China faces an unprecedented food shortage
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Xi Jinping’s call for an end to ‘food waste’ (11 August 2020) seems to be a pointer that China may be facing food production issues. This is the second time in two months that the Chinese President has given instructions on storing grains. This comes after the impact of the coronavirus, intense flooding across China, insect infestations, and outbreak of the African swine fever (ASF).
President Xi during his tour (22 July) to Jilin Province, said: “The more risks and challenges we face, the more we need to stabilize agriculture and ensure the safety of grain and major non-staple foods.” President Xi’s public remarks (11 August 2020) posted on CGTN, were: “Though China has reaped a bumper grain harvest for years, it is still necessary to have the awareness of a food security crisis. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic this year has sounded the alarm for us.”
As per official statistics, China’s grain output has remained stagnant for five consecutive years. China has a strategic food reserve system and its stockpile of rice and wheat flour can last for over a year.
“Clean Your Plate” Campaign
China officially launched (13 August 2020) a new “Clean Your Plate Campaign”. Global Times reported that unlike the 2012 campaign which aimed at putting an end to officials’ extravagant feasts and receptions, this version calls on the Chinese public to stop wasting food.
Scale of Food Wastage problem
There have been reports that restaurants in China are restricting the amount or portion of food to be served to prevent food wastage. Chinese State media has openly criticised ‘binge eating’ and livestreaming platforms warned that they would ban users who wasted food on their broadcasts. Some years ago it was reported that food wasted in China was enough to feed 200 million people a year. According to a 2018 report by prepared the World Wildlife Fund and Chinese Academy of Sciences, restaurants and canteens alone in China wasted enough food annually to feed up to 50 million people.
Rising Prices of food a cause for worry
The National Bureau of Statistics said food prices in China had climbed by about 10 per cent in July over the same period last year, while pork prices sky rocketed by 86 per cent. The latter can be attributed to the loss of 180 million pigs, or 40 per cent of the national herd, to Swine Flu last year and fresh outbreaks this year following the floods. The price of corn is 20 percent higher and price of soybeans has gone up by 30 percent year-on-year. Another problem,which threatens China’s food supply, is insect infestations. Forbes reports that the fall armyworm, which feasts on corn, has been detected in all but five of China’s provinces, pushing corn prices to five-year highs, despite the release of 1.4 billion bushels of corn from the country’s reserves.
Assessments of China’s food crisis must also take into account other visible factors. In recent months, the 3,900-mile-long Yangtze River and its tributaries have risen to dangerous levels and large areas of southern China are under the worst flooding in four decades.
Yangtze, Huai and Yellow River basins, which are all important grain-producing regions have witnessed flooding. The Yangtze River basin alone accounts for 70 percent of the China’s rice production. Flooding has hit twenty-seven Chinese provinces so far and floods have so far destroyed 13 million acres of farmland, affected 63 million people, and caused nearly US$26 billion in economic damage. It is estimated that China could lose 5 percent of its rice production compared to last year.
Another major threat to China’s crops is the hordes of locusts, which have attacked crops all over Asia this year. On 31 July 2020, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs ordered the spraying of pesticide and deployment of drones to fight off the insects, which it reported had damaged about 90 square kms of cropland over the past month in the Yunnan Province.
Imports and Increased release of food grains
While food wastage is a real problem, underlying this crisis is the decrease in domestic food grain purchase, combined with a dramatic increase in imports of food grains and other items by China. Notably, a day after President Xi gave out his instructions, China’s National Food and Strategic Reserves administration announced that its purchases of wheat had dropped by nearly 10 million tons from last year. As of 5 August, purchases of wheat had reached 42.86 million tons, a year-on-year drop of 9.38 million tons. Purchases of rapeseed reached 706,000 tons, a drop of 51,000 tons over the same period last year. Meanwhile China imported large amounts of crops: In the first six months of 2020, it imported 74 million tons of grain, up 22 percent from last year. The US was its biggest exporter with more than 9 million tons of soybeans, 100,000 tons of wheat, and 65,000 tons of corn. At the end of August, Chinese buyers struck deals to buy 195,000 more tons of American corn.
At the same time China has released 62.5 million tons of rice, 50 million tons of corn, and more than 760,000 tons of soybeans from its strategic reserves, which is more than the amount released in all of 2019. In Henan province, which accounts for 10 percent of China’s grain, farmers are hoarding wheat as they expect prices to rise due to low supply, according to the South China Morning Post.
Source: China Grain Reserve Corporation
History repeating itself?
Will history repeat itself? It is not known as yet what the real situation in China is, as information coming out of China does not reflect the severity of the crisis. Importantly, however, President Xi’s statements on the need for ‘gastronomic discipline’ are reminiscent of similar instructions issued by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1959, at the beginning of the Great Famine (1958-1962), in which some four to five million people are estimated to have died of hunger. Mao “purged” those who opposed his idea much in the same manner as President Xi has done with his detractors in the name of the anti-corruption campaign. A combination of factors have fallen into place which indicate that China is at the throes of a massive food shortage that could worsen into one of its biggest crises since the founding of the PRC in 1949.