China may not be able to meet sharply rising food demand from its domestic resources, a senior Chinese agriculture official said, indicating room for further growth in imports. Chen Xiwen, director of the State Council’s executive office on rural policy, questioned the policy wisdom of setting increasingly higher targets for grain output as China struggles to wring more yield out of scarce arable resources.
China’s government has long emphasized the need to produce enough grain to meet almost all the demands of its huge population, to avoid becoming dependent on foreign suppliers. In recent decades, it has dropped the self-sufficiency goal for some crops, like soybeans, but continues to categorize corn, wheat and rice as key grains, of which it maintains formidable stockpiles. Mr. Chen said current stockpiles of key grains total 200 million metric tons, including both private and public stocks—about two-fifths of annual consumption and among the largest such reserves in the world.
But China’s grain imports have risen in recent years across major categories, soaring in some categories last year to their highest levels in more than a decade. For corn, the most prominent example of the shift, China broke its 15-year status as a net exporter last year as imports exploded, in part because drought damped domestic output. Wheat and rice imports also grew.
Driving the shift in large part are dietary changes as China’s population becomes wealthier. Those changes mean “our ability to meet consumption levels is clearly insufficient,” Mr. Chen said. He said genetically modified foods, increased fertilization and organic farming are partial solutions, but pose inherent problems, such as pollution and potentially unsafe or overly expensive food.