New report analyses major changes in China’s food system

04 March 2014

I Stock_jacus_China Street Food
© Istock/jacus

Dramatic changes in China's food system over the past 35 years are charted and analysed in a new publication from the Food Climate Research Network.

Appetite for Change provides a detailed and integrative analysis of the changes in China’s food system, and explores the links among the environmental, health, economic and cultural trends that are emerging.

The Food Climate Research Network is supported by the Oxford Martin School, and led by Dr Tara Garnett, a principal investigator on the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. Dr Garnett co-authored Appetite for Change with Dr Andreas Wilkes, director of Values for Development, a UK-based consulting company focusing on climate change adaptation and mitigation in agriculture in developing countries.

The major changes documented in the report include:

  • A large increase in the volume and diversity of foods produced, with particularly rapid growth in the livestock, aquaculture and horticultural sectors, and a rapidly growing food processing sector
  • Changes in supply chains, including a gradual scaling up of production operations and various forms of horizontal and vertical integration in some supply chains
  • Growth of new forms of food retailing, including the emergence of supermarkets, convenience and fast food catering sectors
  • Greater international engagement, including imports (notably soy for livestock feed) and growing horticultural and aquaculture exports, as well as inward investment by overseas manufacturers and retailers and outward investment in food production and processing overseas
  • Rapid growth in incomes and urbanisation have led to significant changes in what people eat: diets are more diverse, consumption of animal products and processed foods has risen substantially, and there has been a growth in eating out of the home.

The report underlines the point that there is no one ‘food system’ in China, but rather a diversity of ‘food systems’. Smallholder agriculture and traditional wet markets coexist with large-scale industrialised production and a burgeoning supermarket sector; China’s appetite for eating out embraces a broad range of catering formats and food types. There are also substantial variations by region, between rural and urban areas and by socio-economic status.

Rapid changes in the food system have had major consequences for the environment, for society and for people’s health, presenting multiple challenges for policy makers. Alongside a significant decline in hunger and malnutrition, and improved access by more people than ever before to affordable, diverse and enjoyable food, key challenges for policy makers include addressing environmental pollution and degradation, food safety concerns and the rising prevalence of obesity and chronic diseases.

These problems are connected, and while addressing some issues may bring multiple benefits, there are also trade offs that need to be managed. In a country as large, diverse and rapidly transforming as China, this requires both interconnected but also differentiated policies that are sensitive to social, economic and environmental contexts and scales. The report examines the issues that policy makers face, highlights actions that are being taken to address them – and the challenges in doing so – and identifies opportunities for international collaboration.

Many of the issues that China faces are shared by other rapidly industrialising and developed countries. In China, as in the UK, livestock production and consumption represent a nodal point where multiple environmental, health and ethical issues intersect. Strategies to moderate meat consumption could potentially help address both the problems of obesity and other chronic diseases and the environmental impacts of livestock production. Given the shared nature of these problems, much could be gained from international collaboration in these and other areas.