Understanding China’s Food Priorities For 2024
By Asia Society Policy Institute Research Associate, Genevieve Donnellon-May
For decades, safeguarding food security has been a critical priority for China’s central government. Beijing has sought to strengthen its focus on food security through increased agricultural production and diversification of imports, and President Xi Jinping’s recent comments signal continued concerns at the top about China’s food security. Following the approval of the New Grain Security Law last month and ahead of the release of the No. 1 Policy Document (the country’s rural blueprint), there are already several hints regarding what the Chinese central authorities could prioritize in terms of food security for this year and beyond, based on the recently convened the Central Rural Work Conference in Beijing in December 2023.
President Xi’s Role in Promoting Domestic Food Security and Related Policies
The continued role of Xi, China’s “core leader,” in promoting efforts to safeguard food security should not go unnoticed. In 2021, he emphasized that China’s challenges and risks should be addressed with the country’s strategic needs in mind while also calling for more robust measures to guarantee stable agricultural production and supply and steady growth in both the industry and in rural areas. “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 China Central Television. Xi has also called for efforts to safeguard grain acreage and protect farmland to encourage domestic production.
While highlighting the necessity of ensuring food security, in 2022, Xi provided reassurances to the public and international community that China will not face imminent risk of grain shortages. The Chinese government publicly pointed to the country’s bumper grain harvests and massive grain reserve systems. Although China has not released details regarding its stockpiles, officials from the country’s National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration noted that the supply in the domestic grain market is “fully guaranteed,” while grain reserves are at a “historical high level.”
Most recently, in his 2023 New Year Address, Xi declared, “Despite a global food crisis, we have secured a bumper harvest for the 19th year in a row, putting us in a stronger position to ensure the food supply of the Chinese people.”
Maintaining Grain Production and Grain Security
The importance of grain production and supply was reaffirmed at the 2023 Central Rural Work Conference. Emphasis was placed on ensuring the stability of grain production as well increasing grain output per unit and also implementing mechanisms between major grain producing provinces and those in need of grain supply. By doing so, Beijing expects grain output for 2024 to remain above 650 million metric tons.
Beijing’s continued focus on grain security reflects its food security priorities. Grain security, an integral part of safeguarding China’s food security, has been the government’s main concern in the past several decades. Indeed, the word for “food security” (粮食安全) literally translates as “grain security” in Chinese.
Until the mid-1990s, the Chinese central government’s overarching goal was to achieve complete self-sufficiency in grain. However, given China’s arable land and water constraints alongside increasing food demand, the grain self-sufficiency target level since 1996 has been reduced to 95 percent or higher.
To encourage the domestic production of grains, Beijing has put forward various policies and plans to support farmers and the modernization of farming in China. Since 2003, the Chinese government has implemented a policy of “four reductions and four subsidies” to encourage grain production, while various taxes (such as an agricultural tax and livestock tax) have been removed.
Furthermore, China has also undertaken enormous political and fiscal efforts alongside spatio-temporal changes in the country’s grain production patterns to strengthen its grain production. And these efforts have, to some extent, paid off. Between 2003 and 2013, China’s domestic grain production rose from 430 million metric tons to over 600 million metric tons, much of which came from the country’s grain baskets – the mid-and-lower Yangtze River region, the Northeast China Plain, and the North China Plain.
More recently, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in 2022, the country’s grain output reached 686.53 billion kilograms (or 686.53 million metric tons), an increase of 0.5 percent from 2021. It marked the eighth consecutive year that China’s total grain production has exceeded 650 billion kg. Furthermore, cultivated land has increased by 0.6 percent year-on-year to 1.775 billion mu (approximately 118.33 million hectares), while per unit output of grain reached 387 kg per mu.
Although self-sufficiency remains at the core of China’s food security strategy, the focus has shifted from achieving that goal in grains (rice, wheat, corn, soybean, and root tubers such as potatoes and coarse grains) to ensuring basic self-sufficiency in cereals (wheat, rice, and corn) and absolute security in staples (rice and wheat). Since 2014, the overriding objective of China’s food security has been to safeguard the country’s rice and wheat supplies.
These changes are further reflected in the Chinese central government’s national plans. Under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs’ current Five-Year Agricultural Plan (2021–2025) on crop farming, China will seek to stabilize its annual grain production, to exceed a target of 700 million metric tons to ensure grain security, and also increase domestic soybean production to 23 million tons by 2025. To support these aims, the plan sets out grain farmland and planting acreage targets for rice, wheat, and corn. For example, China will aim to keep its grain farmland above 1.75 billion mu (approximately 117 million hectares) while planting acreage of grains, and staple grains must stay above 1.4 billion mu (93.8 million hectares) and over 800 million mu (53.6 million hectares), respectively.
Role of Local Governments in Safeguarding Food Security
A greater role for local governments in safeguarding food security has been highlighted as another top priority for China’s policymakers. At last year’s Central Rural Work Conference, the conference media release noted that “it is crucial to hold both [Chinese Communist] Party committees and governments accountable for food security.”
This fits into Beijing’s ongoing emphasis on increasing domestic food supply, both through stockpiles and storage and by increasing the amount of agricultural land. The Chinese central government seeks to achieve this through the implementation of various policies. In 1990, China established national grain stockpiles, which “coordinate central state reserves and local reserves, and complement government and corporate inventories with each other.”
Since then, China has continued to implement various policies to safeguard food security, including by putting more pressure on provincial governors and party secretaries to “shoulder the responsibility of food security.” For example, from 2015 all provincial governors have been required to take full responsibility for food security. More recently, in 2023, China announced strict performance evaluations on local government officials to hold them accountable for protecting farmland and ensuring sufficient grain production. At a State Council press conference in May 2023, a spokesperson stated that cadres at provincial-level governments are at risk of failing their appraisals, should they fail to meet requirements on farmland size, grain output, and crop structure.
Another key topic discussed at the recent Central Rural Economic Conference was increasing agricultural yields. In recent years, the Chinese central government has paid increasing attention to seed security and the development of the Chinese seed sector, including seed breeding technologies. The importance of having reliable supplies of improved seeds for farmers has been particularly highlighted in China, where seeds are high on the policy agenda.
The seed is the first link in the entire agricultural production chain. Availability and access to seeds are essential to farmers, particularly in developing countries or areas affected by droughts and other disasters, giving rise to the concept of “seed security.”
With the importance of agricultural security in China being elevated to an unprecedented level, seed security is among the top priorities. Seeds are considered a weak link by the Chinese central government due to China’s reliance on international seed companies. Moreover, growing certain agricultural products can be much more expensive in China than in other countries like the United States; the yields can be much lower too. Data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization shows that corn and soybean yields in China are about half of those of many exporting countries in the Americas, which have relatively high yields per hectare. When it comes to corn, for instance, the largest corn harvest in 2019 in the United States was 2.58 metric tons per mu, whereas Chinese yields only reached 1.66 tons per mu.
Given that seeds are the source of the entire agricultural production chain, the Chinese central government is keen to improve the quality and efficiency of domestically-produced seeds to better shield the country’s food safety against external uncertainties and supply chain disruptions. This is reflected in a number of recent national plans and conferences. For instance, at the Central Economic Work Conference in December 2020, food security was listed as a major priority. This meeting, attended by Xi, referred to food security as a “problem of seeds and arable land” and emphasized that the key to ensuring food security lies in storing grain, while also pointing out the importance of creating a national food security and industrial belt to safeguard national food security. In another demonstration of the importance of seeds, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Tang Renjian likened seeds to the “computer chips” of agriculture.
In April 2022, Xi called for working toward food self-sufficiency and developing the country’s seed industry, noting that China’s food security could only be safeguarded when seed resources are firmly held in its own hands. More recently, in April 2023, Xi underscored the need to diversify China’s food production to build up the seed industry to help support larger efforts to safeguard the country’s food security. Xi’s comments fit in the broader context of seed and food security, issues that will only continue to grow in importance. There is rising food insecurity worldwide and a looming global food crisis brought on by factors like a worsening geopolitical environment and growing vulnerability of the global food supply chains.
Agricultural Innovation and Genetically Modified Seeds
These ambitions are additionally reflected in various national plans, where improved seeds are the basis for stable and increased production of grains and other crops. In 2021, the No.1 Central Document notes that the seed industry is “the foundation of agricultural modernization.” Similarly, the No.1 Central Document from 2022 noted technological breakthroughs in seeds, with an emphasis on supporting seed development, including biotechnology seeds, as part of efforts to increase domestic agricultural production.
Further linking seed security to China’s food security and increased agricultural production ambitions, the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) called for enhancing seed breeding technology to help improve international competitiveness of Chinese seed enterprises as well as highlighting the importance of constructing a Chinese seed bank. The Action Plan for Seed Industry Revitalization, released in 2021, and the implementation of a revised Seed Law in 2022, further emphasizes the importance of the country’s vitalization of and innovation in the seed sector.
China’s imperative to increase local agricultural production includes the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds. Despite being an early adopter of GM crops, commercialization in China has stalled, partly due to public opposition to GM food. Although commercialization plans for GM crops remain implicit, they align with China’s broader food security strategy and local production plans.
To this end, Beijing consistently emphasizes the need for increased local production, evident in policy measures, targets, and five-year plans. Recent efforts, like draft rules on registration requirements for herbicides used on GM crops, approval of the first domestically developed GM crop strains (two corns and one soybean) in 10 years in late 2019, and the 14th Five-Year Plan on Bioeconomy (2021-2025), highlight the government’s commitment to agricultural biotechnology.
This is further reinforced by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs’ announcement in early 2023 that it will continue to expand the scope of pilot projects for the commercialization of GM corn and soybeans.
More broadly, these efforts fit into Beijing’s continued interest in innovation in agriculture. In January 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released the five-year agricultural plan (2021-2025). The plan, which is linked to the National Medium and Long-term Science and Technology Development Plan (2021-2035) and 14th Five-Year Plan for Promoting Agricultural and Rural Modernization, included a section on “creating future foods” (未来食品制造) for the first time. This section referred to lab-grown meats and plant-based eggs as examples of future foods, which will be part of China’s blueprint for food security going forward.
Protecting Arable Land
An additional key priority is protecting arable land, given it is “the lifeline of agriculture.” Beijing has given increasing attention to this task in recent years. Notably, the outcomes of the Central Economic Rural Conference from December 2020 were supported also by the State Council and CCP Central Committee’s policy statement, which focused solely on food security in February 2021. This statement demanded that the provincial authorities maintain a minimum national level “red line” of 120 million hectares of cultivated farmland to protect limited land resources by avoiding further land degradation.
In addition, Beijing has established a National High-Standard Farmland Construction Plan (2021–2030) to increase the amount of arable land for farming and increase crop yields per acre. The plan aims to reach a national target of 71.75 million hectares of “high-standard farmland” by 2025 before reaching 80 million hectares by 2030.
More broadly, to improve the country’s land and soil quality concerns to increase local agricultural production, numerous measures have been introduced by the Chinese government. These include, but are not limited to, a soil and underground-water pollution prevention plan, various planting acreage targets, national soil surveys, establishment of the river chief system, and stricter water quality guidelines. As Xi and other top Chinese officials have publicly noted, these efforts will help ensure that “Chinese bowls are mainly filled with Chinese food.”
Amid an increasingly complex geopolitical environment and multifaceted domestic challenges, China remains steadfast in maintaining efforts to safeguard food security. Given the Russia-Ukraine conflict, increasingly erratic climatic events, supply chain disruptions, uncertainties regarding the global food supply markets, and other factors have impacted global food supply chains, the importance of food security both at present and in the future will only continue to grow. For Beijing, food security is and will likely remain a national top priority, necessary to meet the demands of its population as it is key to socioeconomic stability and also a part of national security.
This article originally appeared in The Diplomat.