The Chinese agronomist and “Father of Hybrid Rice” Yuan Longping (袁隆平) passed away on May 22. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his condolences to Yuan’s family, and the state news agency Xinhua ran a rare weekend commentary to honor his passing—actions more usually suited to the deaths of former political leaders, not scientists (Hunan Daily, May 23; South China Morning Post, May 23). Such officially sanctioned national mourning was especially significant given that Yuan—famously not a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member—had been a vocal critic of past CCP mistakes such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Predictably, state censors also leapt into action. The Weibo accounts of 68 users accused of spreading false information about Yuan’s passing were shut down, and several people were arrested for insulting Yuan online (China Digital Times, May 24).
A careful spotlight was cast on Yuan’s achievements, even as censors moved to silence criticisms of his life’s work. Yuan successfully cultivated the world’s first high-yield hybrid rice in the 1970s, helping to fight hunger and poverty on a global scale. By the time of his passing, 57 percent of all rice grown in China was comprised of hybrid varieties developed from his research, and propagandists praised his contributions to China’s alleviation of absolute poverty last year (Xinhua, May 23). Yuan was also a vocal anti-food waste proponent and a symbol of China’s quest for food security, two issues that have gained renewed focus for Chinese policymakers in the wake of last year’s coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers in April passed an “Anti-Food Waste Law” ([反食品浪费法], fan shipin langfei fa) (Xinhua, April 29), and are preparing to pass a new “Grain Security Law” ([粮食安全保障法], liangshi anquan baozhang fa) in the next two years (Xinhua, January 14).
Food Security, Dual Circulation, and Self Reliance After Covid-19
Achieving food security has been a longstanding priority for the CCP. With a little over 1.4 billion people, China possesses almost one-fifth of the world’s population but less than one-tenth of the world’s total arable land. Although China’s per capita grain production (1036 lbs) exceeds the international average (882 lbs), it remains the world’s largest food importer, and a recent official statement admitted that the nation’s food security was in a “tight balance” (Guangming Daily, April 3). A growing middle class and changing consumption patterns are likely to create further demand pressures on China’s food supplies. Shocks from the coronavirus pandemic, a 2019-2020 outbreak of swine fever, and historic flooding, droughts, and typhoons last year all contributed to strain agricultural yields, while urbanization continued to shrink both available farmland and the rural labor supply (South China Morning Post, November 29, 2020).
On top of these short- and long-term pressures, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for developing basic self-sufficiency in grain production, saying at a December 2013 Central Rural Work Conference: “the Chinese people’s rice bowls must be firmly held in their own hands at all times” (中国人的饭碗任何时候都要牢牢端在自己手上, zhongguo ren de fanwan renhe shihou douyao laolao duanzai ziji shoushang) (People Online, November 25, 2014), and that said rice bowls should ideally be filled with Chinese-produced grains. To this end, a 2019 White Paper on food security prioritized domestic wheat and rice production, trading off increasing “moderate imports” of soybeans and corn to compensate (SCIO, October 14, 2019).
Food security was enshrined last year as one of “six guarantees” (六保, liubao)—that the central government would prioritize as it sought to address economic uncertainties arising from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic (Xinhua, April 20). The emphasis on food security also dovetails with China’s post-pandemic dual circulation strategy (双循环, shuang xunhuan) which aims to rebalance toward domestic reliance (the second circulation) and self-sufficiency while still remaining open to global integration (the first circulation) (CSIS, August 24, 2020).
In 2020, China bought record amounts of non-rice grains and oilseeds including wheat, sorghum and soybeans. Corn imports exceeded annual quotas as well, buoyed by a strong pig production recovery and pressures to fulfill its phase one trade deal commitments for cereal grain purchases from the U.S. (South China Morning Post, February 12; World Grain, January 19). Strong Chinese demand continued to raise grain prices to record highs into 2021 (Agweek.com, March 8). Both before and after the pandemic, China has sought to diversify its food imports, looking to emerging economies in Latin America, Central Asia, and the Black Sea region to offset its corn and soybean dependence on the U.S. while also increasing its purchases of foreign arable land to offset domestic shortages; between 2000 and 2018, China was the world’s fourth-largest buyer of foreign land (AmCham Shanghai, February 22).
Although the government said that the 2020 summer harvest produced “all-time high” outputs, anecdotal reports of grain shortages led farmers to hoard crops and state purchases of grain reserves declined (South China Morning Post, August 7, 2020). Xi kickstarted a national anti-food waste campaign in August that culminated in the aforementioned April 2021 Anti-Food Waste Law, which seeks, among other things, to counter an estimated annual 35 million tons of grain loss due to inefficiencies in storage, transportation, and processing (Xinhua, April 29). China’s State Council issued a guideline on preventing the non-grain use of arable land and stabilizing grain production to ensure food security in November (Xinhua, November 18, 2020), and promulgated a draft law on the management of grain reserves in December (Agriculture.com, December 3, 2020). Food security, specifically addressing the two problems of “seeds and arable land,” was also listed as one of eight key priorities at the Central Economic Work Conference in December (Xinhua, December 18, 2020).
2021: Grain Security Elevated in the 14th FYP
In January, the new Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Tang Renjian (唐仁健) expanded on “solving the problems of seeds and arable land” saying that “Seeds are the ‘computer chips’ of agriculture, and cultivated land is the ‘lifeblood’ of food production.” The semiconductor analogy comes from the perception that seeds, like semiconductors, represent a “bottleneck” technology for which China is dependent on foreign-controlled resources that must be overcome to “ensure that the Chinese bowl mainly contains Chinese grains, and Chinese grains mainly use Chinese seeds” (PRC Ministry of Agriculture, January 4).
The first joint policy statement of the CCP Central Committee and the State Council issued in 2021, which is commonly referred to as Document Number 1 and usually deals with rural issues, was dedicated to the topic of food security (PRC Ministry of Ecology and Environment, February 22). It notably required provincial authorities to maintain a “red line” of 120 million hectares of arable land while increasing the yields of wheat, corn, rice, cotton, edible oils, sugar, and meat. Because of China’s limited land and water resources, the document specified that increasing crop yields will depend on technological advances in seed quality and agricultural techniques—including biological breeding, gene editing, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence (SCMP, February 22). As a first step toward improving the seed supply, China’s Ministry of Agriculture announced that it will conduct a survey of seed and animal genetic resources and “fight for a turnaround” in China’s seed industry in three years (Global Times, March 24).
In the strongest signal of the central government’s elevation of food security as a key policy priority, grain security was included in the March release of the country’s 14th Five Year Plan (FYP, 2021-2025), which stipulated a binding (约束性, yueshu xing) developmental target to maintain annual grain production above 650 million tons through 2025 (Guancha.cn, March 13). It is worth mentioning that while the addition of a binding target for grain security in the 14th FYP is new, it is not especially ambitious: China’s total grain output exceeded the amount specified for the past six years (Guangming Daily, April 3).
Grain, energy and financial security were also highlighted in a special section in the newest FYP on “safe development” amid a complicated global environment (Global Times, March 8). A follow up article written by the Director of the National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration (国家粮食和物资储备局, guojia liangshi he wuzi chubei ju) quoted Xi, saying, “food security is an important foundation for national security” and, “guaranteeing national food security is an eternal topic, and this string must not be loosened at any time” (Qiushi, April 16).
The Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang recently hosted an executive meeting of the State Council on the topic of food security (Xinhua, May 6). Li reiterated the official line that China has enjoyed “a succession of bumper harvests in recent years,” but also emphasized the national security imperatives of boosting the country’s grain supply and storage capacity as well as the need to stabilize grain prices. Li also stressed the need to make up for key agricultural shortcomings (i.e., the problems of seeds and arable land) through scientific and technological advances.
Yet as China’s leaders seek to pursue agricultural self-sufficiency through the development and commercialization of bio-engineered foods, they will also have to win over skeptical consumers with a long memory of food safety problems (Bloomberg, March 29). The controversial phrase “genetically modified organism” (GMO, 转基因, zhuanjiyin), has been conspicuously absent from recent policy discussions on food security (Caixin, February 22). Widespread but quickly censored criticisms of Yuan Longping’s legacy demonstrate the Chinese public’s wary relationship with GMO foods such as hybrid rice (China Digital Times, May 24). China has mobilized its substantial state resources to elevate food security to a national security priority in the 14th FYP. Now, it will also have to wage a delicate public opinion campaign to convince domestic skeptics that the state’s technology-driven solutions are viable and safe.
Elizabeth Chen is the editor of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, feel free to reach out to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Ensuring the “six guarantees” of 1) job security, 2) basic living needs, 3) operations of market entities, 4) food and energy security, 5) supply chain stability, and 6) the normal functioning of local governments, are intended to update the central government’s 2018 economic policy priorities to maintaining the “six stabilities,” (六稳, liu wen), consisting of stable employment, finance, foreign investment, local investment, and growth expectations (CCDI, May 19, 2020).