For the past couple of decades, safeguarding food security has been a critical priority for the Chinese central government. Beijing has sought to strengthen its focus on food security through increased agricultural production and diversification of imports, and President Xi Jinping’s recent comments signal continued concerns at the top about China’s food security. Ahead of the 20th National Party Congress this year and the release of the No. 1 policy document, there are already several hints regarding what the Chinese central authorities could prioritize in terms of food security for this year and beyond, based on various recent conferences, policies, and release of five-year plans (FYP). Other factors, including the potential influences of gene-edited plants, commercialization of genetically modified (GM) crops, and of a Russia-Ukraine conflict should also be considered.
At a recent Politburo Standing Committee meeting, Xi emphasized that China’s challenges and risks should be addressed with the country’s strategic needs in mind. He also reiterated the need to stabilize the agricultural sector and safeguard the nation’s food security, calling for more robust measures to guarantee stable agricultural production and supply and steady growth in the industry and rural areas. “The food of the Chinese people must be made by and remain in the hands of the Chinese,” he was quoted as saying by state broadcaster CCTV.
Similarly, the Central Rural Work Conference, led by Xi and bringing together officials from agricultural and rural authorities nationwide, also emphasized the importance of safeguarding food security, achieving self-sufficiency, and promoting rural revitalization. The Central Rural Work conference usually sets out agricultural and rural development plans and tasks related to “the three rurals” (“三农”) (agriculture, rural areas, and farmers) for the coming year. The annual rural policy document that results from the rural work conferences, known as the No. 1 document,” is published by the State Council, China’s cabinet. It is usually the first policy document released by the Chinese central government at the beginning of each year, months after the conference. This year’s rural policy document is yet to be published.
Safeguarding Food Security
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Safeguarding food security will likely remain a key objective as it is needed to ensure social stability and has also been publicly linked to China’s national security by Xi. Food security is one of the six guarantees (六保) made in April 2020 in response to COVID-19 and changes to the global food supply chains. Recent public comments from China’s top leaders show that importance has not waned and that there is a more significant push to safeguard food security, which will continue in 2022 and beyond. Aside from remarks by Xi that publicly link China’s food security to the country’s national security, the minister of agriculture and rural affairs, Tang Renjian, has also emphasized two critical components of food security. In 2021, Tang called seeds “the ‘computer chips’ of agriculture” and cultivated land, the “‘lifeblood’ of food production.”
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There is also a greater push to ensure the supply of primary goods. In December 2021, Xi called for efforts to safeguard grain security and protect farmland as well as ensure the supplies of pork, vegetables, and other agricultural and sideline products. In recent months, vegetable prices have increased dramatically in China. For instance, the cost of fresh vegetables jumped by 30.6 percent in November 2021 from a year earlier, while the prices of eggs and freshwater fish increased by 20.1 percent and 18 percent, respectively, amid a global surge.
Grain Security and Increased Agricultural Production
As is the case in most other Asian countries, grain security is an integral part of safeguarding food security. This has long been a top priority for the Chinese central government and is likely continue as such. Indeed, “food security” (粮食安全) literally translates as “grain security” in Chinese. With grain self-sufficiency as the main overarching goal of China’s food security strategy, China has undertaken enormous political and fiscal efforts alongside spatio-temporal changes in China’s grain production patterns to strengthen its grain production. And these efforts have, to some extent, paid off. For instance, between 2003 and 2013, China’s domestic grain production rose from 430 million metric tons to over 600 million metric tons, much of which came from the country’s grain baskets – the mid-and-lower Yangtze River region, the Northeast China Plain, and the North China Plain.
To encourage domestic production of grains, the Chinese central authorities have put forward various policies and plans. In January 2021, the National People’s Congress began drafting a new grain security law. Following this, grain security was also listed in the Chinese central government’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) draft, with China aiming to meet an annual grain production target of more than 650 million metric tons. Additionally, under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs’ current Five-Year Agricultural Plan (2021-2025) on crop farming, China will stabilize its annual grain output and beat a target of 700 million metric tons by 2025 to ensure grain security. The plan laid out grain farmland and planting acreage targets for various grains, including rice, wheat, and corn, to support these aims. For example, China will aim to keep its grain farmland above 1.75 billion mu (approximately 117 million hectares) while planting acreage of grains and staple grains must stay above 1.4 billion mu and over 800 million mu, respectively.
At the Rural Work Conference in December last year, the importance of grain security was once again emphasized. Last year’s meeting vowed that China would maintain a stable grain output exceeding 1.3 trillion jin (650 million metric tons) in 2022. In addition, Tang, the agriculture minister, said that the government would vigorously develop oil crops, grow high-quality varieties, and promote companion planting of corn and soybeans to increase acreage and yield. In that month, Xi also declared that the “Chinese people should hold their rice bowls firmly in their own hands, with grains mainly produced by themselves.”
Two key areas of grain security in China are soybeans and corn.
Soybeans are commonly used in animal food, human food, and industrial products. However, most of China’s soybean consumption is hidden in animal feed (e.g. pig feed). Meanwhile, soybean oil is the primary edible oil in China, accounting for about 40 percent of the total oil consumption in the country. Although China is the world’s fourth-biggest soybean grower with current output estimated at 16.4 million tons, the country is also the world’s largest soybean importer. Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs show that over 80 percent of domestic consumption relies on imports. Last year, customs data showed that soybean imports, mainly from the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, jumped 13.3 percent year on year to 100.3 million tons. The imported soybeans are genetically modified and are mainly processed to produce cooking oil and the meal used in animal feed. Locally produced soybeans are non-GM and primarily used for direct human consumption (e.g., tofu, soymilk, and soy sauce).
However, China’s reliance on foreign soybeans was viewed as a weak link during the Trump-era trade war. China is likely to reduce its reliance on soybean imports by increasing domestic production to encourage self-sufficiency as demonstrated by recent plans from China’s top leaders. For instance, in December 2021 Premier Li Keqiang said China must adopt unremitting measures to produce and supply grain and essential agricultural produce. He also called for more significant efforts to stabilize grain acreage and increase the production of soybeans and other oil crops.
Following this, last month the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced China’s new 14th Five-Year Plan on crop farming. As part of this plan, China will aim to significantly increase domestic soybean output to boost self-sufficiency in supply of the oilseed. By the end of 2025, China wants to have produced approximately 23 million tons of soybeans, up 40 percent from current output levels. In addition, the planting acreage and output of other oilseeds (e.g. peanut and rapeseed) to meet the country’s growing demand for feed protein and cooking oils.
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However, Beijing may also continue to diversify its import sources of soybeans, where possible, to ensure a stable supply.
Although China is the world’s largest grower of corn by area, its total production falls short of its needs. In 2021, China had to import 28.35 million metric tons of corn, up 152 percent from the previous record of 11.3 million tons in 2020. Most corn imports came from the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Ukraine.
Nonetheless, Beijing may continue to diversify its import sources of corn and encourage domestic production, where possible, to ensure a stable supply. Having launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, China’s interest in diversifying corn imports has grown. Before the launch of the BRI, the U.S. was China’s biggest supplier of corn, selling an estimated 5.1 million metric tons of corn to China in 2011-12, which accounted for almost 100 percent of all Chinese imports of corn. By 2019, however, Ukraine became China’s biggest supplier of corn, making up over 80 percent of Chinese corn imports.
Although the decrease in U.S. corn imports can be linked to the China-U.S. trade war, China had already sought other corn suppliers before this, with a considerable amount of corn imported from Ukraine. China has been Ukraine’s top trade partner since 2020 and views Ukraine as a critical entrepôt for its BRI ambitions. Ukrainian agricultural exports have becoming increasingly important for China. For example, recent statistics show that Ukraine exported a total of 3.5 million metric tons of corn last month, of which China took 29 percent of that amount.
Thus the potential for a Russia-Ukraine conflict would have implications for China’s food security. Much of Ukraine’s most fertile agricultural land is in its eastern regions, which are also the most vulnerable to a potential Russian attack. In the case of a Russian incursion or land grab, the flow of goods from Ukraine would likely be impacted, including Ukraine’s agricultural exports. As a major grain exporter (e.g. corn, wheat, and rye), Ukraine plays a crucial role in feeding populations worldwide. The implications of a Russian attack may well extend into the countries and regions that depend on Ukraine for food, exacerbating social and political instability as well as leading to food insecurity.
Genetically Modified (GM) Crops and Food Security
Another factor to consider is GM crops, and in particular, GM soybeans and corn. Although China was the first country to grow GM crops commercially, commercialization has not gone ahead, partly due to public opposition to GM food. Nonetheless, the country’s top policymakers have urged progress in biotech breeding, or GM crops, which are seen as integral to safeguarding food security.
Recent moves from the Chinese government suggest that China will, at some stage, approve new regulations to allow the planting of GM seeds to boost the domestic production of these crops. This could free up millions of tons of soybeans and corn for other countries to import as feed for their animal industries, affecting global market supplies and prices.
Various draft rules and announcements from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs suggest that China is preparing to allow greater use of GM technology in agriculture, with Beijing keen to support domestic biotech companies. Several months ago the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs laid out a clear path for seed makers to seek approval for corn varieties that integrate GM traits and published draft rules outlying registration requirements for herbicides used on GM crops. In December 2021, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced plans to approve the safety of more GM corn varieties produced by domestic companies followed by the approval of two new GM corn varieties for import in January 2022.
In the latest hint that commercial planting of GM soybeans and corn will be approved, articles published by China Daily and Xinhua last month discussed the results of a GM soybean and corn pilot program in China. After an environmental and food safety assessment that lasted nearly 10 years, four GM corn varieties and three GM soybean varieties received safety certificates for production and application. Research from this pilot program found that GM soybeans can reduce weeding costs by 50 percent and increase yields by 12 percent. Similarly, GM corn can increase yields by between 6.7-10.7 percent.
China may also continue to show interest in gene-edited plants. Gene editing is already in place in various countries worldwide and under review in others. In January this year, the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs published trial rules for the approval of gene-edited plants, paving the way for faster improvements to crops. According to the draft rules, a production certificate can be applied once gene-edited plants have completed pilot trials. This means that the lengthy field trials required for the approval of a GM plant can be avoided. In addition, the accuracy of gene-editing technology makes it faster than conventional breeding or GM. Taking into account some of the many pressures China and other countries face, including water quality and quantity issues, limited farmland, land degradation, severe soil pollution, and climate change impacts alongside urbanization and shifting demographics, China may also encourage the development of “climate-smart” seeds to help increase domestic production.
At present, the full socioeconomic and environmental implications of China’s push to strengthen domestic grain production, especially of soybeans and corn, remain unclear. However, China’s aims of increasing domestic production may encounter difficulties from external factors, such as higher cost of fertilizers, which could add to the production cost of crops. Also, questions may be asked about China’s climate change commitments, green agenda, and food security. For example, how much water and energy are needed for Chinese farmers to meet these targets? With Xi having promised that the country will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, how could this impact China’s ambitions of increased domestic soybean and corn productions, while simultaneously trying to satisfy China’s food demand and ensuring that the country’s agricultural systems are environmentally efficient? For other countries, China’s reduced reliance on imported crops may result in greater availability of soybeans and corn for other importing countries or force farmers in exporting countries to decrease production to prevent a major price drop.