Food Security: A Formidable Foe for a Nation of 1.3 Billion

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Farmers in Yi County, part of China’s Anhui Province. Photo by Samuel Corwin.

Everywhere I go in Shanghai, there are convenience stores, restaurants, and food stands offering both traditional and Western bites as far as the eye can see. I’ve never been more than a three-minute walk away from a meal or snack at any given moment. Which is why I was surprised to learn that food security is an issue that’s plaguing China.

China’s population now numbers over 1.3 billion people. Following its opening-up policies in 1978, the country witnessed unprecedented economic growth. A rapid expansion of the middle class has accompanied this economic prosperity, enabling Chinese citizens to alter their diets. Historically grain-based, the Chinese diet is now incorporating increasing amounts of meat, eggs, and dairy. Chinese citizens are not only eating different foods, but more of them—the caloric intake of the average Chinese citizen has more than doubled in the last 50 years.

Only 11.3 percent of China’s land is arable, so growing enough food to feed the population is no longer possible. To further complicate the task of farming, rural inhabitants who typically work in agriculture are rapidly moving to large cities in search of better economic opportunities. Currently, over 50 percent of the country’s population resides in cities, with over 300 million migrants moving to cities in the last 20 years. By 2030, demographers project that 70 percent of China’s citizens, or roughly one billion people, will live in cities.

Yu Bin, director of macroeconomic research at the State Council Development Research Center, says, “China has found it impossible to grow all of the food it needs and has consequently formed closer ties with the world food market.” Following China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2001, trade agreements have rendered food imports easier and cheaper to receive.

Among the country’s imports are fruit, milk, meat, soybeans, corn, eggs, oilseeds, and fish. In 2014, fruit imports alone reached $9.19 billion, a 6.3 percent increase from the year before. China imports more food from the United States than from any other country, with agricultural exports from the United States to China doubling between 2008 and 2012. Other countries that export significant amounts of food to China include Thailand, Indonesia, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Malaysia.

The Chinese government has realized incredible economic success in recent decades. However, for the country with the largest population, this has presented challenges. Although the government seeks to produce all of its food domestically, it will need to continue relying on imports to feed its growing population

Samuel Corwin is a student at Duke University. He is currently studying abroad in Shanghai, China.  

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