CSR 2019: China’s Strategies in Pursuing Global Food Security

By Anna Woods


Access to food is one of humankind’s most fundamental needs and rights. Population growth, natural disasters, climate change, and conflict all throw this access into question. If we proceed from the standpoint that international organizations and regimes have the potential to assist in governing and mitigating problems that apply globally, global governance of food security is one of the most obvious, primary, and pressing areas in which cooperation between states is needed.

From the 1870s onwards, we have become a globalized world with international food flows. In this context, if a state cannot produce sufficient food for its population, it can acquire this from abroad through aid or trade. Food insecurity arises when a state cannot either produce enough domestically or access the world market. Global governance institutions seek to help moderate the volatility of markets so that abrupt price changes do not cause harm, incentivize states to remove policies which distort availability of food on markets, provide freely available information, assist with development of agriculture in countries which struggle with reliable access to food, and provide emergency relief aid where necessary.

China presents a puzzle for global food security governance. It is not a typical less developed country (LDC) beneficiary of food security programs – it is in fact the third largest contributor to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).[i] At the same time, it is the country with the largest population in the world— 1.386 billion, making up 18.4 percent of world population, yet it only possesses 9 percent of the world’s arable land, which is a hard limitation on its capacity to produce enough food for its people.[ii] As more and more of its population leave poverty and enter the middle class (in 2005, 70.7 percent of its population lived on less than $5.50 per day – the upper middle income poverty line; this dropped to 31.5 percent in 2014) demand for greater variety and greater animal protein will be a continuing force in lifting demand for different food products.[iii] As of 2017, China was self-sufficient in “grains” but a net importer of the staples of meat, dairy, soybeans, and oilseeds.[iv]

Given China’s unique food security situation, this paper seeks to understand how China approaches food security as an issue for global governance, so as to infer how this approach may impact the food security of the rest of the world. This paper concludes that, while China does engage in the main global food security governance regimes (barring one, the Group of Seven) and does so in an active way so as to advance its interests, it is not satisfied that engaging in multilateral fora alone can safeguard a resilient and reliable food supply for its population. Therefore, it also pursues strategies outside of these fora, which are initiating food security governance arrangements in Asia, Latin America and the BRICS, as well as acquiring investments overseas of arable land and food production facilities (often described as “land grabs”). The diversification of strategies has the ultimate goal of an extremely resilient food supply for the Chinese population.

Food Regimes and Global Food Security Governance

Food regime scholars aim to conceptualize how food flows around the world. One of the leading scholars, Harriet Friedmann, defines the food regime as the “rule-governed structure of production and consumption of food on a world scale.”[v] This definition of governance does not require formal rules or international agreements. Instead, “implicit rules evolved through practical experiences and negotiations.”[vi] Such negotiations and evolving practices eventually bring about “a stable pattern of production and power.”[vii] In food regime analysis, a powerful state or non-state actor must act as the driver of this pattern.

The first food regime was the colonial-diasporic food regime, lasting from 1870 to the 1930s.[viii] At the time, Britain and other European countries held relative power in the world system as colonizers. Industrial production was expanding in Europe relative to agricultural production. This first food regime was hence a set of relationships between the European colonizers and their colonies, where tropical, livestock, and grain products flowed from the colonies to the colonizers.[ix]

The end of the Second World War brought about the mercantile-industrial food regime.[x]As colonial relationships broke down, the second food regime centered around the United States, which played a new role in international food flows. The U.S. exported its agricultural surpluses to an “informal empire” of postcolonial states on the “strategic perimeters” of the Cold War.[xi] Through these flows, the U.S. shored up support against Communism and the Soviet Union, dealt with surplus production, and ensured that food shortages in Europe and other countries were remediated.

The third world food regime is yet to be defined.[xii] Powers like China, Brazil, and India now have a significant impact on the flows of food. At the same time, global production chains and private corporations have begun to play an exceedingly large part in the dynamic of the food regime. Food production is being increasingly disaggregated in a way that production is only coherent from the point of view of supply chain manager, in the form of transnational commodity complexes. What we can surmise is that these global supply chains are being managed by both Western and Southern (including Chinese) multinational corporations.

Global food security governance also fits the concept of a regime complex. Regime complexes are defined by Kal Raustiala and David G.Victor as “an array of partially overlapping institutions governing a particular issue-area, among which there is no agreed upon hierarchy.”[xiii] In such a regime, states may have trouble achieving  their particular aims “because it is difficult—even for powerful states—to exert leverage in many diverse fora simultaneously and consistently.”[xiv]

It is clear that global food security governance fits with the definition of a regime complex. In a literature review of global food security governance, Candel notes that the main scholarly critique of current food governance is that there is no truly authoritative institution.[xv] Candel states that “we observe a regime complex for food security, in which food security is affected by a wide array of governance regimes that are all constituted by distinct sets of actors, forums, discourses, interests, and so forth.”[xvi] This issue is compounded because the food security governance touches upon diverse issues like agriculture, trade, climate change, crisis management, and poverty reduction.

Jennifer Clapp has noted that institutions in the economic sphere have more clout that others, due to their greater legal weight, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).[xvii] States neither want to give sole global food security governance responsibility to the WTO, where trade issues may come into conflict with resolving food security issues, nor give it all to the United Nations (UN) system, which is seen as being toothless in comparison.[xviii]

In terms of the different norms being contested within these regimes, global food security governance has been associated with free trade since the world began trade liberalization in the twentieth century.[xix] However, an imbalance persists in which developing countries must lower protections to the point where the cheapest option is to purchase foodstuffs imported from developed countries, which themselves are supported by home government subsidies.[xx] Countries like China and India have pushed back against trade liberalization as it relates to food security in institutions like the WTO. In the view of the Chinese government, trade liberalization is important in that it will create a more efficient international food market that can better meet China’s growing demand.[xxi] However, China cannot fully embrace complete trade liberalization, because of its commitment to a certain level of self-sufficiency, which is only possible through food reserves.[xxii] Hence, China cannot get all that it wants out of these governance arrangements and it has to resort to other strategies. This comes back to the essential fact that food security, for China, is incompatible with a purely multilateral approach, in that with multilateralism, everyone is treated the same. For China, its own food security will be most resilient if other countries largely liberalize trade, while China is able to maintain supports on its own foodstuffs to safeguard a degree of self-sufficiency.

China’s Role in Global Food Security Governance Regimes

China plays various roles in the complex of institutions involved in global food security governance. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN was the first effort to globally govern food security when it was established in 1944. It was given a set of ambitious tasks, including raising world nutrition levels, improving food production and distribution, and ensuring humanity’s freedom from hunger. However, the UN’s Ministry of Agriculture lost a lot of power in the mid-1970s following the world food crisis occurring at the time, and has declined in relative importance and power since.

In the aftermath, the international financial institutions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) initially took over the duties of global food security governance. These institutions advised in favor of market opening measures and cuts to state support of agriculture in developing countries. The world food crisis from 2007 to 2008 marked another transition, acting as a wake-up call for the world that other institutions needed to take over global food security governance, which had only been a peripheral issue for the World Bank and the IMF. This led to the G7, G20, WTO, and Committee on Food Security being more important for those following ten years.

Although the FAO is no longer such a key global governance institution, China has been increasingly active in it, primarily in the form of encouraging South-South development cooperation in agriculture, presumably to bolster its credentials in the South so as to strengthen access to food supplies – this will be discussed later on.[xxiii]

The G7 (at the time, the G8) began to engage in food security governance in 2009 at the L’Aquila G8 Summit in Italy, as a direct result of the world food crisis that had been felt across the world over the previous two years. G7 initiatives include the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative ($3 billion by the U.S. and in total a pledge of $22 billion by donor countries.),[xxiv] the Feed the Future Initiative (the United States’ whole-of-government poverty and hunger alleviation program), and the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP).

The G7 initiatives have been superseded by the emergence of the G20 as a body concerned with food security governance. [xxv] China is not part of the G7, which means it has no clear ability to engage in this global food security governance regime.

Group of Twenty

The G20 acts on food security governance through the regular G20 summits, the annual Agricultural Ministers Meeting (created 2014), the Meeting of the G20 Agricultural Chief Scientists, and the G20 Agricultural Entrepreneurs Forum (both created 2016 and met in Xi’an, China).[xxvi] Food security became a major part of the G20 agenda for the first time in 2011, where initiatives including the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) began.[xxvii]

The G20’s entrance into global food security has added another regime to the existing regime complex: Niall Duggan and Teemu Naarajärvi note that “in order to maximize its influence in global food security governance, a nation needs to be involved in these groups [the G7 and the G20]”.[xxviii] However, the G20 has failed to become the clear authority on global food security governance. This is because the G20 is inherently exclusive, since it comprises the world’s 20 largest economies. This clearly excludes the other 100 countries which make up the other 15 percent of world GDP as well as a third of the world’s population and half of the world’s land area.[xxix] The G20 also does not include non-state actors in its deliberations.

As a member of the G20, China has worked to put food security on the agenda, holding the Meeting of the G20 Agricultural Chief Scientists and the G20 Agricultural Entrepreneurs Forum in Xi’an in 2016. This involvement increased as China has realized that the WTO is becoming less and less effective (particularly since the failure of the Bali Conference) and so has attempted to increase its power in G20.[xxx]

Committee on World Food Security

The Committee on World Food Security has been the most significant place in the UN system for food security discussions in national, regional, and multilateral dimensions since it was reformed in 2009.[xxxi] It has 128 member states, though it is open to all 193 member states of the United Nations.[xxxii] It also has a civil society mechanism (CSM) which allows civil society organizations and private sector participants to directly discuss issues with governments. However, the CFS does not discuss trade issues in relation to food security or engage directly with the World Bank.[xxxiii] This weakens the CFS because global food security governance is hugely influenced by the investments carried out by the international financial institutions.[xxxiv] Because the influence of these economic issues is not transparent, it is not able to be freely debated with the other participants.

The structure of the CFS holds the potential to be the foremost body for global food security governance, but is undermined by the fact that other institutions like the G7 and the G20 do not engage with the CFS in their work on food security and instead bypass it. It is hence just one of the regimes that make up the regime complex, instead of the principal body in global food security governance.

At the World Food Summit in 2009, China’s Vice Premier Hui Liangyu concluded his address by promising that “China is ready to work with the international community to safeguard world food security and build a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity.”[xxxv] Despite this, because the CFS involves a wide range of stakeholders through the CSM, the lack of plurality in Chinese delegates (rather, all quite state-dominated) is a weakness in China’s ability to influence proceedings. Eklin notes that countries where the independent CSOs have positive working relationships with their governments have greater influence because they arrive with common positions and are able to influence in multiple venues.[xxxvi]

World Trade Organization

The 1994 Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) was the first time the WTO (named the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade at the time) addressed agriculture. Specifically, it included articles that aimed to regulate and reduce the use of market access restrictions, domestic support, and export subsidies. It also included “nontrade concerns” that food security and the environment were part of. The agreement standardized how much financial support governments are allowed to give agriculture so as to ensure that agricultural trade markets are not distorted.

The WTO considers developing countries to be protected under the AoA because “non or minimal trade distortive support” policies may still be used, which allows governments to retain some flexibility in ensuring food security for their population, however most developing countries do not consider this a sufficient safeguard. Furthermore, the WTO considers the AoA to have served as a safeguard against extreme protectionist measures being taken that would harm global food security by tightening the global supply of traded food.[xxxvii] 

The WTO as an institution of global governance has become less effective in determining global trading norms, and therefore a less-effective body within global food security governance.[xxxviii] This is due to the deadlock that has plagued the Doha round – because countries cannot move forward in the negotiations, it has not been able to fulfill its mandate of disciplining trade distortive policies such as agricultural subsidies. Countries have hence moved their attention to other venues such as the G20 in order to try to get food security issues resolved .

In the WTO, China  has subtly supported developing countries in their fight to retain the right to food reserves. China does not lead such efforts because it harms their image of trade liberalization, but is nonetheless on this side. For example, in 2013 at the Ninth Ministerial Conference in Bali, when the G-33, a coalition of 46 developing countries that included China, tried to remove food reserves from being considered in the aggregate measure of support, meaning that a food reserve policy would not be considered part of a country’s subsidy policy. China also engages in regard to the effect of speculation on the price of food. In 2009, Vice Premier Hui Liangyu stated “it is imperative to enhance financial regulation over agricultural markets and effectively curb speculative activities.”[xxxix]

China’s Food Security Mindset

Food security is a peculiarly pressing issue for China for historical and political reasons. Historians have estimated that almost every year from 108 BC to 1911, one or more province in China suffered a famine due to drought or flooding. [xl] This has generated a “continuous tradition of thinking about famine” and a “cultural mindset” obsessed by the threat of hunger. [xli] This historical setting has engendered some key ideas that continue to inform the narrative: of the paramount importance of self-sufficiency in food, and of the responsibility of the ruler to ensure that there is enough food for the people.[xlii] In imperial times, the emperor risked losing the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ should he shirk his duty to ensure adequate food production throughout the empire.[xliii]

This concept has carried through to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who prioritize grain self-sufficiency not only as a matter of national pride, but also as key aspect of political legitimacy.[xliv] Until recently, ‘red lines’ for the CCP included keeping the stock of arable land at or above 120 million hectares, as well as a 95 percent grain self-sufficiency rate.[xlv] This did however change in 2014 with the No. 1 Document which kept the same spirit of food security protection, but updated it slightly to reflect a more flexible production base. The 95 percent rate was replaced by a reserve to consumption ratio which includes both domestic production and net imports, with wording regarding ‘moderate imports’ showing acceptance of the real situation China is faced with currently. [xlvi]

Additional aspects that characterize the Chinese outlook on food security are distrust of external actors, skepticism regarding the West’s approach to food security, and hence the wish for diversification. China also still has a third of its population as of 2013 in the rural labor force. Policies that support domestic food production hence also support this large pool of workers, which is desirable.[xlvii]

Distrust of overseas actors stems from its 1959 famine, in which China was unable to purchase enough grain to feed its people due to the US embargo at the time.[xlviii] It fears being locked out of world markets. This is also due to the fact that China consumes such a large amount of grain that it cannot help but act in a large-country fashion on the world market, driving prices up and potentially still not being able to meet its needs. In 2016, the FAO released a projection of China’s expected net soybean imports in 2025 of 106.1 million tonnes. The average total volume of soybean exports from 2015-2017 according to the Agricultural Market Information System as 143.12 million tonnes, so without a significant increase in world production, clearly Chinese demand would dominate the world market.[xlix] Without expansion, China would theoretically stand to import 74 percent of world soybean exports. Noting China’s immense demand, Duggan and Naarajärvi state that the international market “cannot meet China’s shortfall in food production and, therefore, cannot ensure China’s food security.”[l]

The Chinese government is also aware of the China threat narrative that Lester Brown first promulgated in his book Who Will Feed China? and in the past has boosted domestic grain production as a direct result of such accusations, most recently in response to the 2008 food crisis.[li] The structure of the world markets and the multilateral institutions is also viewed by the Chinese authorities as unfairly biased towards grain exporters like the USA, that the international food regime is “tightly controlled” by these states and their multinational corporations, and that as a result, reforms always seem to target import tariffs rather than export subsidies. [lii] These concerns have mobilized a desire for diversification in food supply sources, in terms of regions, channels, and approaches, which will reduce the risk of overdependence.

The Chinese government consistently mentions food security in discourse, which is unsurprising given its importance to the Chinese people. The general message is that things are going well and that China is helping the rest of the world in their food security too. For example, Gao Hongbin, Vice Minister of Agriculture claimed at a global summit for food security in 2009 that China’s food security has actually enhanced global food security.[liii] Chinese state newspapers publish articles with headlines like ‘China’s food security fully guaranteed’ by People’s Daily and ‘Self-sufficient food policy benefits world’.[liv] Not only does China depict things as going smoothly, but shows this as predicated upon being able to acquire land abroad as well as at home. Mindi Schneider notes that these discussions begin by citing the “well-worn” statistic that China is feeding 21 percent of the world’s population on 9 percent of its arable land, so as to “communicate impending crisis while proposing solutions.” [lv] China has deemed rice, wheat, and maize the three ‘strategic crops’ for food security, selectively liberalizing other crops, such as soybeans, but retaining tight controls on production, pricing, and imports on those staple grains. [lvi]

Given China’s unique situation, it is clear that Chinese engagement in the institutions of global food security governance is aimed at increasing access to international food markets while maintaining a high level of domestic self-sufficiency in food production.”[lvii] Duggan and Naarajärvi state that, as China moves from the role of “standby player” to “active rule maker”, it will reshape the agenda of global governance bodies, which historically were not designed by and hence not targeted towards the concerns of the developing world.[lviii]

Regional Actions

China has taken a leading role in certain regional initiatives  where it is more capable of shaping the regime to its preference. These include regional grain reserves, new food security governance regimes and cooperation forums, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and the Latin American and Caribbean countries respectively. [lix] [lx] [lxi]

China’s affinity for grain reserves is part of its resilience strategy. The ASEAN Plus Three Rice Reserve is a permanent mechanism developed by member countries’ agricultural ministers. The reserve is designed to deal with the threat of extreme price volatility or natural disasters wiping out capacity in Asia. The reserve holds 787,000 tons of rice stockpiled under this arrangement with a $4 million endowment fund contributed to, mostly by the “plus three” who contribute $1 million each. This aligns very well with China’s domestic policy of strategic reserves. China holds the world’s largest grain reserves located at the central, local, and provincial levels, estimated at over 200 million tonnes.[lxii]

BRICS countries have started to tackle the issue of food security governance as a group. At leadership summits, commitments made have included the signing of a joint declaration on food security, the creation of the Basic Agricultural Information Exchange System of BRICS countries, and have made statements against developed countries subsidies; in New Delhi in 2012 the group stated that  “subsidies in agriculture by some developed countries continue to distort trade and undermine the food security and development prospects of developing countries.”[lxiii] They are working to show the world that the BRICS are determined to “play an important role in global initiatives on food security.”[lxiv]

China has formalized engagement with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) through the general China CELAC Forum. Engagement on food security occurs at the China-LAC Agricultural Ministers Forum, which has a focus of agricultural development and food security. In this forum, China’s actions have included establishing a joint 500,000-ton food reserve and a $50 million fund for eight research and development centers in the LAC region.[lxv] Here China is trying to take the initiative in this regional governance grouping so as to ensure continued ability to influence the important agricultural producing countries in the region.

Beyond Multilateral Venues

Outside of the regimes covered so far, China also deals with food security in a unilateral manner. It provides capital to foreign countries, particularly in Africa, but also Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific, which in return allows them access to food production. Provision of capital is defined through setting up production bases, agricultural development centers, agricultural research and development (R&D) exchanges, and making economic cooperation arrangements. Daojiong Zha and Hongzhou Zhang estimated that by 2013, China had set up 60 bilateral agricultural or fishery cooperation working groups with over 50 countries and regions.[lxvi] Also by 2013, China had undertaken fishing in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of more than 30 countries, and in fact the number of “distant water fishing vessels,” at 1991, was the most of any country in the world.[lxvii] In 2010, China pledged to establish 30 demonstration centers for agricultural technologies in other developing countries at the UN High-level meeting on the Millennium Development Goals, as well as to send agricultural technicians to those countries.[lxviii]

Through this, we can see that China tends to engage with countries bilaterally when it comes to securing food chains cooperation deals, rather than through multilateral mechanisms. In the diversified framing, these bilateral deals that help other countries increase their food production are a win-win situation for everyone: for China, because it can feel more confident in greater availability of food to import into China from overseas, and for the recipient countries, who are increasing their volume of production.

‘Land Grabs’

Land grabs in the literature are viewed in contrasting ways by scholars. Some scholars view them as a form of neo-colonialism, while others frame it as a natural consequence of the integration of food production into the global economy.[lxix] The Chinese government has been active in encouraging Chinese companies in the “go out” strategy to acquire investments in grain and meat production from abroad, including in official speeches. Abdenur states that “Chinese state and non-state actors have come together to boost their presence in production, processing, and logistics of agricultural commodities in other countries”.[lxx]

Chongqing Grain Group (CGG) is a prominent example of a Chinese corporation with a vigorous overseas investment policy, spending millions or even billions to secure projects in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina in soybeans and oilseeds.[lxxi] In Latin America and the Caribbean, China does a lot of investing in building infrastructure so as to facilitate transporting the food – improving transport, logistics, and port infrastructure to facilitate exports to China.[lxxii] Zhang and Cheng agree, stating, “the main task for China’s overseas agricultural investment lies in establishing a global system for production, marketing, transportation, storage, processing and manufacturing.”[lxxiii] Duggan and Naarajärvi, writing in 2015, found that China acquired an estimated eleven million hectares of land in land grabs in the global south.[lxxiv] Other Chinese agribusiness firms with global acquisitions are Beidahuang, the China National Cereals, Oils and Feedstuffs Corporation (COFCO), and the China National Agricultural Development Group.[lxxv] While the concept of land grabs is problematic in that it removes agency on the host country side and implies that China is always taking land as opposed to engaging in a mutually agreed upon investment, what is indisputable is that these transactions are occurring. What’s more, they are inextricably linked to the Chinese government effort to increase world food production, because this is inherently beneficial for China’s food security.  

China in the Soybean Complex: A Case Study

Soy is a very interesting case study of the intersection of global agricultural trade, Chinese culture, and Chinese food policy. Soybeans originated in northeast China (there are 6000 domestic varieties) and various soy products, such as tofu, soy sauce, and fermented soy products are a dominant dietary and culinary staple throughout China.[lxxvi] Nowadays, the majority of soy consumed actually appears in the form of industrial meat (raised with soymeal feed).[lxxvii] Soybeans have hence become China’s most important agricultural import.[lxxviii] This fits with the worldwide trend in soy usage, with only six percent consumed in the form of whole beans, tofu, or other soy based foods.[lxxix]

Soy production has been characterized as a global complex. Soy production has expanded massively over the last 50 years, with world production increasing from 26.8 million metric tons in 1961 to 285 million tons in 2013.[lxxx] This enormous increase in production has occurred through the creation of soy monocultures in North and South America which are being grown for export purposes. This was initially controlled by Western corporations who controlled the entire complex from farming to sales of the end product.[lxxxi]

In the 2000s, China started to engage more with the soy complex. This occurred because the Chinese government liberalized trade in soybeans in the late 1990s and began a strategy of importing whole beans to then be crushed domestically, which included fiscal incentives for foreign direct investment in soybean crushing.[lxxxii] By 1996, China became a net soy importer and, by 2003, became the world’s largest importer of soybeans.[lxxxiii] In 2013 China imported 64 percent of the total global soy trade.[lxxxiv]

During the 2004 soybean crisis, the price of soybeans plunged, but Chinese purchasers who had contracts with U.S. corporations were required to fulfill them at the agreed-upon price, leading to widespread bankruptcy of Chinese crushers and refineries. This allowed a massive entry of foreign firms into the Chinese refining market to take market share of 80 percent of crushing and 60 percent of refining.[lxxxv] Gustavo Oliveira and Mindi Schneider note that “this meant that the same firms controlling soybean exports to China from production centers in the US and South America were also the major importers controlling the flow of soy and soy products through the Chinese food system.”[lxxxvi] This situation was problematic in that these firms clearly did not have the Chinese consumers best interests at heart (rather they were concerned with profits for their shareholders and gaining market power in the world). It also wounded the Chinese national pride, to have such a sensitive national industry become dominated by American corporations. The Chinese government felt compelled to recover the soy industry from this foreign domination and hence gave state assistance to Chinese state owned enterprises to build processing infrastructure.[lxxxvii] This decision in turn helped Chinese firms to become powerful actors in the global soy complex, and they now capture the profits of crushing and processing soybeans domestically.

Finally, Chinese demand encouraged Latin American countries to engage in export-driven monoculture at the expense of more diversified agricultural production.[lxxxviii] This situation compromises the food security of the supplying regions. Gustavo and Schneider note that monocultures are a “contradictory process, whereby a multiplication of uses of a single monoculture also reduces the diversity of agro-ecosystems, diets, and even cultural practices, ultimately increases our collective vulnerability to catastrophic pest outbreaks, price shocks and market volatility, food crises.”[lxxxix]

The case study of soy is provides a valuable analogy to China’s overall approach to food procurement and security. A victim in the past of dependence on western firms and the international institutions through which they operate, China has chosen a strategy of empowering domestic firms, particularly SOEs, to ensure the ability to be self-sufficient–if not in producing soy, then in processing it. At the same time, Chinese bilateral cooperation with LAC countries as well as in the regional forum of the China–LAC Agriculture Minister’s forum, has helped it ensure good access to the soybean producers, including through financial contributions to the food reserve and fund for R&D in the LAC region. The final illustrative aspect of this engagement is the fact that China’s copious demand in the soybean trade remains problematic in terms of ­global food security. We know that a single monoculture in a geographical region brings with it risks and costs to the local population and increases food insecurity. China’s search for food security endangers the food security of the populations from which it sources.

Future Prospects

We can expect the Chinese government to continue pursuing diverse strategies to achieve a secure food supply. The G20 seems to be the favored venue for China, and it will continue to engage actively to keep food security on its agenda. Should breakthroughs in the WTO deadlock occur, China will work with like-minded developing countries like India. While China will continue to put on an active and positive front in the CFS, it is unlikely they will view it as the primary venue for pushing their interests given the plurality of stakeholders which they will judge unlikely to accommodate to their interests. Given the authoritarian turn of the country under Xi Jinping, it is also unlikely that Chinese CSOs and private companies will be empowered to freely engage in the CFS (or just as likely, that other countries will view any such engagement as speaking on behalf of anyone barring the Chinese government).

In terms of regional cooperation, Chinese leadership will remain strong. Their partnerships in ASEAN, the BRICs, and LAC will be actively maintained as China believes that active cooperation with the global South is important in safeguarding food supply. This leadership will be backed up by economic and technical support for agricultural development.[xc] Connectivity in the form of investment in infrastructure will also be a component of China’s strategy. Zhang and Cheng posit that through this cooperation, “China can reduce poverty, support local food security and build a fair and effective global food regime.”[xci]

China will continue to be a massive presence in the “soy complex” and, should trade tensions with the U.S. continue, will actively work with other countries to set up soy and other grain production to ensure that the supply is protected. This is already occurring as Canadian farmers respond to trade war threats and alter production for an expected increase in demand for Canadian crops from China, as well as countries including Brazil and Russia.[xcii]


The regime complex that governs global food security is complicated. No one body can truly discipline nation states to tackle all aspects of the drivers of global food insecurity. China views itself as a leader of the Global South, and has tried to engage in different venues as its representative, like the WTO. However, acting on behalf of developing countries is only a side effect of China’s main reason for engagement in the regime complex, which is a deep and persisting concern about safeguarding domestic food security.

Aspects of China’s engagement that bode poorly for a genuinely multilateral solution to global food security are its actions securing land and supply chains in other countries, which have been characterized as ‘land grabs.’ A more cooperative multilateral approach to acquiring land would be unlikely to work, so to secure these supply chains, China must act  bilaterally. China also has no genuinely free private sector or civil society groups to engage with on these issues, so it opts for state-state interactions. These will not provide all the answers, since the solution lies with a broad spectrum of stakeholders.

China’s actions in global food security governance cannot be understood in isolation, in terms of one regime or one foreign direct investment decision. China is pursuing a strategy of diversification across a range of approaches with the end goal of resilience. Due to historical distrust and innate ideological differences, China will not leave the paramount goal of a secured food supply to be resolved solely by free markets and the multilateral liberal order. Instead, while Chinese officials choose to engage with these regimes and institutions, they also engage directly with regions and countries that have the ability or the potential to grow the total global food supply and be of assistance to China. In this frame of understanding, China does not see land acquisitions or country-specific deals as running contrary to multilateral governance, but rather as a complementary and vital aspect of their main strategy.

[i] MOA, “Permanent Representative of China to UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture Attends 40th Session of FAO Conference,” Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, PRC, July 12, 2017, http://english.agri.gov.cn/news/dqnf/201707/t20170712_283173.htm.

[ii] “Population, total,” The World Bank, 2017, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=CN&view=chart.

[iii] “Poverty Trend (By International Standards),” The World Bank, 2018, http://povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty/country/CHN.

[iv] Ji-kun Huang, Wei Wei, Cui Qi, and Xie Wei, “The prospects for China’s food security and imports: Will China starve the world via imports?” Journal of Integrative Agriculture 16, no. 12 (2017): 2939.

[v] Harriet Friedmann, “The International Political Economy of Food: A Global Crisis.” International Journal of Health Services 25, no. 3 (1995): 512.

[vi] Friedmann, “The International Political Economy of Food: A Global Crisis,” 513.

[vii] Ibid, 513.

[viii] Harriet Friedmann, “From colonialism to green capitalism: social movements and the emergence of food regimes,” in New directions in the sociology of global development. Research in rural sociology and development, ed. Fredercik H. Buttel and Philip McMichael, vol. 11 (Oxford: Elsevier, 2005), 229–67.

[ix] McMichael, “A food regime genealogy,” 144.

[x] Friedmann, “From colonialism to green capitalism: social movements and the emergence of food regimes,” 240.

[xi] Ibid, 141.

[xii] David Burch and Geoffrey Lawrence, “Towards a third food regime: behind the transformation,” Agriculture and human values 26, no. 4 (2009): 267.

[xiii] Kal Raustiala and David G. Victor, “The regime complex for plant genetic resources,” International organization 58, no. 2 (2004): 2.

[xiv] Ibid, 3

[xv] Candel, “Food security governance: a systematic literature review,” 592.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Jennifer Clapp, “Trade and the Sustainability Challenge for Global Food Governance,” in International Studies Association Annual Meetings in Atlanta, GA, March 2016, 11, https://www.iss.nl/sites/corporate/files/1-ICAS_CP_Clapp.pdf, 11.

[xviii] Matias E. Margulis, “The regime complex for food security: Implications for the global hunger challenge,” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 19, no. 1 (2013): 63.

[xix] Clapp, “Trade and the Sustainability Challenge for Global Food Governance,” 1.

[xx] Bill Pritchard, “The long hangover from the second food regime: a world-historical interpretation of the collapse of the WTO Doha Round,” Agriculture & Human Values 26 (2009): 301.

[xxi] Niall Duggan, and Teemu Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” Journal of Contemporary China 24, no. 95 (2015): 954.

[xxii] Katherine Morton, “Learning by Doing: China’s Role in the Global Governance of Food Security,” Indiana University Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business Working Paper No. 30, September 1, 2012, 20, https://ssrn.com/abstract=2169883.

[xxiii] Adriana Erthal Abdenur, “Sowing More than Soybeans?” in China’s Global Quest for Resources: Energy, Food and Water, ed. Fengshi Wu and Hongzhou Zhang (London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 159.

[xxiv] G8, “L’Aquila Joint Statement on Global Food Security: L’Aquila Food Security Initiative (AFSI),” Group of 8, July 1, 2009, http://www.g8.utoronto.ca/summit/2009laquila/2009-food.pdf.

[xxv] Matias E. Margulis, “Global Food Security Governance: The Committee for World Food Security, Comprehensive Framework for Action and the G8/G20,” in The Challenge of Food Security (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishers, 2012), 231-54.

[xxvi] Catherine Benson Wahlén, “G20 Agriculture Ministers Reaffirm Role of Agriculture in Achieving Food Security, Poverty Alleviation, SDGs,” SDG Knowledge Hub, June 14, 2016, http://sdg.iisd.org/news/g20-agriculture-ministers-reaffirm-role-of-agriculture-in-achieving-food-security-poverty-alleviation-sdgs/.

[xxvii] G20, “Cannes Summit Final Declaration – Building Our Common Future: Renewed Collective Action for the Benefit of All,” G20 Information Center, November 4, 2011, http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2011/2011-cannes-declaration-111104-en.html.

[xxviii] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 951.

[xxix] “Frequently Asked Questions,” G20 Argentina, January 8, 2018, Accessed April 15, 2018. https://g20.org/en/g20/faqs.

[xxx] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 955.

[xxxi] Clapp and Murphy, “The G20 and food security: a mismatch in global governance?” 131.

[xxxii] Clapp, “Trade and the Sustainability Challenge for Global Food Governance,” 3.

[xxxiii] Kate Eklin, Ingrid Finess Evensmo, Ioana Georgescu, Victoire Hubert, Jimmy Le, Tehminah Malik, Sébastien Treyer, and Matthieu Brun, “The Committee on World Food Security reform: impacts on global governance of food security,” IDDRI, 2014, https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01620862/document, 17.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Hui Liangyu, “Strengthen Cooperation for Global Food Security,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, November 17, 2009, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/t628178.shtml.

[xxxvi] Eklin et al, “The Committee on World Food Security reform: impacts on global governance of food security,” 16.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 955.

[xxxix] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 954.

[xl] Daojiong Zha and Hongzhou Zhang, “Food in China’s international relations,” The Pacific Review 26, no. 5 (2013): 460.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Zha and Zhang, “Food in China’s international relations”, 461.

[xliv] Zha and Zhang, “Food in China’s international relations”, 460.

[xlv] Zha and Zhang, “Food in China’s international relations”, 462.

[xlvi] Hongzhou Zhang and Guoqiang Cheng, “China’s Food Security Strategy Reform: An emerging global agricultural policy,” in China’s Global Quest for Resources: Energy, Food and Water. ed. Wu, Fengshi, and Hongzhou Zhang (London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 34.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] Zha and Zhang, “Food in China’s international relations,” 463.

[xlix] Agricultural Market Information System, “AMIS Crops: Soybeans,” Agricultural Market Information System, accessed April 30, 2018, http://www.amis-outlook.org/amis-about/amis-crops/crops-soybeans/en/.

[l] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 954.

[li] Zhang and Cheng, “China’s Food Security Strategy Reform: An emerging global agricultural policy,” 27.

[lii] Zha and Zhang, “Food in China’s international relations,” 465.

[liii] Mindi Schneider, “Developing the meat grab,” Journal of Peasant Studies 41, no. 4 (2014): 619.

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] Schneider, “Developing the meat grab”, 620.

[lvi] Schneider, “Developing the meat grab”, 623.

[lvii] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 945.

[lviii] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 946.

[lix] Mulat Demeke, Adriano Spinelli, Stefania Croce, Valentina Pernechele, Eugenia Stefanelli, Areej Jafari, Guendalina Pangrazio, Giovanni Carrasco, Barthelemy Lanos, and Camille Roux, “Food and agriculture policy decisions: trends, emerging issues and policy alignments since the 2007/08 food security crisis,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014, http://www.fao.org/3/i3514e/i3514e.pdf, 102.

[lx] “BRICS Vow to Meet Food Security Challenges,” The BRICS Post, October 30, 2013, http://thebricspost.com/brics-vow-to-meet-food-security-challenges/.

[lxi] Abdenur, “Sowing More than Soybeans?”, 169.

[lxii] Morton, “Learning by Doing: China’s Role in the Global Governance of Food Security,” 21.

[lxiii] “Joint Press Release of the Meeting of BRICS Trade and Economic Ministers on the Eve of the IV Summit,” BRICS Ministry of External Relations, March 28, 2012, http://brics.itamaraty.gov.br/press-releases/21-documents/170-the-2nd-meeting-of-the-brics-trade-and-economic-ministers.

[lxiv] “BRICS Vow to Meet Food Security Challenges.”

[lxv] Abdenur, “Sowing More than Soybeans?”, 169.

[lxvi] Zha and Zhang, “Food in China’s international relations,” 466.

[lxvii] Ibid, 466.

[lxviii] Ibid, 466.

[lxix] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 949.

[lxx] Abdenur, “Sowing More than Soybeans?”, 160.

[lxxi] Zha and Zhang, “Food in China’s international relations,” 468.

[lxxii] Abdenur, “Sowing More than Soybeans?”, 167.

[lxxiii] Zhang and Cheng, “China’s Food Security Strategy Reform: An emerging global agricultural policy,” 35.

[lxxiv] Duggan and Naarajärvi, “China in Global Food Security Governance,” 952.

[lxxv] Schneider, “Developing the meat grab,” 628.

[lxxvi] Gustavo de L.T. Oliveira and Mindi Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 43, no. 1 (2016): 10.

[lxxvii] L.T. Oliviera and Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,”11.

[lxxviii] Ibid.

[lxxix] L.T. Oliviera and Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,” 2.

[lxxx] L.T. Oliviera and Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,” 3.

[lxxxi] L.T. Oliviera and Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,” 5.

[lxxxii] Oliveira and Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,” 6.

[lxxxiii] Schneider, “Developing the meat grab,” 624.

[lxxxiv] Schneider, “Developing the meat grab,” 12.

[lxxxv] L.T. Oliveira and Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,” 12.

[lxxxvi] Ibid.

[lxxxvii] L.T. Oliveira and Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,” 13.

[lxxxviii] Abdenur, “Sowing More than Soybeans?” 167.

[lxxxix] L.T. Oliveira and Schneider, “The politics of flexing soybeans: China, Brazil and global agroindustrial restructuring,” 24.

[xc] Zhang and Cheng, “China’s Food Security Strategy Reform: An emerging global agricultural policy,” 36.

[xci] Ibid.

[xcii] Jen Skerritt, “Canada Bets Big on Canola Amid China-U.S. Spat,” Bloomberg, April 9, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-09/canada-bets-big-on-canola-as-china-u-s-spat-creates-opening.

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