China's Food Challenges

The scale and impact of China's agricultural
economy is staggering.

The rise of industrial animal farming

The rise of industrial animal farming

To meet growing demand for meat as incomes rise, the government has encouraged large scale industrial animal production. This kept meat prices low, but pollution from ever-larger pig, poultry and dairy farms has fouled the nation’s waters. Widespread misuse of drugs and chemical additives have caused numerous food safety scandals and made China’s factory farms a breeding ground for antibiotic resistance and zoonotic disease. Unable to compete with subsidized factory farms, small farmers have abandoned animal production and lost an important source of income. Demand for animal feed has outstripped the capacity of China’s grain farmers and vast natural areas in South America have been replaced by soy farms for export to China, a process that more than doubled the area of Brazilian soy farming from 1996 to 2010.

Diets and Health

Since the 1990s, the Chinese have shifted from a healthy, plant-based diet to one dominated by processed foods, meat, added fats and sugars. This transition is partly a result of new-found prosperity, but has also been driven by aggressive marketing of junk foods and government policies designed to support meat production. China now accounts for over 50% of global pork consumption, and is the source of over half of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s global profits. One result of this is skyrocketing rates of obesity and relate illnesses, and the WHO estimates that 110 million Chinese suffer from Type 2 diabetes. China’s polluted rural environment and increasingly complex food supply chains have also precipitated a food safety crisis. The media regularly reports on pesticide residues in vegetables and heavy metals in rice, and in 2008 an illegal additive in infant formula sickened over 300,000 children.  

Million Chinese Suffer from Type 2 Diabetes
Gigatons of CO2 greenhouse gases generated by China’s domestic food system

Global Climate Impacts

China is the world’s largest producer of many agricultural commodities, but the climate impacts of its food system are also exacerbated by its farming practices and growing dependence on imports. Chemical fertilizer application in China (457 kilogram per hectare) is nearly twice the internationally-recognized standard, and over 3 billion metric tons of nitrogen- and methane-rich livestock manure were generated in 2010. Paddy rice is responsible for about 30% of global methane emissions, and China grows 30% of the world’s rice. On top of the country’s massive domestic emission, are those associated with land clearing in other countries to meet skyrocketing Chinese demand for imports of crops such as soy and palm oil.

Declining Land and Water Quality

The increasingly intensive use of chemical inputs to raise yields and control pests, along with untreated waste from pig and poultry farms, have overtaken industry as the main source of surface and groundwater pollution in China. Off-farm sources are compounding this damage. Due to sulfur emissions and other industrial air and water pollutants, large areas of cropland suffer from serious soil acidification and it is estimated that 10-12 metric tons of grain are contaminated with heavy metals each year. 

The percentage of China’s groundwater that is unfit to drink
Billion Spent by ChemChina to Acquire Syngenta

Corporate Power

The globalization of China’s food system has brought a tremendous concentration of power in the hands of ever-larger corporations – foreign and Chinese – at the expense of farmers and consumers. The success of international fast food, junk food and hypermart chains has driven a transition from healthy traditional foods to unhealthy, high-calorie Western diets and an epidemic of childhood obesity. Farmers face exploitative production contracts, local monopolies and unfair competition from agribusinesses favored by government policies and subsidies. And to compete with multinational agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Cargill, the government has encouraged and bankrolled a boom in international investment, mergers and acquisitions by Chinese mega-firms.  

Government Action

China’s leaders are aware of the country’s food challenges. They have strengthened water pollution laws and cracked down on some of the worst factory farms, while carrying out a massive “payment for environmental services” scheme that compensated tens of millions of farmers for planting trees or grass instead of row crops on steep slopes and arid lands. The Ministry of Agriculture and Chinese Academy of Sciences are developing new cropping methods and higher-yielding varieties, and China has its own system to certify “green” foods. But it is hard to simultaneously prioritize growth and sustainability, and China faces stark tradeoffs as it seeks to promote a food system that is productive, healthy and environment-friendly.

Billion spent on soil and water conservation 2000-2010
of Chinese would pay more for green, healthy food

Bottom Up Responses

Ultimately, China's leaders determine the direction of China’s food system, but all over the country people are already exploring better ways to balance food production, public health, farmer livelihoods, the environment, animal welfare and more. The New Farmer movement is reinvigorating rural areas with knowledge and connections from urban-educated youth. There is an explosion of innovative connections between sustainable farmers and consumers who want green, healthy food: farmers markets, co-operatives, Community Supported Agriculture, food hubs and more. International NGOs are working with importers to build more sustainable supply chains. And researchers inside and outside of the country are collaborating in areas such as plant breeding, agroecology, food policy and climate-friendly agriculture.