Five decades ago, most of China was poverty-stricken and many regions didn’t even have running water or electricity. Today, thanks to the ingenuity of the Chinese people, and their hard work and talent, it has become the second largest economy in the world, is a world leader in science and space, and has more foreign exchange reserves than any other country. Given these amazing advances, it makes a lot of sense to watch everything they are doing very closely.
Some people who are doing exactly that have noticed something very curious: China is preparing for a food shortage at breakneck speed.
Food is often in the news, but these days it’s happening more than usual. Natural disasters like extreme droughts and flooding, and freakish storms and extreme temperatures, have impacted food supplies in the US and around the world. And now, man-made interruptions such as supply chain problems, and shortages of truck drivers and other workers are exacerbating this situation. Clearly, China is very concerned about these developments.
Stockpiling Like Crazy
With an estimated 1.4 billion people, China has the world’s largest population. However, that’s still less than 20% of the world’s population. This means that proportionally they should have 20% of the world’s food. However, they have been stockpiling food way beyond this level.
Consider these statistics, which were compiled by the US Dept. of Agriculture. It’s expected that in the first half of crop year 2022 China will have 69% of the world’s maize reserves, 60% of its rice, and 51% of its wheat; they’ve also been building their stores of soybeans and other foods.
These purchases are very good for China, but they’re not as good for everyone else, as they have contributed to a sharp increase in food prices around the world and caused in increased hunger in some countries.
So exactly what convinced China to stockpile food at so feverish a pace?
There are two possibilities. First, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) believes that food prices will continue to increase sharply and they want to buy as much as they can before prices go even higher. The second possibility is more in line with a conspiracy theory, but it too makes sense: China anticipates a black swan event -- some humongous, unexpected development that could disrupt the world’s food supply. And if such a development does indeed happen, they want their storage bins to be as full as possible.
Lessons From Years Past
During the 1950s and the 1960s, many people in the US enjoyed rising standards of living. In China, however, these years were extremely difficult and the country suffered from The Great Famine.
Historians estimate that tens of millions of people died from hunger and countless more suffered from its consequences. There are still many Chinese alive who remember the pain and tragedies of those years.
To this day, there are people in China who eat dogs, cats, rodents, and bugs -- things that almost never turn up on menus in America -- and this has nothing to do with culture. They eat these because hunger in China during the Great Famine was so intense that people were grateful for anything that would keep them alive.
This thinking became so ingrained that it became part of some people’s lifestyles. Incidentally, the problem of hunger was not limited to China. I had a relative who lived in New York during the 1930s, during the Depression, Dust Bowl, and the “if you don’t come in to work on Saturday don’t come in on Monday” era who told me he used to rummage through garbage cans in a desperate search for food; one time he was elated when he found remnants of a tossed orange. In any case, the Great Famine caused very serious political problems for the then rulers of China and clearly the CCP wants to do as much as it can to avoid a repeat of those.
There are current problems related to food production in China. Nature.com estimates that at least 38 million pigs had to be culled in 2018 because of an outbreak of swine fever, and millions have been since then. In addition, last year many chickens had to be culled because of bird flu, which meant the loss of a great deal of poultry and eggs.
China is maintaining its food stockpiles at a “historically high level,” Qin Yuyun, head of grain reserves at the National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration, said in November. “Our wheat stockpiles can meet demand for one and a half years. There is no problem whatsoever about the supply of food.”
According to Nikkei.com, China spent $98.1 billion importing food (beverages are not included in this number) in 2020, up 4.6 times from a decade earlier. In the January-September period of 2021, China imported more food than it had since at least 2016, which is when these data began to be recorded.
Over the past five years, China’s soybean, maize, and wheat imports soared between two and twelve-fold by aggressive purchases from the U.S., Brazil, and other food exporting nations. Their imports of beef, pork, dairy and fruit jumped two- to five-fold.
Fighting For Food
Food shortages and people fighting over supplies that are available have become a growing problem in nations that were once part of the former USSR. They’re also a problem closer to home. In fact, they’re showing up in Europe; in the UK, more than half of Britons surveyed said they have personally experienced food shortages in recent weeks or know someone who has.
And the country right behind them is the US. Meanwhile, the shortages of fresh food in Australia is worsening rapidly because there aren’t enough people to pick food on farms and transport it to local markets.
A CNN report in November said that food prices had increased by more than 30% in the past year. And anyone who does the shopping knows that they’ve gone higher since then.
China is certainly aware of these developments, and back in November it began urging its citizens to stock up on food and water to prepare for the winter.
Several questions need to be asked -- and answered. With food shortages springing up around the world why is the US not taking comparable steps? And given these circumstances why is it exporting substantial amounts of food? And why isn’t it encouraging people to prepare for a rainy day?
Years ago, the US stockpiled great amounts of food, in part to help farmers, but also to prepare for any emergencies should one arise at home or around the world. These days, the amount of food that the government has available “just in case” is shockingly low. That means that in the event of an unexpected emergency, to a great extent people will be on their own. And given the breakdown in so many of our trusted institutions, that’s scary.
Two years ago, no one imagined that the US would be trying to cope with a prolonged and painful pandemic, a surge in inflation, a shipping crisis, an evolving energy crisis, or other problems. And yet they are very real and upon us.
Whether China knows something that is about to happen or if it is just being extremely cautious to safeguard the safety of its citizens, their caution appears to be the prudent way to go. Nothing bad can come from stocking up on extra food supplies. Hopefully, the US will never learn this lesson the hard way.
Sources: cnn.com; nature.com; nikkei.com; YouTube: Water and Food Shortage 2022