What you need to know
China's President Xi Jinping is focused on increasing food security by expanding agricultural land and domestic food production. China, a net food importer, has a larger population and less farmland compared to the United States.
The topic of food security is tied to China’s possible invasion of Taiwan.
“Food security is the most important thing in a country,” Xi Jinping told a meeting of China’s Central Finance and Economics Committee on July 20. “The rice bowls of the Chinese people must be firmly in our own hands. Our rice bowls should be filled mainly by Chinese crops.” In order to increase food security, he is ordering an expansion of agricultural land and domestic food production.
China has always been a net food importer. The country is geographically only slightly larger than the United States, but must feed a population more than four times the size. What is more, China has less than half as much farmland as the U.S. Between 2009 and 2019, its arable land shrank by 6 percent, making the country even more dependent on food imports. In 2000, China’s self-sufficiency ratio was 93.6 percent, but by 2020, that number had dropped to 65.8 percent. The increase in imports is the result of several factors, including a larger population, an increase in wealth, and greater food consumption. Chinese are eating more food in total, especially more meat and processed foods that have to be imported.
The dearth of agricultural production in China and the increase in food demand has made China the world’s largest importer of food. The United States, by contrast, is the world’s largest food exporter. The difference in food production between the two countries is reflected in their foreign and domestic policies. The U.S. has never needed a push to increase domestic food production, and exports make commercial farming profitable. Additionally, in case of war, Washington takes comfort in knowing that food supplies would not be threatened. Beijing, on the other hand, is concerned that in the event of war, the country could face widespread hunger.
The issue of food security has implications for national defense and for a potential invasion of Taiwan. Currently, the U.S. 7th Fleet patrols the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, and the Taiwan Strait. If war breaks out, the U.S. could cut off food and energy shipments to China. Consequently, establishing food security is part of Xi’s preparations for an invasion of Taiwan.
To increase the country’s food security, Xi has launched a land reclamation project, forcing land to be converted to farmland. Public parks and green zones are being destroyed, to allow for the planting of more food. The project is reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward, when villagers melted down finished products made of metal in order to meet iron production quotas.
Xi’s handling of the food security issue is a prime example of the inefficiency of central planning. From a market economic perspective, the best farmland would already be used for agriculture. And land that is not being used for farming is most likely not suitable for growing food. When food demand outstrips supply, the price of food should increase, making less productive land economically viable. However, if imported food is cheaper than reclaiming land, then food will be imported. This is why China and every other country, including the U.S., imports certain kinds of food. Countries grow that quantity and type of food that is cheapest and most productive, while importing those foods and quantities that would be too expensive to produce locally. For example, tropical fruit could be cultivated in greenhouses in the Canadian Arctic, but importing tropical fruit is cheaper. This is why pineapples in Northern Canada are imported, not grown locally. And while they are more expensive than other domestically produced foods, they are cheaper than domestic pineapples would be.
Now, however, Xi wants to keep food prices at the same level or lower than imports, but is ordering the least fertile land to be converted to farmland. In some cases, this reclaimed land is as much as 70 percent less productive, but still requires the same, or greater amounts of, labor, chemicals, and water to produce a smaller quantity of food. Because the new land is not profitable to farm, the government is providing farmers with subsidies. Meanwhile, as part of Xi’s carbon neutrality agenda, the State Forestry Administration has been tasked with increasing China’s forest coverage through a program of compulsory tree planting. Consequently, some land that could have been used to grow food is being planted with trees. At the same time, local governments are being pressured by the central government to show that they have increased farmland. As a result, some are clearing forests to plant crops.
Xi is cutting down forests and bulldozing public parks in order to create new farmland. Large sums of public money went into building those parks and planting those forests in the first place. Now, additional public money is being used to clear the land. And public money will have to be paid to support farmers growing on this unproductive land. In the end, China will gain a small quantity of very expensive food.
TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)
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