China Faces Food Security Issues

Food could run scarce, threatening civil unrest
September 27, 2021 Updated: September 30, 2021

News Analysis

Xi Jinping’s new agricultural reforms sound very much like Mao-era policies. Like a board game, it involves moving people and resources around, planning the increase in food production and how much will be stored for the future, who will receive which resources, and who will be favored by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Mao’s agricultural policies killed 30 million people. Xi will probably do better, but only because of food imports from France, Australia, the United States, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

In 2020, as a result of the pandemic, flooding, and a number of other external factors, China was facing a food shortage, as food prices shot up. While certain aspects of the pandemic economy are better this year, China is still facing the same systemic problems, namely, that the country has too many people and not enough arable land—about 60 percent less arable land per head than most other countries. Meanwhile, the population is not only growing, but becoming more affluent, demanding more meat, and more food in general.

Australian beef in China
Australian beef is seen at a supermarket in Beijing, on May 12, 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

The CCP has warned its citizens that skyrocketing energy prices will decrease the supply of fertilizer, negatively impacting food security. Beijing plans to allocate the supply of chemicals and raw materials to fertilizer manufacturers in order to ensure that supplies do not run out. China uses four times the global average of fertilizer, which is incredibly damaging for the environment and poses a health threat to humans.

Globally, fertilizer prices are rising due to extreme weather and manufacturing plant shutdowns, as well as China’s demand. China, alone, accounts for 30 percent of the world’s fertilizer consumption. Farmers are being hit hard, and the CCP expects the situation to get worse. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is cracking down on urea hoarding and price gouging. In spite of being favored by the Party, urea producers are having a hard time because they use coal, subjecting them to Beijing’s pollution crackdowns.

In spite of China’s best efforts, they are still heavily dependent on wheat and other food imports. China’s food imports of $170 billion are more than double the size of their exports of $76 billion.

Epoch Times Photo
Workers transport imported soybean products at a port in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, China, on April 9, 2018. (Reuters)

State-run media China Daily maintains a web page on “Xi Jinping Thought.” It includes stories with titles such as “Xi Comments on Sports,” “Xi Calls for Steady Transition in Afghanistan,” the “Xi Climate Pledge,” and others. Recently, there has been a push related to agricultural reform, promoting Xi’s support for farmers. Now that China’s food supplies are threatened, the CCP is trying to include rural dwellers in their economic development plans.

One of the propaganda videos on the Xi Jinping Thought page was called “Xi Jinping Proud to Have Been a Farmer,” which shows Xi meeting a family of coffee growers in Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans commented on how modest he was, and how proud he was of his history as a farmer. Another propaganda video explained how, through Xi and the CCP, agriculture management systems have been created as cell phone apps that farmers can use to modernize their farms. The CCP set an official goal that by 2035, all regions should achieve agricultural and rural modernization.

Modernization is just one component of the CCP’s rural land reforms. Just like in the Mao era, China’s farmers are still under a household contract responsibility system. Farmers cannot own the land they work on. Instead, it is owned by rural collectives, which allocate land-usage rights to eligible households.

Beijing insists that the country must maintain a “red line” of 120 million hectares of farmland that is permanently planted with food, so that the country can be self-reliant. The CCP plans to use technology, such as genetically modified organisms, to improve crop yields. It will also provide subsidies to farmers for growing grains. On the other hand, this “red line” also suggests that rural dwellers will be forced to remain rural dwellers in order to keep those farms planted.

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A Chinese farmer works at a hybrid rice planting field in Changsha city, Hunan Province, on June 20, 2006. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has done experiments on transgenic rice on animals, and experts now propose that the authorities push forward the industrialization of transgenic rice. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)

Agriculture minister Tang Renjian announced plans for “rural revitalization,” including the transfer and leasing of rural land. The measures were meant to close the urban-rural divide, to stabilize the economy, and help the hundreds of millions of farmers who were unable to go to the city and work during the lockdowns. Before the pandemic, the average rural family earned about one-third what their city-dwelling countrymen earned. This is why nearly 300 million rural dwellers migrate to the cities in search of work each year.

Xi’s promises to improve the lot of the farmers are made out of fear of food shortages, rather than any legitimate commitment to significantly increasing the wealth of agricultural workers. Altering the household responsibility system and other rural revitalization programs will not close this massive wealth gap, nor end the desire to leave the farm and work in the factories in the cities. And if it did, China would have a shortage of about 300 million factory workers.

In 2020, Xi was pushing a “finish your plate” campaign. This year, to combat potential food shortages, the CCP adopted a strict campaign of propaganda and censorship, forcing messages about avoiding food wastage. Video platforms also began removing “eating shows” and punishing users who searched for certain keywords such as “eating shows” or “competitive eating.”

Earlier this month, China hosted a conference on reducing food loss and waste. The disruptions in supply chains and transportation restrictions have caused an increase in food waste, particularly of perishable agricultural produce. According to China Daily, roughly 25 percent of food produced in China is lost or wasted. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, food perished in the fields because it could not be harvested or it perished during transport, which took longer than usual because of transport restrictions or a lack of drivers. Other food perished when processing plants and factories were shut down.

The threat of food shortages is enough for the CCP to swallow their pride and trade with the enemy. In spite of other trade disputes with Australia, China has pre-purchased close to 2.2 million tons of Australian wheat. Meanwhile, China sharply decreased importation of Australian coal and tariffs remain in force against Australian wine and barley.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent over 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Antonio works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his China books include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."