Food and Water

How has China maintained domestic food stability amid global food crises?

In China, the private and public sectors are collaborating to improve food production and efficiencies to ensure food security.

In China, the private and public sectors are collaborating to improve food production and efficiencies to ensure food security. Image: Henry & Co/Unsplash

Yuan Zhang
China Specialist, Tropical Forest Alliance, World Economic Forum
Tengfei Xu
Acting Head, Programme & Events, World Economic Forum
Jingxin Xiao
Early Careers, Nature-Based Solutions, World Economic Forum
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  • Nearly 10% of the world’s population - mostly women, children, and farmers - currently suffer from hunger.
  • In China, the private and public sectors are collaborating to improve food production and efficiencies to ensure food security.
  • Smallholders are the backbone of China's domestic food supply, producing about 80% of the food in the country.

A perfect storm of climate shocks, pandemic aftereffects, economic instability, and the Ukraine conflict has made the global food crisis a stark reality.

As many as 828 million people, or 10% of the world’s population, suffered from hunger in 2021, and nearly 30% faced moderate or severe food insecurity. In March 2022, the Food Price Index peaked. Despite declines in recent months, the price remained high above last year's value.

food security in China hunger insecurity population
10% of the world’s population, suffered from hunger in 2021, and nearly 30% faced moderate or severe food insecurity. Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Food security in China

With its vast population, China has managed to maintain relatively stable domestic food prices and supplies. The domestic food price saw a moderate year-on-year increase of 0.4% in the first half of 2022, compared to the global growth of 25.2%.

The country’s domestic grain production reached 483 kilograms per capita in 2021, which also maintained relatively high compared to the international food security standard of 400 kilograms per capita.

The power of public-private collaborations

The public and private sectors have made great efforts to maintain this stability. The Chinese government has introduced policies in several areas, from production and transportation to market and end-use, to support food security and strengthen agri-food system resilience. Since 2006, the government has set a “farmland red lining” policy to keep no less than 120 million hectares of arable land for crop farming.

The policy also outlines the development of 66.7 million hectares of high-quality farmland, with a particular eye on protecting the fertile black soil in northeast China. Furthermore, relevant ministries collaborated to open a “green channel” for fresh agricultural products to increase transportation efficiency. Other policies have been developed to combat food loss and waste along the whole food chain, which accounts for 27% of the country’s annual production.

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The backbone of China’s food production

Supporting smallholder farmers - farmers operating less than 2-3 hectares of land - is one of the crucial policy focuses of China. As the backbone of China’s food security, the 250 million smallholders produced about 80% of food in China. Yet they are among the most vulnerable groups, bearing the brunt of the food crisis due to their modest income and limited access to technology and financial support.

These policies can only be effective when private sector players, especially agricultural businesses, are also supporting the process. Multiple leading Chinese companies recognize that smallholders are closely related to their business and an integral part of the supply chain. Subsequently, they are enabling these smallholders with knowledge, financial support, technology, and direct access to the market.

One example is how Syngenta Group China encourages smallholders to adopt sustainable agricultural practices through capacity-building activities, ensuring that the product is stable, resilient and of high quality. Since 2017, Syngenta has established a Modern Agriculture Platform (MAP) to build farmers’ capacity in digital and financial literacy, integrated pest management, conservation tillage, and fertilizer utilization. In turn, this has helped MAP farmers produce high-quality products and generate $240 more per hectare than non-MAP farmers.

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Bridging gaps through e-commerce and technological innovation

Another emerging trend in China is the role of the country’s booming e-commerce platforms in empowering agricultural products directly “from land to table”. Using technology, the top e-commerce firm, Alibaba, has bridged farmers of all sizes to 903 million active Alibaba users, which helped farmers and agricultural suppliers with their pandemic recoveries. By aiding smallholders, the company enhanced its corporate image, increased sales, and gained more revenues in the promotion event.

Moreover, companies like Mengniu Dairy provide interest-free loans to smallholders to speed their recovery from the pandemic and stabilize production. As the leading dairy giant in China, Mengniu is also empowering the whole supply chain and industry through technological innovation. The company developed a digital management system to improve efficiency and transparency along the supply chain.

New technologies, including biotechnology and blockchains, were applied to cut carbon emissions, improve resource utilization efficiency, and increase productivity, simultaneously gaining environmental and economic benefits. Acting as a coordinator, the company not only facilitates production and processing in different links but also increases its business resilience and advantages in procurement and price determination.

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Ensuring long-term food security in China

China should strengthen cooperation with international stakeholders to ensure long-term food security. Despite its robust domestic supply, China must pay attention to the increasing price pressures. The country still relies heavily on food imports, especially soybeans, beef and oilseeds. More than 80% of the soybeans consumed in China were imported. The beef import has also been increasing rapidly over the past decade and reached a record-high annual import of 2,330,000 tons in 2021. With its high dependency on global food imports, China should not only maintain and increase domestic supply but also cooperate more closely with other countries to stabilize the international supply chain amid climate and geopolitical uncertainty.

Forests deforestation global soybean production food security in China
Global Soybean production 2020. China should strengthen cooperation with international stakeholders to ensure long-term food security. Image: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2021)

China has implemented several measures to secure food imports. The country has increased its infrastructure and agricultural investments to facilitate international food trade and strengthen its presence in the global market. The government has also been working with international organizations to enhance agricultural production in other countries, especially in Africa and South Asia. As part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the Global Development Initiative, which champions global cooperation on food problems, China pledged to advance Food Production Enhancement Action.

Cooperation is undoubtedly an essential cog in the battle against the food crisis. A question that China and its stakeholders need to address in the long term is: How do we collaborate efficiently with domestic and international stakeholders to find a systematic approach to food security?

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