CSR 2018: China’s Food Security Challenges

by Joniel Cha
MA Candidate, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS

Shu Xinguo grows corn in a remote village in Henan province in northern China, but dry weather in summer 2017 coupled with lack of irrigation and water supply stunted Shu’s production. Shu’s struggle is exemplified in greater China, which faces a tug of war between farms that help feed the nation, and industry and city-dwellers with resources and finances in parched northern cities. Yu Hequn complained that industries and cities have been drawing underground water as deep as possible, which took away water from farming. Sinkholes have been reported throughout northern provinces, and water shortage emerges as a priority concern. The CCP’s solution is to build three massive aqueducts to divert the water at an estimated cost of $76 billion, also known as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project. Qiu Huanguang, a professor at Renmin University in the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, noted that as the country’s economy develops, industries are using more water, and the competition will become even more fierce. According to a report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the OECD, China lost 6.2 percent of its farmland between 1997 and 2008. China’s 260 million rural households work 120 million hectares of farmland, making the size of the average plot per rural family less than half a hectare, claims Zhong Funing, head of the International Research Center for Food and Agricultural Economics at Nanjing Agricultural University. Being able to grow your own food is a luxury.

China’s Food Crisis

Rural development remains a top priority in every National First Policy Document over the past decade. The CCP leadership has announced to create an ecological civilization that is environmentally sustainable. More food need must be produced—sustainably and without environmental degradation on soil, air, water, and biodiversity. The drive for increased food production has had a significant impact on the environment, and the deterioration in ecosystem quality due to historic and current levels of pollution will compromise the food production system in China.

China faces a food crisis due to contamination of air, water, and soil; drought and water shortages; and growing food demand and changing food preferences. Sixty percent of groundwater is polluted and demand is projected to exceed supply by twenty-five percent by 2030. China feeds 20 percent of the world’s population with only 6.5 percent of global renewable water resources and 9 percent of arable land. China’s increasingly urbanized and wealthy population is driving a growing and changing demand for food, which requires a significant increase in agricultural productivity and sustainable use of natural resources and exacerbates China’s land and water resources.

Contamination of Air, Water, and Soil

China’s agricultural sector both contributes to environmental pollution and is impacted by it. Over 40 percent of land is degraded and 20 percent of agricultural land is contaminated with toxins. Crops and meat are contaminated from water and land pollution caused by overuse of low-cost nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers. These have been widely applied to soils throughout China in an effort to increase agricultural productivity. The overuse of mineral fertilizer has resulted in serious impacts in the aquatic environment as phosphorus and nitrate are leached from soils, affecting growth of eutrophic lakes and red tides in coastal seas.

Ammonia and nitrogen oxide emissions have increased across agriculture, contributing to global climate change and hemispheric air pollution, thereby negatively impacting crop productivity. Gray water irrigation, though an effective method to alleviate the shortage of water resources, is one of the main sources of heavy metal pollution in farmland soils and river water. Mining and smelting, sludge reuse, and fertilizer application have deposited large amounts of heavy metals on farmland soil. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides may ensure adequate food supply but their (excessive) application exacerbates the environmental deterioration. Both cyanotoxin and nitrate are difficult to remove by conventional water treatment processes, and they produce adverse effects on human health especially in rural areas. Sewage irrigation is an effective measure to solve agricultural water tensions and promote food production, but China lacks effective regulations on sewage irrigation and supervision (Zhang et al., 2015). China must take steps to preserve the health of the land and ecosystem.

Drought and Ozone

Ensuring global food security requires a sound understanding of climate and environmental impacts on crop productivity. The combination of drought and tropospheric ozone (O3) on China’s crop yield led to an annual mean reduction of crop yield by 10.0% or 55 million tons per year in China from1981 to 2010. The largest crop yield losses occurred in northern China, an area prone to droughts, which will only be exasperated due to climate change in the future. It is critical to reduce tropospheric ozone levels to secure crop production and cope with increasing frequency and severity of extreme climate events such as droughts.

Looming water shortages in China represent a serious threat to food security because of the highly uneven distribution of surface water resources nationally and the rising demands from irrigation, population increase, and rapid urbanization. Population growth, urbanization, industrialization, income and consumption growth, and changes in lifestyle—pose greater challenges to maintaining food security in China. Cultivated land has undergone substantial loss due to industrial and urban expansion. Desertification, secondary salinity, loss of agricultural use, deforestation, grassland degradation, and the loss of wetlands comprise the prominent long-term land degradation processes in China.

Growing Demand and Changing Dietary Preferences

China is entering a new era of rapid urbanization, which serves not only as the country’s biggest driver of economic growth, but also poses a threat to food security. The population is expected to grow by an additional 60 million in the next 15 years. Growing food demand, coupled with increasing transport and storage costs, will place increased pressure on the food market, resulting in escalating food and feed prices. The lack of access to affordable food can provoke political instability. Changing dietary preferences are reflected in a shift from staple grains to higher-value horticultural and animal products (livestock and aquaculture). In turn, China increasingly imports oilseeds, soybeans, edible oils, and dairy products. The pressure on food production has stimulated heated debates on whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be widely grown in China due to concerns surrounding the potential human and environmental health risks.

Current Efforts under Way

According to the Dynamic Land Ecosystem Model (DLEM-Ag) scenario experimentation, China’s crop yield is highly vulnerable to climate variability and climate extremes. China must develop practical adaptation and mitigation strategies for minimizing potential adverse impacts of climate effects on food crop production. More drought-tolerant and O3-tolerant cultivars will alleviate food shortages that result from droughts and air pollution. Optimized management practices should be adopted to increase water and nitrogen-use efficiency. The Direct Farm (DF) program initiated in 2008 represents one of the government’s major initiatives to modernize the distribution of fresh fruit and vegetables and improve food safety. Under the DF program, participating national and international retailers are expected to establish more direct procurement relationships with farm communities. The intended effect is to lead to improved quality, safety, and traceability. Additionally, the Ministry of Agriculture established farm-based certification to improve land use.

Food security in China is under threat as limited arable land availability, deteriorated soil quality, water scarcity, water pollution, climate change, and intensive reliance on fertilizers and pesticides have become widespread issues, which will begin to limit or reduce agricultural production.

Recommendations Moving Forward

While solutions have been suggested, the right combination must be implemented to sustain China’s food and environmental security. The CCP’s mandate to create an ecological civilization emphasizes the need to adopt appropriate environmental management measures and interventions, and to undertake restoration of currently degraded environments. The CCP is moving away from purely economic-driven growth towards a more balanced and sustainable development that supports broader environmental and social contexts. Potential policies the CCP could enact moving forward include the following: fund GMO research and development projects, and subsidize community-supported and organic agriculture; institute comprehensive environmental system management and create the global Food Nexus Organization; and build rural infrastructure.

Farms are changing crops and embracing technology to conserve irrigation, industries are being forced to clean up effluent, citizens are taking to social media to report offenders, and the government is adapting a food security policy to rely on imports of water-hungry crops. The CCP has divided its approach into four components: market controls, improving farm efficiency, curbing land loss, and imports. Technology is key to balancing the food equation.

The CCP introduced a water resource tax trial to stem the reduction in groundwater and a water-rights trading system.

Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. works with local governments to encourage the spread of sponge cities – underground reserves and rooftop pools that catch and store rainwater.

Potential policies the CCP could enact moving forward include the following:

  1. Fund GMO research and development projects, and Subsidize community-supported and organic agriculture: Integrate research programs on environmental sustainability and food security. Develop best practices for the construction and maintenance of water conservation facilities such as reservoir, river, lake, canal, and irrigation networks, precision farming systems and agricultural technologies, and improved natural vegetation and wetland conservation. Expand and connect networks for technology transfer and support centers at different levels to strengthen science communication and knowledge exchange with local stakeholders, managers, and farmers to provide real-time agronomic assistance and technical support. Economic assessments indicate that the impacts of GMO food are greater than public research expenditure. Small and poor farmers may benefit from GMO crops due to higher vitamin content and reduced use of pesticides, which can contribute to improved health. Poor farmers in China cultivate a larger area of GMO crops than small farmers in any other developing country. Chinese consumers have higher acceptance and willingness to buy GMO food than residents of other countries (Huang et al., 2006). GMO crops are more drought- and insect-resistant than traditional ones, and therefore reduce the water and fertilizer intensiveness of agriculture. Furthermore, by reducing the amount of water pumped for irrigation, GMO crops create energy savings. GMO crops offer three key benefits. First, they reduce water consumption and relieve water scarcity stress. Second, the resilience of GMO crops will ensure steady agricultural production. Third, increased yields will generate greater revenue for farmers, thereby increasing their incomes and reducing their reliance on government subsidies.
  2. Institute comprehensive environmental system management and Create the global Food Nexus Organization: China should champion the development of a global Food Nexus Organization (FNO) that enables diverse research expertise to engage in bottom-up collaborations, manages key issues of local engagement with stakeholders (i.e. farmers) around the world, creates scientific careers, and provides necessary resources. The FNO would serve as sustainable water-energy-food ecosystem governance and a center for data collecting and sharing. Due to the global food security issue, China has the opportunity to become a role model as a new global player, especially for other emerging economies. Leverage partnerships with the United States and Germany through the China Agricultural University, with the UK through the Newton Fund, and with the EU through the China-EU H2020 research projects.
  3. Build rural infrastructure: Partner with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Overseas Private Investment Corporation to build rural infrastructure. The CCP must delegate local governments to operate and maintain land and water use to ensure quality production of agriculture. The central government should roll out pilot programs and incent local governments with grants to reward success.
water2.PNGBristow, Michael. “China Villagers Moved to Quench the Urban Thirst.” 3 Mar 2010. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8545321.stm
waterFinancial Times – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/d5b9172e-e8ee-11de-a756-00144feab49a.html.

About the author:
Joniel Cha is a second year Masters of International Relations student at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) concentrating in International Economics and Energy, Resources & Environment. He worked on community development projects including agriculture in Eurasia for 11 years and traveled to China a couple times to work on China’s energy development and policies on the South China Sea.

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