China has given up one of its most sacred tenets and in effect abandoned its policy of being self-sufficient in grain as its population outpaces the ability to grow its own food.
Beijing has increasingly imported grains and food but has maintained an ideological emphasis on producing as much domestically as possible. For the first time, however, it has set a grains output target well below domestic consumption rates, implying a move away from that ideological commitment to producing all the grains it needs – central to Communist party thinking for decades.
The new policy stance, included in guidelines issued this week by the state council, or cabinet, instead placed a greater emphasis on the quality, rather than just the quantity, of what is produced.
The guidelines call for grain production to “stabilise” at roughly 550m tonnes by 2020, below the 2013 harvest of 602m tonnes. “While putting emphasis on food quantity, pay more attention to food safety and quality,” the document said, in a shift in tone and emphasis.
A more liberal grains import policy was floated as a reform that might be adopted by President Xi Jinping even before he became head of the Communist party in 2012.
Under the new rules the country will prioritise the supply and quality of meat, vegetables and fruits, all of which require less land than bulk grains and create more agricultural jobs. That in turn should lead to increased imports from countries with sufficient space to grow grain – including the US, Australia, Canada and Ukraine, a recently favoured destination for Chinese agricultural investment.
China has long held to the principle of grains self-sufficiency – a term included in the latest blueprint – but the meaning of that tenet has already shifted considerably.
Soyabeans, which the country imports in bulk, have not been included in self-sufficiency calculations for some time, and agricultural policy debates for several years have revolved around the question of whether “80 per cent self-sufficient” is as good as “95 per cent self-sufficient”. China became a net food importer in 2004.
“It is clear that the policy has shifted towards food grains such as rice and wheat rather than feed grains. There’s a clear problem maintaining volumes of feed grains, such as corn or soybeans,” said Wang Jimin, of the Rural Economic and Development Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Supplying grain has been a priority for the Communist party, which built its power base in a Chinese countryside wracked by famine in the 1930s and 1940s. Ironically, the emphasis on grain production in the first three decades of Communist rule often resulted in food shortages – for instance, grain production quotas resulted in low-yield rice being planted in unsuitable fields; lowland crops replaced highland barley, the staple of the Tibetan plateau; and production of vegetables, cooking oil and other necessary food got short shrift.
An estimated 30m people starved to death during the height of collectivisation in the late 1950s, when local communes exaggerated grain yields to meet Mao Zedong’s inflated targets.
Restoring planting decisions to family farmers and market reforms beginning in 1978 have improved supply of all foods, including fruits, vegetables and meat, across China.
Average food consumption has risen in a generation from levels barely sufficient for human survival to levels that rival the developed world in urban areas, although meat is still a treat for the rural poor.
“Now the cities are full of little fatties, but in the countryside there are children who are malnourished,” said Mr Wang.
Even in recent years, government policy continued to support grains production in spite of warnings from reformists that land would be better used for less thirsty crops. But rising Chinese meat consumption changed the equation, due to the amount of grains needed to feed livestock.
“显然政策已转向大米和小麦等食用谷物，而非饲料谷物。在保持饲料谷物（如玉米或大豆）的产量方面存在明显的问题，”中国农业科学院(Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences)农业经济与发展研究所(Rural Economic and Development Institute)的王济民表示。