BEIJING – China’s National People’s Congress on March 11 adopted Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s policy proposal that the government promote food savings to address shortages that have become a major national concern.
President Xi Jinping is calling for an end to leftovers by August 2020, and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) statements about the problem of food waste are becoming louder as the future of China’s agricultural sector becomes increasingly alarming.
China’s grain self-sufficiency “exceeds 95%,” according to the 2019 white paper on food security. Beijing has often praised the figure when it talks about food self-sufficiency, but some points are unclear. For example, is this related to calories generated or to market value?
Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries regularly collects food adequacy data for countries based on production value and calories, but not for China where “data is insufficient,” according to an official. The official described China’s food adequacy level as “unknown.”
Goro Takahashi, an emeritus professor at Aichi University who is very familiar with Chinese agriculture, has calculated mainland food self-sufficiency based on calories using data compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. He estimates that for the 54 main food products, the figure was around 80% in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.
That compares with 94% in 2000, 89% in 2005 and 83% in 2010, according to Takahashi. By 2020, it may have decreased even further to around 76% due to weather and other factors, he said.
Takahashi attributed this continued decline to fewer farmers and “more and more damage to farmland.”
The government admits that there are soil quality problems. A pilot survey in 2014 revealed significant heavy metal contamination on agricultural land across China. It was found that 16% of the soil was contaminated with metals such as cadmium, mercury and arsenic.
Henan Province is second only to Heilongjiang Province in terms of agricultural produce. It is home to Hiroto Kawasaki, a Japanese agricultural expert who frequently appears in the Chinese press for his contributions to agricultural development around the city of Xinxiang.
After retiring in 2006 from the Federation of Consumer Cooperatives in Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan, Kawasaki studied organic farming using compost and manure. He came to China in 2013, and is now working on a circular farm on a farm in Xiaoliugu village.
Henan, like other provinces, has seen its soils degraded due to the overuse of chemical fertilizers, and this has severely affected agricultural products. Kawasaki said good agricultural land was also being sacrificed for residential development and reforestation programs.
Xinxiang used to have fertile agricultural fields stretching to the horizon and was dubbed “China’s largest agricultural village.” It’s mostly buried under condos, residential projects, vacation homes and other buildings. Several houses have been given to poor farmers under anti-poverty programs.
Official government data show stagnant food production. Grain production reached 600 million tonnes for the first time in 2012, but has reached a maximum limit of 650 to 660 million tonnes in recent years.
Around Chinese New Year each year, the CCP and the government circulate the so-called Central Number 1 Document to local party organs and the government to inform them of the top policies for the coming year. Agricultural and rural development have filled that slot every year since 2004.
By 2021, the CCP’s detailed circular plans to invest in upgrading agricultural land in major food-producing areas cover an estimated 6.67 million hectares. The aim is to produce a fixed amount of agricultural produce whether there is drought or flooding.
In 2020, southern China experienced record-breaking floods while the northern part of the country experienced a severe drought. The government’s response reflects a sense of crisis related to agricultural land security and food sufficiency after natural disasters.
Central Document No. 1 in 2019 was a turning point. It stated that China would proactively increase food imports along the different routes. This figure continues to increase. In 2019, China imported $ 88.4 billion worth of food and beverage products – a record.
The increase in grain and meat prices caused by Chinese “explosives” purchases has affected Japan, which is heavily dependent on imports – it is only 38% calorie self-sufficient.
In May 2017, China announced plans to resume American beef imports after a 14-year hiatus in an effort to ease bilateral tensions. The massive purchase of US beef by the main “gyudon” restaurant chain in anticipation of rising prices prompted the Japanese government to raise import tariffs. Sino-US friction extends to Japan when Washington complains about restrictions on Japanese imports.
Chinese food purchases are likely to continue to impact global food supplies, and Japan may have to take further countermeasures.