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China\'s food insecurity

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COMMENTS

15 April 2011 11:45

Catherine Chan is an environmental lawyer and journalist in Beijing.

Meeting the food demands of 1.3 billion people is a primary issues faced by the Chinese Government.

An increasingly affluent population, with a growing appetite for agriculturally intensive food products like meat and dairy, has seen demand for pork and eggs become sensitive issues for the central Government. Food price inflation has long been a key concern for wider social stability in China.

Significant inflation in 2007 was largely driven by 'blue ear' disease, a form of swine flu among pigs. For this reason, the Government maintains strategic reserves of pigs and salt among its major foodstuff resources.

A 5,000 plus year history of farming has left soils depleted and China's tumultuous history is not without its fair share of drought and famine. As a result, existing agricultural land has been intensively farmed with strong fertilizers and pesticides, many of which are on the World Health Organisation's banned list.

Deforestation and soil degradation have made the yellow sandstorms that descend from the Steppe to the urbanized east coast cities no longer rare. Urbanization is rapidly eating up what viable farm land exists around cities — since the mid 1990s China has lost around 8.3 million hectares of arable land. 

In essence, China's construction boom (which drives up prices of Australia's commodities) is also driving up Chinese food prices.

China has approved over 1,500 industrial development zones throughout the nation, but the Government is aware of the threat to country's arable land — 'Grain security should be given priority', noted the Secretary-General of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission.

But aiming for self-sufficiency in staple crop production seems a thing of the past.

China has purchased and leased large tracts of farmland in countries like Algeria and Zimbabwe to produce crops for export, to fill China's diminishing rice bowl. A process that has been darkly captured by the recent film When China Met Africa.

The Forbes blog recently highlighted the conflict of the US being the world's largest grain producer and China being the largest holder of US debt, being resolved with China as Washington's banker, and the US as China's farmer

On the other side of the debate, the US Department of Agriculture has released a policy paper that suggests China's food security objectives may clash with its aspirations towards energy independence and environmental objectives.

If you walked into any Chinese supermarket or small shop two weeks ago, you'd have found the shelves bereft of salt and Japanese-produced milk powder. Beijing underwent a salt shortage for about 3 days after the disaster that has so devastated northern Japan, in the belief that iodized salt would help stave off the effects of any nuclear drift that hit the capital.

The only new spin on this is the international nuclear disaster angle — runs on garlic and ginger happen on an almost yearly basis.

A slew of recently opened high-end Japanese restaurants here in Beijing's Chaoyang district, including the world renowned Nobu chain, are having to rethink their appeal in directly importing produce from Japan. 

For your less-cashed-up Beijinger on the street, who would rarely deign to enter a Japanese restaurant, recent news that low levels of radiation have been found on vegetables grown around cities like Shanghai and Beijing have further added to concerns about food

This will invariably see demand for imported organic processed products and meat from countries like Australia, already products of choice amongst China's urban elite, increase.

Photo by Flickr user Stuck in Customs.

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