a food crisis.
The evidence for China facing food crisis is reflected in the decline in the state's purchase of summer harvests of wheat - an important grain for Chinese households. According to data released by China's National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration (NFSRA), China's state grain reserve system purchased 41 million tonnes (45 million short tons) of fresh wheat from June 1 to July 31, a drop of 17.2 per cent from a year ago. Experts attribute this decline to the coronavirus pandemic forcing farmers to hold 20 to 30 per cent more grain in reserve.
The food crisis could be gauged by China resorting to increasing grain imports of 74.51 million tons in the January-July period, (up 22.7 per cent from a year ago), as per data from the China General Administration of Customs. In June 2020, China resorted to massive imports of food grains. China imported 910,000 tons of wheat (197per cent increase year-on-year), 880,000 tons of corn (23per cent increase year-on-year), 680,000 tons of sorghum and 140,000 tons of sugar.
While China and the US are reviewing the Phase-one trade deal, Beijing has been boosting purchases of soybeans, corn, cotton and pork from the U.S. to cool prices and as part of its commitments under the pact, but its purchases of American farm products in the first half of 2020 were still about 20per cent of the 2020 target.
China is resorting to massive imports of food grains this year. On the surface indicates that the country is buying grains at cheap global prices for stock piling grains to deal with impending food crisis. This panic imports further suggest China feeling the heat on being isolated in the world, because of its aggressive foreign policy. China has opened many fronts of confrontation simultaneously in the world, which includes the US, Australia, Canada, India, Taiwan, many SCS countries etc
China, in order to meet growing domestic food consumption, resorted to buying agricultural land abroad. China targeted many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. Chinese companies in the agricultural sector invested in cereals, soybeans, orchards and livestock breeding in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mozambique, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Cambodia and Laos. As per an estimate Chinese investments in agriculture abroad is $ 94 billion in this decade.
Later China targeted Australia, the US and Europe. In Australia, the largest ranch in the world passed in Chinese hands in 2016, acquired by the real estate company Shanghai CRED. In New Zealand, Chinese companies bought dozens of milk and dairy farms. Ukraine, leased 3 million hectares of agricultural land to a Chinese company in 2013 and in France, China bought vines and acquired 1,700 hectares of cereal crops in central France.
Xi's assertion on the campaign against 'food waste' comes at a time when China has made tall claims of its total annual grain output exceeding 1.3 trillion kilograms, with the per capita grain supply approaching 500 kilograms, in the past five years. Countering the media hype of China facing grave food crisis, Zheng Fengtian, Professor at Renmin University, asserted that China's food security was not seriously impacted by Covid-19 and its grain reserves are ample, with self-sufficiency rate of rice and wheat, being about 100 percent with current stock exceeding one year's annual output.
While China is taking corrective measures to mitigate the food shortages through domestic and international sources, the large scale damage caused due to the floods, COVID, global backlash, economic meltdown, demographic/migration factors are likely to impact China's food security.