China’s food imports have increased significantly since the nation joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. Annual imports and net imports of food reached US$160 and $93 billion, respectively, between 2019–2021.
But as rural incomes rise and China’s population falls the gap for trade to fill between domestic food production and consumption in the future is uncertain.
Soybean for animal protein feed and soybean oil is China’s largest food import — imports exceeded 100 million tons in 2020 and averaged 95 million tons annually between 2019 –2021. Maize replaced edible oils as China’s second-largest import commodity in 2021.
Other major food imports are meats, dairy and sugar. China is also the fifth largest food exporter, following the United States, the Netherlands, Brazil and Germany and is the largest exporter of vegetables, fruits and fish.
A scarcity of arable land and water are drivers of China’s rising food imports. China’s population (1.4 billion) is 18% of the global population but China only has 8% of global arable land.
Per capita water availability is only one-quarter of the global average. Technological and institutional innovations, market reforms and rising inputs and investment in agriculture have enabled China’s real value of agricultural output to grow more than 5% annually in the past 40 years. But this growth in production is still not enough to meet China’s growing demand for food.
Rapid income growth and moderate population growth have increased China’s demand for food, particularly meats. China’s per capita GDP increased from $1,053 in 2001 to $12,741 in 2022. China’s population increased from 1.28 billion to 1.41 billion over the same period.
Although China is the world’s largest food importer, its average annual per capita net food imports ($64) between 2019–2021 were lower than countries with relatively large populations but scarce arable land.
These countries include the United Kingdom ($457), Japan ($422) and South Korea ($535) between 2019–2021. This situation implies China has largely explored its domestic production capacity and could import more food in the future.
International trade has helped China balance food supply and demand. China’s WTO membership resulted in the full liberalization of soybean trade (only a 3% tariff rate remains) and lower tariffs on meats and other foods (at about 10–12%).
Strategic commodities such as rice, wheat and maize are subject to a 65% tariff beyond defined import quotas. Imported soybean, maize and edible oils have largely met China’s rising demand for animal feed, cooking oil and other food products since 2001.
Within China’s 2020 Food Security Law (to be formally issued in 2023) and 2021 Anti-Food Waste Law, China has set food security goals and strategies in response to rising pressures on food imports.
The primary goals are to “secure food grains (rice and wheat) domestically” and to be “basically self-sufficient in cereal (rice, wheat and maize) production.” If “basically self-sufficient” means 90% or so of those grains are produced domestically, there may be room to import more maize.
To achieve these goals, China will enhance its agricultural research and development capacity and technological innovation, protect cultivated land and improve soil quality. China also implemented a new green agricultural development strategy that focuses on promoting ecological diversity, resilience and sustainability in agriculture and low-carbon agriculture.
While China’s future food imports will largely depend on China’s efforts to increase its domestic food production and the international trade environment, two other factors are likely to play a role. First, China’s demand for meats will continue to rise with incomes until at least 2035.
Rising incomes — especially rural incomes in less developed regions in western and central China — will further boost demand for livestock products and other high-value foods such as vegetables, fruits and fish.
China has a comparative advantage in the production of vegetables, fruit and fish and will meet its own growing demand, but rising demand for meats and animal protein feed will exceed domestic production.
Trade will need to fill the gap between production and consumption. Importing soybean and maize to raise livestock production (and meet soybean oil demand) would be preferable over directly importing meats from potentially unstable international markets.
Still, there is potentially a high risk that the United States — a major soybean exporter to China — could restrict soybean exports to China due to political conflict. China will likely try to diversify its trade partners and substitute soybean with other protein feeds and expand its domestic production.
Second, food import growth will likely slow down over time. China’s strategies to boost food production will help increase domestic food supply. China’s population also peaked in 2021 and began to fall in 2022.
Trade will continue to be important for China’s food security and agricultural sustainability and will help ensure Chinese consumers have better and more nutritious diets as their incomes rise. Given China’s large size, its food imports have substantial implications for global trade and food-exporting countries.
Increasing food production in China and improving the governance of the multilateral trading system upon which agricultural trade relies — including by banning export restrictions and embargoes — would benefit all food importers and exporters.
Jikun Huang is Professor in the School of Advanced Agricultural Sciences, Director of the New Rural Development Institute and Honorary Director in the China Center for Agricultural Policy, Peking University.
This article, republished with permission, was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.