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Why is China so Obsessed With Food Security?
And what does that say about the world’s future?
China is obsessed with food security. You might not realize just how obsessed: stockpiling rapidly, by the end of the year China – with its 20% of the world’s population – is projected to have accumulated and stashed away some 65% of the world's corn and 53% of the world's wheat.
As far as China’s leaders are concerned, this is insufficient. In June, China’s State Council released emergency measures aiming to further shore up food supplies and drive down prices, pledging huge agricultural subsidies and massive logistics investments, and pushing local governments to accumulate even greater state grain reserves. Premier Li Keqiang (China’s #2 leader) went on record to threaten that “every level of government” must work to maximize agricultural yield this year, and that those officials who fail to do so “will be held accountable.” A national Food Security Law is about to be published, reinforcing the decision that food production and agriculture protections is now a top national security imperative (a national Energy Security Law will also soon be published).
Why the single-minded urgency? Now you, not being an idiot, might say, “No shit Sherlock Holmes: thanks to the war in Ukraine, sanctions on Russia, and the tragic lasting consequences of covid-lockdowns, the world is entering what the head of the UN World Food Program recently called the worst two-year period of food crisis since WWII, with some 49 million people now at imminent risk of starving to death and at least 323 million in a state of such ‘acute food insecurity’ that they are ‘marching toward starvation,’ so of course the Chinese are reasonable to be worried about food.”
You would of course be right about that; and in fact China, having already suffered first historic flooding and then historic drought, is this year also facing a wheat harvest that the country’s minister of agriculture described as being in the “worst condition in history.” There is all that.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s paranoia about food security dates to well before the current crisis began. In August 2020 Xi launched a nation-wide campaign to reduce food waste (dubbed “operation empty plates”), while stressing “the need to maintain a sense of crisis regarding food security.”
Then China’s all-important 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025, released in March 2021, described food security as a “prerequisite” for national security and set a national food security target for the first time, at 650 million tons of grain per year. Protections to strictly maintain a “red line” of 120 million hectares of minimum farmland (first set in 2007) were enhanced. While Dutch authorities have been shooting protesting farmers to seize their farmland and build apartment buildings, China has been busy bulldozing half-built suburbs and dismantling ill-considered solar farms that threaten productive agricultural land and water resources.
In August 2021, the Party approved a new action plan for the seed industry. According to Xi, China’s “seed sources must be independent and under better control, and seed industry technology must be self-reliant.”
In December 2021, China initiated ambitious plans to set aside arable land to grow soybeans, a crop it had almost completely abandoned after its 2001 entry into the WTO, with a target of raising output by 40% over the next four years, including by utilizing (domestically) genetically engineered crops for the first time. “The Chinese people’s rice bowl must be firmly held in their own hands at all times, and that rice bowl must mainly contain Chinese grain,” Xi told a top-level officials at a meeting related to the plan.
Then, in March of this year, China’s the National Development and Reform Commission published orders to begin rapidly stockpiling fertilizer supplies. Xi devoted an entire speech that month to berating cadres to “not slacken our efforts on food security” in the least, while Premier Li insisted that, “We must address uncertainty in the external environment with the certainty of stable domestic [agricultural] production,” saying, “This is critical to stability of prices, of the economy, and of all of society.”
And they’re still at it this summer and fall. But what prompted all this, exactly?
Well one clue is a report prepared by China's intelligence agencies, the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of State Security, that according to the sources of Japan’s Nikkei, “sent shock waves through the State Council, China's cabinet, in April.” The report, analyzing sanctions, blockades, and other measures the United States and its allies might take in response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, concluded that China faced at least one critical national weak point: “There is a high risk of facing a food crisis,” it warned.
You see, China may be home to one-fifth of the world’s population, but it contains only about 7% of the world’s arable land. And the percentage of land in China suitable for cultivation shrank from 19% in 2010 to only 13% in 2020, amid urbanization and widespread pollution of soil and water. Remarkably, China still manages to produce 95% of its primary grain (wheat and rice) needs, in part through efficient production. China’s wheat production per hectare is almost 50% higher than the United States (though almost half that of the world’s most efficient, the Netherlands).
Nonetheless, China has steadily been driven to rely more and more heavily on imports to meet food demand. That 5% shortfall still makes China one of the world’s largest wheat importers. And while China only imports 10% of its corn, that still makes it the world’s largest corn importer, and it is the largest barley and oilseed importer as well (importing 100 million tons of the latter annually). Most importantly, China consumes nearly 120 million tons of soybeans a year – nearly the size of the entire U.S. soybean crop – but must import more than 100 million tons of that annually, or about 62% of all the soybeans traded internationally. About 30% of those imports come from the United States, much of the rest from Brazil. Without soy (itself important in the Chinese diet), much of China’s key protein source, its huge pork industry (by far the largest in the world), would collapse.
The vast majority of these food imports (like 80% of China’s oil and much of its other resources) arrive in China by sea after traversing lengthy supply routes across the Pacific or through the Indian Ocean. This would make them exceptionally easy to blockade or otherwise interrupt. None of China’s efforts over the last decade to buy up resources around the world, including farmland, have helped solve this conundrum.
The truth is that China is in a sense the opposite of Russia: it’s a vast importer of energy, food, and other commodities, taking all of these resources in and pumping out much of the world’s industrial product. This makes it far less self-sufficient (though also hugely more important to the global economy). And in short, as things stand, if China went to war with the U.S. over Taiwan or some other issue, millions of Chinese people would very quickly face a real risk of starvation, no matter the damage cutting off China from the global economy would also do to its enemies. Beijing must solve this problem before it can attempt any such adventures.
But, again, China has been obsessed with food security for years, so this one report from early this year can’t be the only cause. China’s leaders have of course been aware of this problem for decades. Nor is the risk of a specific major conflict the only issue, in my view. The real problem is significantly broader and deeper than that.
The reality, which China’s leaders appear to have grasped at least since the outbreak of the U.S.-China trade war in 2018, is that the golden age of globalization is now over. That era, defined by a truly global marketplace, and by globe-spanning supply chains, was built on the transient peace of a global order produced by hegemonic post-Cold War American power. Now that global order is falling apart, and the world and its once-global market is fragmenting into blocs and spheres of influence. Despite the ambitious efforts of the globalists, it is nationalism and regionalism that is everywhere succeeding in reasserting itself. In this environment, complex, world-spanning supply chains may soon no longer be sustainable given the growing (and already demonstrable) risks involved. We instead seem to be moving quickly toward a future of regional and separated supply chains, shorter shipping routes, built-in redundancies, and greater national protectionism and self-sufficiency. Necessary as this may be, it will have serious consequences for a world economy based on shipping everything from one corner of the planet to another.
In 2017, Xi Jinping traveled to Davos and delivered a speech portraying China as the world’s new champion of globalization. This wasn’t a completely implausible claim. No country in the world has benefitted more from globalization than China. Globalization is the machine that allowed it to implement the most rapid and wide-scale industrialization in history, lift hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, and become the near-superpower it is today. But, since 2020, Xi appears to have largely given up on trying to save globalization and accepted the inevitable – the foreseeable future will be defined by a global struggle between China and the United States, along with the actions of every enterprising opportunist on the margins. China’s new overriding goal is therefore to achieve “self-reliance” amid what Xi has described repeatedly as a period of “changes in the world unseen in a century.”
As Xi put it in an article published in May, “the international situation is complicated and severe,” and in this context, “In the future, the demand for food will continue to increase, and the balance between supply and demand will become tighter and tighter.” Which is why, as he put it in his speech in March, China “cannot rely solely on the international market to solve” its food security problem anymore.
What China’s leaders seem to have recognized some time ago, then, is the same hard truth that European leaders are only now waking up to.
Two weeks ago, France’s President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech in which he said he believed that, “What we are currently living through is a kind of major tipping point or a great upheaval,”1 in which “we are living [through] the end of what could have seemed an era of abundance… the end of the abundance of products of technologies that seemed always available… the end of the abundance of land and materials including water.” He received a lot of understandable public backlash for this, in that his objective was to call on the struggling common people to get used to “making sacrifices” while he and his fellow elites will of course do no such thing. But in a real sense Macron may be right: the age of abundance and easy living is probably over – at least for a decade or three.
China clearly thinks so, anyway, and is determined to be prepared to live in this new world as it is. What’s troubling is that so many of our leaders in the West still clearly are not.
“How many days have passed since the Chinese people were hungry? In the past, who didn’t go hungry?” Xi mused in remarks to his comrades in March. But then, for most people, “it’s easy to forget,” he said.
Thanks for the endorsement Macron, I appreciate it! If you email me I’ll hook you up with a complimentary subscription.