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What Do We Really Know About China’s Food Security?

Given questions about the reliability of the country’s official agricultural data, it is hard to judge the state of its food security.

The world is currently experiencing a global food crisis. Record-high food prices have driven millions more into extreme poverty, magnifying hunger and malnutrition. This ongoing global food crisis was triggered, and continues to be fueled, by several key factors, most notably COVID-19, climate shocks, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, and trade-distorting government policies. Amid the worsening global food crisis, there have been growing domestic and international concerns regarding the food security of China, the world’s most populous country and largest food importer.

There have been mounting concerns regarding China’s food security situation amid growing threats from climate shocks and worsening ties with the United States and other Western countries, which are among the top agricultural suppliers to China. In response, the country’s foremost leaders have repeatedly stressed the strategic importance of safeguarding the country’s food security. For instance, in April 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that “food security is an important foundation for national security.” Having publicly linked food security to China’s national security, he has also called for further efforts to safeguard grain security and protect farmland to increase domestic production.

2022: A Tough Year for China’s Food Security 

For China, 2022 was an undoubtedly challenging year for agriculture, primarily due to climate shocks and the continued disruptions caused by its zero COVID policy. Notably, the past summer was the country’s driest and hottest since consistent records began being kept in 1961. The severe heatwave resulted in a drought in the Yangtze River Basin (YRB), which affected over 900 million people in China in over 17 provinces and an estimated 2.2 million hectares of agricultural land, including land used for rice. As the YRB produces two-thirds of China’s rice (mainly Indica rice), the most widely consumed staple in the country, the drought is likely to have had a significant impact on national rice production, while exacerbating the structural imbalances in China’s rice supply.

As heatwaves and drought scorched much of southern China, northern China and southern China were both affected by record rainfall and significant flooding. Although summer floods are common in various parts of China, extreme weather events have become more frequent and intense in recent years due to the effects of climate change. In July 2022, in Guangxi autonomous region, one of the worst-hit areas, rain-induced disasters affected agricultural production, houses, and roads. Estimates suggest that this caused direct economic losses of over 12.48 billion yuan ($1.86 billion).

Aside from COVID-19 and extreme weather events, the Ukraine-Russia War has further impacted China’s external agricultural supplies and domestic agricultural production. Take corn for an example. As the largest corn importer in the world, in 2021, China had to import 28.35 million metric tons of the staple, up 152 percent from 2020, representing 9.4 percent of domestic corn consumption. Most imports came from the United States, Ukraine, and Brazil, with Ukrainian imports accounting for a third of the total amount.

China has also for many years imported wheat, mainly from agricultural powerhouses like Australia, Canada, and the United States. However, due to the trade war with the U.S. and strained relations with Western nations, China has been seeking to diversify its wheat import sources by looking toward Russia and Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan. As part of China’s wheat import diversification efforts, China and Russia signed an agreement on wheat supplies during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics in February 2022. Under the agreement, China can import wheat from all of Russia, thereby potentially improving its wheat supply.

However, the Ukraine-Russia War has significantly impacted the global food supply, affecting China’s external food suppliers. On the one hand, the war disrupted the flow of agricultural products and fertilizers through the region, causing delays and increasing the costs of food exports. On the other hand, the economic sanctions imposed by various countries on Russia and Belarus last year have further impacted agricultural and fertilizer trade, leading to reduced exports and higher prices for food products.ADVERTISEMENT

China’s Grain Miracles in 2022

Despite numerous challenges, official statistics from China suggest that the country’s food security has actually been well safeguarded due to China’s growing domestic production and massive stockpiles. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the country’s grain output reached 686.53 billion kilograms, an increase of 0.5 percent from the previous year. It marked the eighth consecutive year that China’s total grain production has exceeded 650 billion kilograms. Furthermore, cultivated land has increased by 0.6 percent year-on-year to 1.775 billion mu (approximately 118.33 million hectares), while per unit output of grain reached 387 kilograms per mu.

Furthermore, China holds significant quantities of the world’s grain reserves. China’s rice, wheat, and corn reserves have grown steadily in recent decades. According to the Economist, which cited the U.S. Department of Agriculture, by mid-2022, China was expected to hold 69 percent of the world’s corn reserves, 60 percent of its rice, 51 percent of its wheat, and 37 percent of its soybeans. Although China has not released details regarding its stockpiles, officials from the country’s National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration noted that the supply in the domestic grain market is “fully guaranteed,” while grain reserves are at a “historical high level.”

To reassure China’s public and the international community that the country will not face imminent grain security risks, the Chinese government has publicly pointed to its bumper grain harvests and massive grain reserve systems. For instance, in his 2023 New Year Address, Xi Jinping said, “Despite a global food crisis, we have secured a bumper harvest for the 19th year in a row, putting us in a stronger position to ensure the food supply of the Chinese people.”

Skepticism Regarding Chinese Official Statistics

Accurate production statistics are necessary for research, monitoring, planning, and decision-making. The China Statistical Yearbook, which produces the country’s statistics, has generally reported an annual increase in domestic grain production, with rare exceptions.  However, there is some skepticism regarding Chinese official statistics, both outside and inside China.

For instance, an article by ScienceNet in China, published in 2014, questioned the 11th consecutive increase in total grain production reported. The article noted that given the severity of the drought in 2014, it is unlikely that agricultural output could have increased that year. Additionally, various researchers in the article pointed out that China’s grain production data is inaccurate. From their perspective, China’s ever-increasing grain imports prove that grain production in China cannot keep up with the total grain consumption and that the country’s actual grain production is much lower than the officially announced level.

Further, a study by Zhang et al. (2020) found that the subsidies provided by the central government to the major grain-producing counties have resulted in the over-reporting of these counties’ grain production. Similarly, another study finds “some evidence of potential misreporting problems from the lower administration level where the risk of manipulation of statistics is higher.”

Various studies have highlighted the role played by lower levels of administration in China, noting that there is some evidence of potential misreporting problems and data manipulation. Likewise, research has acknowledged that technical difficulties and the potential for political manipulation can influence statistics in China. Meanwhile, other studies have emphasized that the problem lies in inconsistent grain production and consumption data.

It is also worth noting that researchers and media have also questioned the accuracy of the Chinese official reserve statistics. For instance, in November 2022, a Reuters article mentioned that most industry players questioned the reliability of China’s official grain statistics, as they suspected that China’s corn stocks might no longer be plentiful. Indeed, corruption relating to China’s grain reserve system has been well-publicized, while questions over the lack of transparency about the grain reserve data have also been raised. Over the past few years, thousands of officials were arrested or investigated in China’s grain reserve system at both local and central levels for corruption and other charges. The widespread corruption has further raised questions about the accuracy and reliability of the government’s reported data.ADVERTISEMENT

Further linking food insecurity concerns in China to data accuracy is the quality of the grain stored in the reserves. Due to a number of concerns raised about the condition of the grain, including contamination and issues with pests, there have been calls for the Chinese authorities to improve the storage and management of its grain reserves to ensure optimal grain quality.

Looking Ahead 

At present, it is hard to judge the reliability of China’s official agricultural data and, thus, the state of the country’s food security. Nevertheless, at least in the short term, there seems to be no significant concern. Against a backdrop of rising global food prices and worsening food insecurity, it should be noted that food prices in China, except for pork, have remained largely stable. For instance, in November 2022, food prices in China rose 3.7 percent compared to 2021, a decrease from the 7 percent increase in October, while pork prices saw a significant surge of 32.2 percent.

However, from a long-term perspective, China’s food security status remains much less certain. Given increases in the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme climate events like droughts and severe flooding in China, alongside poor quality and quantity of water resources and severely contaminated land, it remains to be seen to what extent Beijing can solve these problems to increase domestic production to safeguard China’s food security. Because China plays a critical role in the global food supply and global food trade, it is in both the world’s and China’s interest to further improve the reliability and transparency of the country’s key agricultural statistics.

Source : The Diplomat