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Publication | 2021

Transforming Chinese Food Systems for both Human and Planetary Health

Over the past four decades, China's food security and nutritional status have improved significantly witnessed by elimination of hunger and poverty, increased diversity of diets, and reduction in child stunting. The Brief highlights the following enabling factors of this transformation:

  • The growth in agricultural productivity (8% of the world's arable land and 5% of global fresh water feed 20% of the world's population) has been sustained by i) massive investments in R&D; ii) a strong public extension system to serve smallholder farmers; iii) large-scale poverty reduction and nutrition intervention programs;
  • The reform of the agricultural market, at domestic and international level, with the reduction of the average import tariff for all agricultural products from 42.2% in 1992 to 12% in 2004, and the development of rural E-commerce that has helped smallholder farmers to overcome barriers to market;
  • The integration of green development and resilience into the agricultural development strategy. China made substantial public investments in irrigation, flood control and land improvement. In response to environmental degradation and climate change, the government has initiated the first national program to protect natural resources in 2016 and thereafter implemented a series of directories and regulations to tackle the environmental degradation and to restore the agro-ecosystem. Through government subsidies, farmers are given the incentive to adopt more environment friendly production.

Despite these achievements, China's food system is facing a set of emerging challenges:

  • Slowdown of agricultural productivity growth. Between 2000 and 2018, the average relative comparative advantage index for feed grains, oil crops and meats (other than poultry) declined from 2.0 to around 0.8;
  • Triple burden of malnutrition. Micronutrients deficiencies persist (anaemia rate among school-age children at national level is estimated to be 6.1%), and overweight and obesity rates are increasing (from 20.4% in 2000 to 34.3% in 2020), impacting on the prevalence of adult diabetes (from 1% in 1980 to 11.9% in 2020);
  • Degradation of natural resources: nearly 70% of cultivated land in China is classified as low-or medium-fertility land, water resource constraints are severe as well (in 2019, China's per capita water resource was only 22% of the global average), and finally China is among the most climate related disaster-prone countries in the world;
  • Remaining rural-urban and regional inequality;
  • Increasing food imports and uncertainty in global market. From 1978 to 2018, China's agricultural trade increased at an average annual growth rate of 10% and trade deficit has continued to increase.

To address these challenges, China has enacted new policies that include two important shifts:

  • Establish "a well-off society in an all-round way" through the Rural Revitalization Strategy. To ensure food security, China is actively enacting to stabilize land areas under grain production. New technologies (e.g., biotechnology, digital agriculture) are being promoted to increase agricultural productivity; focus towards developing a more efficient, green, inclusive and sustainable food system, including a carbon neutrality by 2060. The brief concludes with some recommendations to transform Chinese food systems for both human and planetary health:
  • Modernizing small farm (e.g. facilitating land consolidation, supporting the development of more effective farmer cooperatives);
  • Further investing in natural resources restoration and enforcing agro-environment legislation;
  • Raising awareness of healthy diets and enacting to combat food loss and waste;
  • Enhancing the productivity of whole food systems through a more innovative science and technology system (e.g. breeding technologies in crop, livestock and fishery, climate-smart agricultural technology);
  • Increasing the resilience of food systems (e.g. expanding agricultural insurance system to mitigate natural and market risks, establishing the integrative protection system against pests and animal diseases, making full use of E-commerce, improving social protection system).