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Looking to the Future: China’s Priorities for Food Security in 2022 and Beyond

AUSTRALIA, Feb 7 2022 (IPS) - Safeguarding food security has long been a critical priority for the Chinese central government. President Xi’s latest comments and meetings demonstrate continued concerns at the top about China’s food security. Ahead of the 20th National Congress this year and the release of the No 1 policy document, there are already several hints regarding what the Chinese central authorities could prioritise in terms of food security for this year and beyond. Other factors, including the potential influences of gene-edited plants, commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops, and of a Russia-Ukraine conflict should also be considered.

Genevieve Donnellon-May

At a Politburo Standing Committee meeting in December 2021, President Xi emphasised that the country’s challenges and risks should be addressed with the country’s strategic needs in mind. He also reiterated the need to stabilise the agricultural sector and safeguard the nation’s food security, calling for more robust measures to guarantee stable agricultural production and supply. “The food of the Chinese people must be made by and remain in the hands of the Chinese,” he was quoted as saying by state broadcaster CCTV.

Similarly, the recent Central Rural Work Conference, which usually sets out agricultural and rural development plans and tasks related to “the three rurals” (“三农”) (agriculture, rural areas, and farmers), also emphasised the importance of safeguarding food security and achieving self-sufficiency.

Potential themes in 2022 concerning food security

1. Safeguarding food security
Safeguarding food security will likely remain a key objective as it is needed to ensure social stability and has also been publicly linked to China’s national security by President Xi. Food security is one of the six guarantees (六保) made in April 2020 in response to COVID-19 and changes to the global food supply chains. Recent public comments from China’s top leaders show that importance has not waned and that there is a more significant push to safeguard food security, which will continue in 2022 and beyond. For instance, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Tang Renjian, called seeds “the ‘computer chips’ of agriculture” and cultivated land, the “‘lifeblood’ of food production.”.

2. Grain security and increased agricultural production
Grain security has long been a top priority for the central authorities in China. Indeed, “food security” (粮食安全) translates as “grain security” in Chinese. With grain self-sufficiency as the main overarching goal of China’s food security strategy, China has undertaken enormous political and fiscal efforts alongside spatio-temporal changes in China’s grain production patterns to strengthen its grain production. And these efforts have, to some extent, paid off. For instance, between 2003 and 2013, China’s domestic grain production rose from 430 million metric tons to over 600 million metric tons.

To encourage domestic production of grains, the Chinese central authorities have put forward various policies and plans. For instance, in January 2021, the National People’s Congress began drafting a new grain security law. Following this, grain security was also listed in the Chinese central government’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) draft with China aiming to meet an annual grain production target of more than 650 million metric tons. Additionally, under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs’ current Five-Year Agricultural Plan (2021-2025) on crop farming, China will stabilise its annual grain output and beat a target of 700 million metric tons by 2025.

Two key areas of grain security in China are soybeans and corn:

    A) Soybeans
    Soybeans are used in animal food, human food, and industrial products. Meanwhile, soybean oil is the primary edible oil in China, accounting for about 40% of the total oil consumption in the country. Although China is the world’s fourth-biggest soybean grower, the country is also the world’s largest soybean importer. Statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs show that over 80% of domestic consumption relies on imports, reaching more than 100 million metric tons in 2021. The imported soybeans are GM and are mainly processed to produce cooking oil and the meal used in animal feed. Locally produced soybeans are non-GM and are primarily used for direct human consumption.

    However, China’s reliance on foreign soybeans was viewed as a concern during the Trump-era trade war. China is likely to reduce its reliance on soybean imports by increasing domestic production to encourage self-sufficiency. In December 2021, Premier Li said that significant efforts must be undertaken to stabilise grain acreage and increase the production of soybeans and other oil crops. Following this, last month the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced China’s new 14th Five-Year Plan on crop farming. As part of this plan, by the end of 2025 China wants to have produced approximately 23 million tonnes of soybeans, up 40% from current output levels.

    B) Corn
    Although China is the world’s largest grower of corn by area, its total production falls short of its needs. In 2021, the country had to import more than 28 million tons of corn in 2021, up 152% from an annual record of 11.3 million tonnes in 2020. Most corn imports came from the US, Argentina, Brazil, and Ukraine.

    Nonetheless, Beijing may continue to diversify its import sources of corn and encourage domestic production, where possible, to ensure a stable supply. Having launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, China’s interest in diversifying corn imports has grown. Before the launch of the BRI, the United States of America (US) was China’s biggest supplier of corn and accounted for almost all Chinese imports of corn. Nonetheless, this had changed by 2019 when Ukraine became China’s biggest supplier of corn, making up over 80% of corn imports in China for that year.

The implications of a Ukraine-Russia conflict
An external factor to consider is the current tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Much of Ukraine’s most fertile agricultural land is in its eastern regions, which are also vulnerable to a potential Russian attack. In the case of a Russian incursion or land grab, the flow of goods from Ukraine would likely be impacted, including Ukraine’s agricultural exports. As a major grain exporter (e.g. corn, wheat, and rye), Ukraine plays a crucial role in feeding populations worldwide. The implications of a Russian attack may well extend into the countries and regions that depend on Ukraine for food, exacerbating social and political instability as well as leading to food insecurity.

Genetically modified crops – game-changers?
Although China was the first country to grow GM crops commercially, commercialisation has not gone ahead, partly due to significant public opposition to GM food. However, recent moves from the Chinese government suggest that China will, at some stage, approve new regulations to allow the planting of GM seeds to boost the domestic production of these crops.

Announcements from China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs suggest that China is preparing to allow greater use of GM technology in agriculture and also support domestic biotech companies. Recently, the ministry published draft rules outlying registration requirements for herbicides used on GM crops, announced plans to approve the safety of more GM corn varieties produced by domestic companies, and announced plans to approve the safety of more GM corn varieties produced by domestic companies.

Gene-edited plants – another gamechanger?
China is also interested in gene-edited plants. In January this year, the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs China published trial rules for the approval of gene-edited plants, paving the way for faster improvements to crops. Taking into account some of the many pressures China and other countries face, including water quality and quantity issues and climate change impacts alongside urbanisation and shifting demographics, China may also encourage the development of “climate-smart” seeds to help increase domestic production.

At present, the full socio-economic and environmental implications of China’s push to strengthen domestic production, of soybeans and corn, remain unclear. Questions may be asked about China’s climate change commitments, green agenda, and food security. How much water and energy are needed for Chinese farmers to meet these targets? With President Xi having promised that the country will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, how could this impact China’s ambitions of increased domestic soybean and corn productions, while simultaneously trying to satisfy China’s food demand and ensuring that the country’s agricultural systems are environmentally efficient?

Genevieve Donnellon-May is a research assistant with the Institute of Water Policy (IWP) at the National University of Singapore. Her research interests include China, Africa, transboundary governance, and the food-energy-water nexus. Genevieve’s work has been published by The Diplomat and the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum.


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