Questions over how to feed China’s hog herd remain a growing challenge for Beijing and a threat to global food security.
At present, China holds significant quantities of the world’s grain reserves. According to a report in the Nikkei Asia, by mid-2022, China is expected to hold 69 percent of the world’s maize (corn) reserves, 60 percent of its rice, 51 percent of the world’s wheat, and 37 percent of its soybeans. However, this was denied by the country’s foreign ministry.
China’s Growing Feed Corn Problem
Over the past decades, as China moves to modernize its pig sector, replacing backyard pig farming with modern and commercial large-scale pig production, there has been a rapid surge in the domestic demand for feed corn. Compared to wheat, soy, and rice, the domestic corn shortage is of even greater concern to Chinese policymakers, at least in the near future. Over the past few years, China’s corn imports have increased by several fold due to deficits in production. In 2021, China had to import 28.35 million metric tons of corn, up 152 percent from the previous record of 11.3 million tons in 2020. Most corn imports came from the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Ukraine.
To reduce dependence on foreign feed grains, China, in recent years, has also sought to directly import more pork and other meat products. For instance, the country’s overall meat and fishery imports almost doubled in value between 2017 and 2019, though this was also largely driven by a shortage in domestic pork. In 2020, China imported a record 4.4 million tons of pork, which accounted for more than 40 percent of global trade. China is now also the largest beef importer in the world. In 2020, the country imported 2.1 million tons of beef, 23 percent of its beef requirement and 30 percent of global trade. Even for fisheries, China, a country which has long been the largest exporter of fish, has been importing more and more. In 2016, China imported 4 mmt of fishery products, and in 2019, it jumped to 6.3 mmt.
Additionally, China is undertaking efforts to reduce domestic pork consumption. With much concerning regarding the negative health impacts of the population’s high consumption of pork, the Chinese government has been advising the population to eat more poultry and fish, and less pork, which would also reduce the country’s dependence on imports. In 2018, with the outbreak of African swine fever, pork prices increased significantly. To ensure the country’s meat supply, the Chinese government introduced policies to increase domestic poultry production, leading to a shift in the country’s feed structure: a steep decline in pig feed and an increase in poultry feed. For instance, in Shandong province, China’s biggest feed producer, pig feed declined by 28 percent, and poultry feed grew by 8.6 percent, between January and April 2019. As the feed conversion ratio is 2.7 to 5.0 for pigs but only 1.7 to 2.0 for chickens, this lowered China’s total feed demand without reducing meat output.
As China’s grain imports, particularly corn and soybeans, have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, the country’s vulnerability to trade tensions and supply shocks has increased. Even though China has relatively less exposure to global food trade in terms of staple supplies, there remains substantial risks in feed grains. To overcome these challenges, China has sought to boost its domestic production of feed grains through five-year plans, technological developments, reducing the country’s overall pork consumption, and further diversifying countries China imports from, which is also shaping global food supply chains. However, if factors such as the Russia-Ukraine war continue at their current pace, China, along with the rest of the world may soon face a looming animal feed and meat crisis.