Food security: This is how China plans to feed its 1.4 billion people

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • China is the most populous nation on earth, but the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and global uncertainty threaten its food security.
  • Tests of salt-tolerant ‘seawater rice’ strains have produced high yields and could help China feed its 1.4 billion people.
  • The hybrid rice has also been tested in the Dubai desert – and could offer one solution to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger.

As the world’s most populous nation, China has the most mouths to feed. In 2020, its population reached 1.41 billion – roughly around a sixth of the world’s 7.9 billion people.

Even though population growth has dropped to the slowest ever, President Xi Jingping recognizes the need to address the country’s food security this year.

After COVID-19 and natural disasters threatened its food system, China is seeking to become more resilient and self-sufficient in the face of uncertainty.

China needs to stabilize food and corn production and expand output of soybean and oilseeds to make sure “Chinese bowls are mainly filled with Chinese food”, President Xi told delegates from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on March 6.

China ranked 34th out of 113 countries in the 2021 Global Food Security Index, published in September, which measures food affordability, availability, quality and safety, and natural resources and resilience.

It’s one of the top five countries that has shown the most improvement over the past 10 years.

A chart showing the world's top countries for food security.
China ranks 34th out of the 113 countries covered by the food security index. Image: Statista

Climate change impact on China’s food security

Climate change is one of the major factors threatening China’s food security.

In July last year, heavy rainfall and flooding affected 2.4 million acres of crop fields in Henan province. The area is known as China’s ‘granary’ because it produces a third of the country’s wheat supply – and accounts for a tenth of its corn, vegetable and pork supply.

Although the wheat season was over, the extreme weather hit corn and vegetable production, with harvest yield predicted to have fallen by at least 30% across almost half of the affected fields, according to the provincial government.

In 2020, summer floods washed over fields close to the Yangtze River, affecting the major rice-producing provinces, including Hubei, then floods hit crops in two northeastern provinces and typhoons also impacted the corn harvest.

Added to this, rising sea levels are threatening farmland along China’s coastline.

How seawater rice could help

Among China’s initiatives to tackle food insecurity are campaigns against food waste and increasing the land area given over to cultivating crops.

But other innovations are already making an impact, including ‘seawater rice’ – salt-tolerant strains developed by scientists to thrive in salty, alkaline soil.

Tests have shown these strains – a crossbreed of high-yield rice and a form of wild rice that is more resistant to salt – produce a higher yield than standard varieties.

Although the concept has been around since the 1950s, seawater rice production was pioneered by the late agricultural scientist, Yuan Longping, known as ‘the father of hybrid rice’ because his work is thought to have saved millions from hunger.

“A tiny grain could either save a country or bring it down. The importance of food security should never be underestimated,” he told CGTN.

China’s arable land

By the end of 2019, China’s total arable land was 1.28 million square kilometres, a nearly 6% drop compared with the previous 10-year period, according to a once-in-a-decade survey of the country’s land use published in August. That’s just 13% of China’s total area, and it’s expected to fall further by 2030, as land is converted to urban and industrial areas.

But an area the size of Egypt is too high in saline for crops to grow, as salt inhibits plants’ ability to absorb water. According to CGTN, planting just a tenth of that land with seawater rice would boost China’s rice production enough to feed 200 million people.

While it’s yet to be fully implemented commercially, scientists at Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center were put in charge of 4,000 square kilometres of land last year to cultivate the rice.

And in 2018, Yuan Longping took a team to Dubai to experiment growing seawater rice in the desert.

Food systems change

Food

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on global food security – with the UN estimating that as many as 811 million people were undernourished in 2020 – around one in 10.

Transforming food systems is key to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger – and the transition to net-zero economies.

The World Economic Forum, the Food Action Alliance and partners are holding a virtual meeting Bold Actions for Food – Regional and Country Flagships to drive action on food systems change.

In the Opening Plenary, leaders will discuss how to raise ambitions and scale leadership action towards COP27, and explore strategies for realizing shared goals by 2030.

The global cultivation of seawater rice might just be one way of ensuring no-one goes hungry.

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