China, with over 20% of the world’s population but only 9% of the world’s arable land and 6% of the world’s freshwater resources, has always faced the challenge of how to feed its 1.3 billion population. The long-standing strategy to ensure food security in China has been through self-sufficiency, however, within the past years, the government has struggled to meet the ever-increasing demand through domestic means alone due to limited arable land, water scarcity and soil degradation and contamination. Consequently, the government has become more dependent on agricultural imports over the past several years, adapting its long-standing strategy as well as reshaping the global food system.

Limited Arable Land

Even though China has the world’s third-largest landmass, its arable land is very scarce, accounting for only 15.6% of the country. This has been aggravated by the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation that China has experienced in the past several decades; from 1991 to 2014, China’s arable land decreased by 15.3% due to the conversion of highly productive agricultural land into urban uses. 

Additionally, the increase in population and wealth has put additional stress on the already-limited land due to an increase in food demand and the change from a plant-based diet to an animal-based diet. Because of this shift, the government has turned to the international market to fill this gap, increasing its feed grain for livestock and meat imports, as animal-based diets require three times more arable land than plant-based diets.

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Soil degradation and contamination

To boost its production and meet its self-sufficiency targets, China has been using an excessive amount of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, consuming 30% of the global fertiliser supply for only 9% of world’s arable land. This situation, including intensive farming and rapid industrialisation, has caused soil degradation, which has affected land productivity and has produced poor quality crops.

According to Hongzhou Zhang in Securing the “Rice Bowl,” China’s soil and crops are significantly contaminated with heavy metals, such as cadmium in rice, due to their proximity to polluting industries, jeopardising China’s food safety and public health.

Water Scarcity

With China’s water availability being only ¼ of the global average, this already-delicate situation is being exacerbated by an increasing decline in water supply and an ever-increasing demand.

Between 1949 and 2011, water usage in China increased 492%, mainly due to the expansion of cultivated fields, growing industries and an increase in population, posing additional pressure to the already-fragile system. Additionally, water resources in China are unevenly geographically distributed, with northern China being one of the most heavily affected regions. This situation can pose a threat, since 56% of the country’s grain production is grown in the north but it only has access to 16.5% of the national water resources.

The increase in water demand has led to an excessive surface water withdrawals by upstream users. For instance, the Cangzhou Prefecture, downstream from the Fuyang River, only receives 10% of the surface water that it received in the 1970s. This situation has provoked an increase in groundwater extractions, which is particularly worrisome in Northern China, which is experiencing high levels of groundwater depletion. Groundwater overuse can cause land subsidence, desertification and intrusion of seawater into agricultural fields, leading, among others, to a decline in grain output. For this reason, it is projected that by 2030, the total rice output will decline by 13% to 16% and wheat output will decline by 4% to 16%.

From Self-Sufficiency to an Increased Dependency on Imports

While the long-standing policy of ensuring food security through self-sufficiency with domestic means greatly increased grain production in China, it came at a very high environmental and economic cost. For this reason, the government’s strategy to moderately increase its food imports to meet its demand can be beneficial, since it can relieve some pressure on its arable land and water resources. However, even though the government of China is addressing its food security threats by adopting several multifaceted policies, such as the Red-Line Policy, the Zero Growth Action Plan and the Returning Grazing Land to Grassland, it should continue to promote more sustainable agricultural practices, improve the productivity of its existing resources and increase its food quality, since its population and urbanisation are expected to grow.