Better policies for China's sustainable food system transition in the new era by Zhang Weilan, June 08, 2023
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In view of the multiple demands of food security, national nutrition, ecological balance, market effectiveness, and system resilience, it is urgent to accelerate the transition of China’s food system to a healthier, more sustainable, fairer, and more resilient one, Liu Xiaojie, an associate professor of Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) notes in an article released by the Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences (BCAS,in Chinese), a think tank journal supervised and sponsored by CAS, which focuses on strategic and decision-making research.

According to the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), the term “food system” refers to all the elements and activities related to producing and consuming food and their effects, including economic, healthy, and environmental outcomes. The sustainable food system transition is also one of the core issues of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015.

Other major international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also emphasize that the food system transition and the food security definition should consider aspects of multiple dimensions such as nutrition, environmental sustainability, and social justice, instead of solely focusing on food supply security.

Around the world, food systems are facing a triple challenge: ensuring food and nutrition security for a growing population, supporting the livelihoods of millions of farmers and others in the food chain, and doing so in an environmentally sustainable way.

Against the backdrop of the global challenges, the paper indicates: China’s food system is facing increasing external risks and new challenges such as food safety events and food waste, which threaten the resources, environment, and health of the population. Meanwhile, COVID-19 pandemic has also imposed unprecedented pressures on food systems, and various researches on the impact of COVID-19 have highlighted the need to strengthen their resilience as part of a green, sustainable and inclusive recovery.

The author confirms that a sustainable food system is a complex and open system that ensures food and nutritionsecurity for present and future generations, promotes fair livelihoods, has positive impacts on nature, and is resilient at social, economic, and environmental levels. However, the present food systems are currently a long way off from meeting those challenges. For this reason, better policies are urgently needed.

The study aims to analyze the main issues and challenges faced by China’s current food system and to decode the relationship between food system and sustainable development goals of the United Nations from supply, demand, and security guarantee mechanism perspectives.

According to the paper, the Chinese government has always put food security as the top priority in the governance of the country. For instance, between 2000 and 2020, China has achieved 17 consecutive years of bumper grain harvests. China has made great efforts to consolidate the achievements of poverty alleviation, incorporate the achievements into rural vitalization, and is concerned with the rights of vulnerable groups to participate in the food system. With the upgrading of consumption, it has achieved the transitions from the demand for enough food to healthy food. Meanwhile, the food safety in China has undergone a process from focusing on quantity safety, hygiene safety, and quality safety to nutrition safety.

The article draws attention to the view of multiple demands of food security, national nutrition, ecological balance, market effectiveness, and system resilience in the policy-making process. This includes ensuring that the acceleration of the transition of China’s food system to a healthier, more sustainable, fairer, and more resilient one.

“A sustainable food system has five core features: systematicity, dynamism, diversity, scientificity and collaboration,” the paper says. It can be explained as follows: a sustainable food system requires the collaboration of multiple stakeholders, including the government, companies, residents, and knowledge departments; its dynamic characteristics are determined by the interactions and feedback within and outside the system; it has diversity on different spatial scales, including the local, regional, and global scales; it is a scientific system built on an interdisciplinary foundation; it can transform negative external elements into collaborative development with consideration to the interactions and trade-offs between systems.

The article further identifies six key dimensions, including security, health, justice, greenness, economy, and resilience, for constructing the strategic framework of China’s sustainable food system.

For the security part, it suggests that improving agricultural productivity is the foundation for ensuring security. To this end, it is necessary to strengthen the building of agricultural infrastructure, promote agricultural scientific and technological progress, maintain the red line of 1.8 billion mu of arable land, and ensure the adequate and effective supply of agricultural inputs. The structural reform of the agricultural supply side should be further promoted, and modern food reserve infrastructures should be established.

It also highlights the diversified approaches to improving consumers’ awareness of balanced nutrition, dietary structure, and nutrition and health in poor rural areas.

To pursue justice and greenness means establishing a long-term mechanism for governing relative poverty and enhancing inclusiveness of the food system, as well as building an environmentally friendly and resource-efficient food system to reduce food waste and loss.

Regarding the economic feasibility, it is necessary to promote large-scale operations and improve agricultural production efficiency, while enhancing the economic feasibility of efficient and environmentally-friendly production methods.

In terms of the supply chain, it is necessary to stay ready and steady for the possible food disruptions, enhance the capacity of the food system in response to sudden public health emergencies and increase the combatable capacity of the system to de-globalization, investment, and geopolitical risks. This can be achieved by building green channels of agricultural emergency transport and improving the “reservoir” and “regulator” functions of the food reserve system, explains Liu.

“We hope to provide some systematic reflections on how to ensure China’s food security in the new era and further to contribute to sustainable global food system transition with Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions,” Liu concluded.