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The Very Hungry Dragon: Meat-ing China’s Self-sufficiency Targets for Dairy and Protein

MELBOURNE, Australia, Mar 1 2022 (IPS) - Food security has long been a high priority for the Chinese central government and has been linked to China’s national security in recent years. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs recently released a national five-year plan under which China will seek to maintain a target to produce 95 percent of the protein domestically until 2025: China aims to become self-sufficient in poultry and eggs, 85 percent self-sufficient for beef and mutton, 70 percent for dairy, and 95 percent self-sufficient in pork. These targets intersect with many of the Chinese central government’s current aims to meet the growing demand for protein and dairy, safeguard food security, and other major policies.

Genevieve Donnellon-May

Since the 21st century, global protein consumption has risen and is projected to increase. This is also the case for China which has an insatiable appetite for meat. Today, China is estimated to consume 28% of the world’s meat, including half of the world’s pork.

China is also the world’s fourth-largest dairy producer and the second-largest in Asia. However, it is still the largest importer of dairy products.

Dual circulation and self-sufficiency to safeguard food security

Increasing self-sufficiency in protein and dairy fits in with Beijing’s “dual circulation” development strategy and food security aim which seek greater self-reliance, including in agricultural production, to reduce external uncertainties.

Higher grain demand to feed China’s livestock

To achieve the self-sufficiency targets in protein, China will likely increase its animal feed. Currently, China holds significant quantities of the world’s grain reserves. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, by mid-2022, China is expected to have 69 percent of the world’s maize (corn) reserves and 37 percent of its soybeans. As an official from China’s National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration noted recently, supply in the domestic grain market is “fully guaranteed” while grain reserves are at a “historical high level”.

China’s push for greater self-sufficiency in protein and dairy may result in even greater imports of grains, potentially resulting in higher global food prices and China controlling a greater share of the global livestock feed. However, the Chinese central authorities are further encouraging domestic production through a new grain security law, annual grain production targets, planting acreage targets, and the expansion of growing areas.


Aside from outbreaks of African Swine Fever, China is also facing many other pressures, leaving domestic food production unable to maintain current lifestyles and consumption habits. For instance, China is grappling with land, energy, and water insecurity issues. Such concerns are compounded by climate change impacts, extreme weather events, a smaller rural workforce, and shifting demographics. Noting China’s climate change commitments and green agenda, how much water and energy are needed for Chinese farmers to meet these targets? To what extent could the new self-sufficiency targets hinder China from reducing its carbon emissions?

Potential solutions

Cultivated (lab-grown) meat

One potential (partial) solution is the domestic production of cultivated meat. Lab-grown meat aims to overturn traditional animal agriculture by replacing slaughterhouses with laboratories. It could help meet growing consumer demand for meat while avoiding diseases, antibiotics, growth hormones, and greenhouse gases associated with livestock farming.

Despite regulatory approval for the commercial sale of cultivated meat in China having not yet been given, other alternatives (e.g. plant-based meat) are already available in China. Additionally, the inclusion of cultivated meat and “future foods” for the first time in the recently released five-year plan from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs suggests that regulatory approval may soon be granted.

Smart farming and agricultural technology (agtech)

Another potential (partial) solution is smart farming to increase both the quality and quantity of agricultural produce while optimising the human labour required by production. It is already in place in various parts of China, including in Heilongjiang Province, Chongqing Municipality, and Zhejiang Province.

Expanding smart farming practices and agtech would intersect with China’s other major aims, including agricultural modernisation and the national transportation networking planning outline (2021-2035). This may also reduce concerns brought on by the labour shortage while also meeting growing food demands.

Genetically modified (GM) crops

To meet increased demand for animal feed, the Chinese government may consider the commercial planting of GM crops. Although commercialisation has not been approved due to public opposition to GM food. Nonetheless, the country’s top policymakers have urged progress in biotech breeding. Announcements from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs further suggest that China is preparing to allow greater use of GM technology in agriculture.

Achieving greater self-sufficiency in meat and dairy is ambitious and intersects with many of China’s other significant policies. Increasing domestic production and reducing reliance on exporting countries also means that millions of tonnes of meat may be imported by other countries, potentially affecting both global market supplies and prices. However, these self-sufficiency targets may encounter difficulties from external factors, such as the higher cost of fertilisers, which could add to production costs.

Innovative solutions and technological developments in China, including lab-grown meat and other alternative proteins (e.g. insect-based ingredients and plant protein) may also help to satisfy consumers’ growing demand and domestic production. If regulatory approval is granted, China may become the world’s leader in this area, further supporting domestic production by establishing ‘agricultural Silicon Valley hubs’ for research and development. Nonetheless, concerns over the sustainability of innovative solutions and food safety may need to be addressed.

Genevieve Donnellon-May is a research assistant with the Institute of Water Policy (IWP) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Her work has been published by The Diplomat, Inter-Press Service, and the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum.


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