For years Beijing stressed that the country’s farmers must grow enough grain to feed the masses. Measures enacted in 1996 called on China to produce 95% of its own grain. That policy reflected concerns rooted deep in centuries of food instability and intermittent famine in China’s long history.
The official outlook on how much grain the country must produce at home is changing, however. Last week, the State Council called for China to stabilize annual grain production at 550 million tons, far lower than the 602 million tons produced last year. The government will now turn its focus to the quality and safety of the domestic harvest.
But that doesn’t mean China has completely abandoned grain self-sufficiency. Agricultural policymakers are simply getting with the times.
Local media reported at the end of 2012 that Chinese self-sufficiency levels for rice, wheat, corn and soybeans had fallen below 90%. Yet that figure was hotly contested by Chen Xiwen, director of China’s Rural Development Institute. When soybeans are tossed out of the equation, Chen claimed, the country had maintained its sacred 95% self-sufficiency rate. Soybeans are not counted as an edible grain.
China has the capacity to continue producing enough edible grain, namely rice and wheat, to feed the country through 2020, Jane Peng, a Shanghai-based grain and seed oil analyst at Rabobank International, told China Economic Review. Imports of corn and soybean, which are consumed by humans but mainly find use as animal feed, will increase as China continues to eat more meat.
Yet, the way Chinese people consume grain and meat is set to change in the coming years.
“The 95% and above self-sufficiency rate was posited in the 1990s. Under new circumstances, the connotation of grain security is different from 10 to 20 years ago,” Cheng Guoqiang, secretary general of the State Council Development Research Center’s Academic Committee, was quoted by state media as commenting on the often-fierce debate over the amount of grain that China must produce at home.
That’s true. As a country gets richer, its consumption pattern changes. During the 1980s and 90s, when the country was still knee-deep in poverty reduction efforts, a strong correlation existed between rising incomes and rising food – especially meat – consumption. However, as China continues to push most of its people further away from the breadline, its appetite for food will not necessarily rise in tandem.
“It’s a curve. There’s a ceiling for this consumption,” Peng said. “The higher the income does not indicate the more grain and meat we are going to eat.”
Around 2020, China’s average per capita income will hit US$10,000, Peng said, a mark that in other northeast Asian countries such as South Korea signified a change in the way people spent their money. At that point in development, people begin emphasizing the quality of food over the quantity.
Setting the 2020 grain production target at 550 million tons and turning attention to the quality of food might be a sign that China’s agricultural sector, policy-wise one of its most conservative, is changing its hardline attitude. “I think that’s a very reasonable figure [for grain production] for 2020. The Chinese government has a good forecast for the future,” Peng said.
But producing rice safe enough for the Chinese people to eat in the next decade won’t be easy. Soil pollution has become a major challenge to the government’s self-sufficiency goals.
“In many places this kind of pollution has already affected the ground water and the crop yield,” said Fu Zhenzhen, a grain analyst at Beijing Shennong Kexin Agribusiness Consulting in Beijing. “This problem has already become very serious.”
China has about 20% of the world’s arable land but accounts for 30% of global fertilizer use, or about 50 million tons in 2007, according to a report from Sustainalytics, a Singapore-based consultancy. Only 25-35% of the chemicals in the fertilizers can be absorbed by crops while the rest remains in the soil or flows into rivers. Last May, inspectors discovered rice with a high level of cancer-causing cadmium in markets in the southern city of Guangzhou. The rice had been grown in a heavily polluted area in Hunan province and the incident underscored just how real are the daily concerns Chinese people have over the food they eat.
China may have the capacity to feed its people with home-grown grains. The question is whether Chinese will allow it in their bowls. Despite being the world’s biggest rice producer, China also became the world’s No. 1 rice importer in 2013, buying 3.4 million tons of the grain from overseas.
Those imports in part show that China’s appetite for quality – in this case potentially safer rice – is indeed growing. It’s encouraging that the government has recognized that quantity isn’t everything.
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