THE PAPER | China’s Quest for Food Security: Challenges & Policies

For China, the challenge seems to be grave in terms of meeting the food demands of its rapidly increasing population amidst the gradual decline in its agricultural self-sufficiency with its increasing economic development.

By Amrita Jash


Darwinism believes in the ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and thereby, ‘food’ is the essence of the survival of mankind. The lack of availability of food to the rising world population has made ‘food’ a global security concern. In this context, for China, the challenge seems to be grave in terms of meeting the food demands of its rapidly increasing population amidst the gradual decline in its agricultural self-sufficiency with its increasing economic development. The primary challenge for Chinese Government is that of ‘how China can make food a secure commodity’, and so, the top policy priority for the current Chinese Government is that of maintaining food security. China’s policy of ‘Self-Sufficiency’ is thereby, faced with the threat of dependency. In this context, the present article introduces the problem of food security in China based on the available data. It examines the causal factors and analyses China’s concerns and the policies to solve the food predicament.

THE PAPER | China’s Quest for Food Security: Challenges & Policies by Amrita Jash

Keywords: China, Food Security, Self-Sufficiency, Challenges, Policies


China’s rising population supplemented with growing concerns of climate change and urbanization has posed the Chinese Government with a serious predicament of food security. The asymmetry in the rising population to that of arable land makes it pertinent to pose a crucial question- ‘is there enough food to feed the growing Chinese population?’ This non-traditional security problem of food has become a challenging threat concern for China simultaneous with its rapid emergence as a world economy. The key challenge that faces the Chinese Government is that of meeting the food demands of its 1.3 billion people, which in turn poses a grave threat to China’s social stability. Thereby, for China the central objective is ‘how China can make food a secure commodity’, whereby the top policy priority for the Chinese Government is that of maintaining food security. In this attempt, it becomes essential to understand the fundamental concept of food security and then analyze China’s concerns and policies to solve its food security predicament.

The Concept of Food Security:

The sharp increase in global food prices in 2007-2008 brought forth the fear of survival of the world’s population- as to how to feed the population in the future with the gradual deterioration in the agricultural production due to environmental stressors and erratic climatic conditions. This has made the concept of ‘food security’ a fundamental concern for the international system, calling it a global crisis. With rapidly increasing globalization and neo-liberal trade policies, food security has become a stated objective for all countries, where rich or poor, importer or exporter, it has become a vital concern of their agricultural policy.

This is because of the rising threat to the food supply from the natural disasters and the growing population globally. As a result, the demand to supply curve seems to be getting skewed. This skewedness can be mainly attributed to the detrimental effects of the environmental stressors such as pollution of arable land and water, climate change, insufficiency of water (and competitive pressures for water use), deforestation, desertification, and over-fishing among others (McBeath and McBeath 2010: 1), which is challenging the food self-sufficiency.

Food is the essence of human survival and thereby, survival of the nation in international politics. Hence, it is the rising insecurity to agricultural production that is resulting into concerns over ‘food security’. According to the World Food Summit of 2006, food security is said to be attained within nations when the food systems function in a manner that: ‘all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and  nutritious food that meets people’s dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (FAO 2008).

Based on this definition, food security is calibrated on four dimensions: food availability- sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis; food access- having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate food for a nutritious diet); utilization- appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and health care as well as adequate water and sanitation, bringing an importance of non-food inputs in food security; and stability- ensuring that a population, household or individual have access to adequate food at all times, without any risk of losing access to food as a consequence of sudden shocks (e.g. an economic or climatic crisis) or cyclical events (e.g. seasonal food insecurity) (FAO 2006; 2008).  In this vein, food security is argued to be a complex sustainable development issue, linked to health through malnutrition, but also to sustainable economic development, environment, and trade. Thereby, the insecurity of food in the current global dynamics is assessed in the rising concerns over problem of distribution, insufficient production to meet the future needs, global trade and ill-effects of globalization that resulted into persistence of food insecurity and poverty (mainly in rural communities) (World Health Organization).

The impediments that have challenged the dimensions of food security are seem to be caused by a multitude of factors that have made food an ‘insecure commodity’ for the world at large. The causal factors of this insecurity are attributed to be unstable social and political environments that preclude sustainable economic growth, war and civil strife, macroeconomic imbalances in trade, natural resource constraints, poor human resource base, gender inequality, inadequate education, poor health, natural disasters, such as floods and locust infestation, and the absence of good governance (Mwaniki 2006). All these factors have led to either insufficient national food availability or insufficient access to food by households and individuals. It is because the convergence of these multiple factors have affected the agricultural production, thus, making food an ‘insecure’ commodity for human existence. Therefore, it is strongly argued that the scarcity of food has become an issue of global crisis, whereby, the impending challenge is to provide the world’s growing population with a sustainable, secure supply of safe, nutritious, and affordable high-quality food using less land, with lower inputs, and in the context of global climate change, other environmental changes and declining resources.

In resolving the food deficit problem, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) in its reassessment of plan for 2050 concluded that the world will be able to feed a population of 9 billion much as it did when the world successfully dealt with the global population increases from 1 to 2 billion and then to 7 billion during the past eight decades (Global Water Partnership 2013). The primary policy to be adopted in order to meet this objective is that of barring the bio-fuels. As its stated that the greatest potential lies in ‘increasing productivity on existing lands using known technologies and further expanding the technological frontier by investing in agricultural research and development’ (Ibid.).

China's Food Security: Concerns and Policies

In this context, for China which has 23 per cent of world population and a limited seven per cent of the world arable land, food security has become the key objective of the state- trading in grains and policies to obtain self-sufficiency for the nation. China’s lies at the center of global food security challenge. On one end, it draws heavily on world stocks and importing of staples, as its own farms strain to meet its growing middle classes’ who desire for more meat and processed foods. While on the other end, the small-holder farmers who supply most of the food confront continued poverty, as they struggle to raise output in the face of creeping environmental degradation, looming water shortages and the unpredictable effects of climate change (Barthwal-Datta 2013). Hence, these binaries have made ‘food security’ a cornerstone of China’s socio-economic stability.

The asymmetry of cropland with low productivity to that of the population has become a grave concern for the Chinese government. This disparity in the variables prompted Lester Brown (1995) to pose the quintessential question as to ‘Who Will Feed China?’, which initiated a critical debate among scholars as well as Chinese officials. Brown predicted that China would have to import 200 million tons of grain by 2020 as he contended that the stagnating grain production due to reduced arable land, lack of significant productivity grains, and environmental problems such as water insufficiency and large-scale soil erosion would need

China is destined to import massive quantities of grain in coming decades to feed its population (McBeath and McBeath 2010: 4, 46). He also argued that the food shortage in China would severely deplete world food supplies and hurt other developing countries. Thereby, the resource pressures due to shrinkage of arable land, water shortage and accelerating industrialization and urbanization has made ‘adequacy of grain’ [1], an important concern for China’s self-sufficiency. In addressing the pessimistic view of Brown, the State Council of China published the White Paper on ‘The Grain Issues in China’ in 1996 stating that China would take achievement of basic self-sufficiency and utilizing domestic resources as the basic principle for solving its grain problem. It also prioritized producing 95 per cent of the self-sufficiency rate for grain, as then the net import of grain from the world market should be less than five per cent of domestic consumption (Gu and Zhang 2002: 196-197).

Since its reforms in 1978, China adequately managed to maintain a relatively high food self-sufficiency rate. However, China’s robust economic growth and rapid development has posed severe challenges to its food security, thus, making food security a ‘national security issue’. And this complemented with severe resource and environmental constraints, China have reached a critical juncture in maintaining its capacity of self-sufficiency in basic foods. It is found that despite its abundant grain reserves, an estimated 10 percent of the population in China still remain undernourished (Morton 2012). China’s food security is being challenged by a multitude of factors- rising demand, rapid urbanization, scarce natural resources and agricultural labour, and greater risk of food safety and environmental problems.

Thereby, to resolve the food security impediments, China’s policies have aimed at increasing grain self-sufficiency and food availability to households, especially urban households. These policies have included self-sufficiency policies, grain marketing policies, and grain reserve policies (Chen and Duncan 2008: 186). China had initially opted to meet the bulk of its grain demands domestically. But this policy has undergone a change with the increasing imports in food supplies. According to the “No 1 document” issued by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee and the State Council in January 2014, have emphasized on relying mainly on domestic grain production, the country will make good use of the international markets for agricultural products as a complement to domestic supply (Xinhua 2014).

The document further states that with this policy, the extent of China’s grain sufficiency will be relaxed and the import structure will be further optimized. This policy is seen to allow China to make better use of the international market vis-à-vis the advantages of the country’s agricultural sector (Fan 2014). Under this document, the emphasis have been laid on to- first, to invest about US$630 billion in water conservancy in the next 10 years to combat increasing water scarcity- by implementing institution and policy reforms to improve water-use efficiency and secondly, to focus on innovation in agricultural science and technology and boosting agricultural productivity (2011 Food Policy Report). Apart from conserving food domestically, China is said to have purchased and leased large tracts of farmland in countries like Algeria and Zimbabwe to produce crops for export, in order to supplement China’s diminishing rice bowl (Chan 2011). With these policies of the Government in terms of full support for agricultural production, tight control on land use and some strategic use of the world market, China has succeeded in making some improvements in its national food security. The policies have made some success in catering to the rising needs and demands of the Chinese population. The key driving forces of this success have been said to be China’s household responsibility system, which distributed land equally to rural households; the application of science and technology to agriculture; investing in agricultural land and water; and market reform (2011 Food Policy Report).

To ensure its national food security, the Chinese Government has made ‘self-sufficiency of grain’ as its strategic policy whereby, the import of food items has been limited. This governmental policy has achieved some benefits, as China’s grain outputs reached 602 million tons in 2013. And according to the recently released China Food and Nutrition Development Program (2014-2020), it is estimated that by the end of 2020 China’s grain output will stabilize at 550 million tons or more, which is mainly seen as a ‘bottom line goal’ (People’s Daily Online 2014). While China’s food imports in 2013 ranged to 15 million tons in grain imports and 60 million tons in imported soybeans. This rise in imports is reasoned as Zhang Hui, deputy director of the development planning department under the Ministry of Agriculture, attributed to the growing domestic demands of food diversity and quality and to the relatively lower prices of grain in the international market (Ibid). But despite these measures, food security in China still remains an uncertain factor. Thus, China needs to achieve a comprehensive policy to secure its food self-sufficiency.


Therefore, it can be concluded that maintaining food security has become the top priority of the Chinese Government. To gain stability, China needs to implement better farming practices, reduced wastage of resources, greater environmental management and increased mechanization. Offshore sourcing of food both in terms of agricultural investment as well as global food market, will help to ensure China greater food security. China’s main policy should be to adhere to the principle that agriculture is the foundation of the national economy. Food production needs to be made more efficient and greater investment to be laid on education, research, innovation science and technology. And that China’s quest to achieve food security will largely depend on the government’s efficient handling of the short and long term environmental stressors and climate challenges. Thus, China needs a comprehensive policy agenda to achieve food security, as its internal food production would not be able to keep up with its growing population.

About The Author:

Amrita Jash -K-5665-2015 is Editor-in-Chief of IndraStra Global and is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, INDIA.

End Notes:

[1] In China, the ‘adequacy of grain’ is the most important component of food security. the quantity indicators to China’s food security is measured in three-folds: per capita grain, total quantity of grain and regional grain production in China. While in quality, there is rising demand for organic green food free of contaminants.


1. Barthwal-Datta, Monika. 2013. ‘Food Security in Asia: Challenges, Policies and Implications’, Adelphi Books,

2. Brown, Lester. 1995. Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call From a Small Planet, Washington DC: Worldwatch Institute.

3. Chan, Catherine. 2011. ‘China’s Food Insecurity’, The Diplomat, 20 April,

4. Chen, Chunlai and Ron Duncan. 2008. Agriculture and Food Security in China: What Effect WTO Accession and Regional Trade Agreements?, Australia: Asia Pacific Press, The Australian University.

5. Fan, Shenggen. 2014. ‘Toward Food Secure China’, China Daily, 21 January,

6. FAO. 2006. ‘Food Security’, Policy Brief, Issue 2, June,

7. FAO. 2008. ‘An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security’,

8. 2011 Food Policy Report. ‘Regional Developments: Food Policy Taking Shape at the Local Level’,

9. Global Water Partnership. 2013. ‘Water and Food Security: Experiences in India and China’, Technical Focus Paper

10. Gu, S. Z. and Y. J. Zhang. 2002. ‘Food Security in China’, Area Studies-China: Regional Sustainable Development Review, Vol. I, 192-211.

11. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. 1996. White Paper: The Grain Issue in China,

12. McBeath, Jenifer H. and Jerry McBeath. 2010. Environmental Change and Food Security in China, New York: Springer.

13. Morton, Katherine. 2012. ‘Learning by Doing: China’s Role in the Global Governance of Food Security’, Research Centre for Chinese Politics and Business: Indiana University, RCCPB Working Paper, No. 30.

14. Mwaniki, Angela. 2006. ‘Achieving Food Security in Africa: Challenges and Issues’, Cornell University, U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory,

15. People’s Daily Online. 2014. ‘China will not import large quantities of food,’ 21 February, (accessed on 4 May 2014).

16. World Health Organization. ‘Food Security’,

17. Xinhua. 2014. ‘Maintaining food security again top priority for China’, 20 January,

Publication Details:

Jash , Amrita. "THE PAPER | China’s Quest for Food Security: Challenges & Policies by Amrita Jash" IndraStra Global 01, no. 11 (2015): 0421.
|ISSN 2381-3652| doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.2064030



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IndraStra Global: THE PAPER | China’s Quest for Food Security: Challenges & Policies
THE PAPER | China’s Quest for Food Security: Challenges & Policies
For China, the challenge seems to be grave in terms of meeting the food demands of its rapidly increasing population amidst the gradual decline in its agricultural self-sufficiency with its increasing economic development.
IndraStra Global
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