China Struggles with Food Supply Following a Summer of Disaster

19 August 2020 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

As China struggles with food security in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has sought to curb food waste and “big stomach kings” – social media celebrities who eat large amounts of food on camera. The move follows an August speech, in which Xi Jinping called levels of food waste in China “shocking”, prompting a number of local governments to announce food waste campaigns of their own, while restaurants around the country have started to enact policies to reduce the amount of waste customers create.

Comment

China’s concern over waste comes as food prices have surged, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and flooding in central China. Inflation rates increased by 2.7% in July, an increase from 2.5% in June, a trend that was largely driven by a 13.2% increase in the cost of food. The price of pork, a staple food in China, has skyrocketed 86 per cent since last year. Pork supply is still recovering from the 2018 African Swine Fever epidemic, while demand has sharply increased as restaurants have re-opened as lockdowns have relaxed. Food prices show little sign of easing in the immediate future, putting low-income households at risk and jeopardising China’s post-pandemic recovery plans.

Part of the reason for China’s fight against food waste is also likely to stem from growing concerns that a succession of disasters could threaten the country’s overall food supply. Massive floods in July have prompted speculation that grain supplies could be at risk. The floods disrupted the production of major grains, such as rice and wheat, in provinces across the entire Yangtze River (the Yangtze River Basin accounts for 70 per cent of China’s rice production). Meanwhile, the country saw an unusually intense and early infestation of fall army worm this year, which has threatened corn supplies. The price of corn has risen to a five-year high, despite the government selling a significant amount from state reserves and making record purchases of corn from the United States this year.

Official figures do not support the idea that grain supplies are threatened. According to those figures, the summer harvest hit an “all time high” with an increase of 0.9% compared to last year. Other state figures, however, paint a very different picture. State grain purchases from farmers have fallen by 9.4 million tonnes so far this year, compared to the same period last year. Grain imports have also spiked this year – in June alone imports were 197 per cent higher than in June 2019, according to customs data, while soybean imports have increased by 91 per cent.

It is too early to tell exactly how badly China will be affected by this year’s food problems and the country’s overall food supply is sufficient to meet its needs at the moment, but food insecurity is a threat that the Chinese Government appears to be taking seriously. Beijing has made efforts to emphasise the importance of self-sufficiency in staples and strategic grains. The anti-food waste campaign has also been compared to the start of the Great Chinese Famine in 1959, when Mao Zedong instructed China to eat less in order to save food.

China’s current situation is not necessarily comparable to its situation in 1959, but with farmers hoarding crops in the anticipation of higher prices later and increasing demand for food following Covid-19 lockdown measures, it seems likely that China will continue to struggle with food prices and supply in the near future.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.