Largest Importer of Food, China, the food importing giant

Largest Importer of Food, China, the food importing giant

7 Reasons Why China is the Largest Importer of Food in the World

China is the world’s most populous country, with a population of over 1.4 billion people. It is also one of the fastest-growing economies, with a GDP of $14.7 trillion in 2020. However, China faces a major challenge in feeding its huge and growing population, as it has limited arable land, water resources, and environmental quality. As a result, China has become the largest importer of food in the world, importing $105.26 billion worth of food and food products in 2020, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Here are seven reasons why China is the largest importer of food in the world:

1. Rising demand for meat and dairy products.

China’s rapid economic development and urbanization have led to a significant increase in the consumption of animal products, such as meat, eggs, and dairy products. These products require more land, water, and feed than plant-based foods, and China cannot produce enough of them domestically to meet the demand. Therefore, China imports large quantities of meat and meat preparations, especially pork, beef, and poultry, as well as soybeans and soybean meal, which are used as animal feed. China also imports dairy products, such as milk powder, cheese, and butter, to satisfy the growing demand for these products among Chinese consumers.

2. Diversification of dietary preferences.

China’s middle class has grown rapidly in recent years, reaching about 400 million people in 2020. This group has more disposable income and more exposure to foreign cultures and cuisines, which have influenced their dietary preferences. Chinese consumers are increasingly seeking more variety, quality, and convenience in their food choices, and are willing to pay more for imported food products that offer these attributes. For example, China imports fruit and vegetables, wine, chocolate, coffee, nuts, seafood, and baked goods from different countries around the world.

3. Food safety concerns.

China has experienced several food safety scandals in recent years, such as the melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008, the gutter oil scandal in 2011, and the expired meat scandal in 2014. These incidents have eroded the trust and confidence of Chinese consumers in domestic food products and have increased their demand for imported food products that are perceived to be safer, healthier, and more reliable. China has also tightened its food safety regulations and standards in recent years, which have increased the cost and difficulty of domestic food production.

4. Climate change and natural disasters.

China is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters on its food production and security. China faces frequent droughts, floods, typhoons, pests, diseases, and soil erosion that affect its crop yields and quality. For example, in 2020, China suffered from severe flooding along the Yangtze River basin that damaged millions of hectares of farmland and caused losses of billions of dollars. China also faced an outbreak of African swine fever that decimated its pig population and reduced its pork production by more than 20 percent. To cope with these challenges, China has to import more food from other countries to supplement its domestic supply.

5. Trade policies and agreements.

China’s trade policies and agreements also influence its food imports. China is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 2001, which has reduced its tariffs and quotas on agricultural products and increased its market access for foreign exporters. China has also signed free trade agreements (FTAs) with several countries and regions that have lowered or eliminated trade barriers on food products. For example, China has FTAs with Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, and ASEAN countries that have boosted its imports of meat, dairy,
wine, fruit and seafood from these partners.

6. Geopolitical considerations.

China’s food imports are also affected by its geopolitical considerations and relations with other countries. China uses food imports as a tool to enhance its diplomatic ties, economic cooperation, and strategic influence with other countries, especially those that are part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a massive infrastructure and development project that aims to connect China with Asia, Africa, Europe, and beyond through trade and investment. China imports food from many BRI countries, such as Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, to support their agricultural sectors and foster mutual benefits.

7. Food security strategy.

China’s food imports are part of its food security strategy that aims to ensure its food supply and stability for its population. China follows a principle of “basic self-sufficiency” for staple foods, such as rice, wheat, and corn,
which means that it tries to produce at least 95 percent of these crops domestically. However, for non-staple foods, such as meat, dairy, and fruit, China adopts a principle of “moderate imports” that allows it to import these products from other countries to meet its demand and diversify its sources. China also invests in overseas agricultural projects and companies to secure its access to food resources and markets.

Largest Importer of Food

The global food trade is a complex and dynamic system that involves the production, processing, distribution and consumption of food products across the world. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), foodstuffs were the world’s 10th most traded product in 2021, with a total trade value of $707 billion USD. Foodstuffs include various categories of edible preparations, such as beverages, baked goods, animal food, chocolate, sugar, wine and liquor.

Trends and Patterns in Food Imports

The United States was the largest importer of food in 2021, with a total value of $86.6 billion USD, followed by Germany ($44.3 billion USD), United Kingdom ($34.2 billion USD), France ($30.9 billion USD) and China ($30.4 billion USD). These countries accounted for 32 percent of the global food imports in 2021. The main sources of food imports for these countries were other developed countries, such as Canada, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and France.

The demand for food imports depends on various factors, such as population size and growth, income level and distribution, dietary preferences and habits, domestic production and consumption patterns, trade policies and agreements, exchange rates and transportation costs. Some of the drivers of food import growth in recent years include:

Population growth and urbanization:

The world population increased from 6.1 billion in 2000 to 7.8 billion in 2020, with most of the growth occurring in developing regions, especially Asia and Africa. Urbanization also increased from 47 percent to 56 percent of the world population during the same period. Urban dwellers tend to have higher incomes and more diversified diets than rural dwellers, which increases the demand for imported food products, especially processed and packaged foods.

Income growth and diversification:

The world gross domestic product (GDP) per capita increased from $8,982 in 2000 to $11,429 in 2020 (in constant 2010 US dollars), with significant variations across regions and countries. Higher incomes enable consumers to afford more and better quality food products, as well as to diversify their diets with more animal products, fruits and vegetables, and exotic foods. These products are often imported from other countries due to climatic or production constraints in the domestic market.

Trade liberalization and integration:

The world trade openness ratio (the sum of exports and imports as a percentage of GDP) increased from 51 percent in 2000 to 59 percent in 2020, indicating a greater integration of the global economy. Trade liberalization policies, such as tariff reductions, quota eliminations, non-tariff barrier removals and trade facilitation measures, have reduced the costs and barriers of trading food products across borders. Trade agreements, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements, regional trade agreements (RTAs) and bilateral trade agreements (BTAs), have also enhanced the market access and opportunities for food exporters and importers.

Implications and Challenges of Food Imports

Food imports can have positive and negative implications for both importing and exporting countries. Some of the potential benefits of food imports include:

  • Enhancing food security: Food imports can help to ensure adequate food availability and accessibility for consumers in importing countries, especially during times of domestic production shortfalls or shocks due to natural disasters, pests, diseases or conflicts. Food imports can also contribute to food stability by reducing price volatility and uncertainty in the domestic market.
  • Improving food quality and safety: Food imports can expose consumers to higher quality and safer food products that meet international standards and regulations. Food imports can also stimulate domestic producers to improve their production practices and technologies to compete with imported products or to access export markets.
  • Increasing consumer choice and welfare: Food imports can increase the variety and diversity of food products available for consumers in importing countries, which can enhance their nutritional status and well-being. Food imports can also lower the prices of food products by increasing the supply and competition in the domestic market.

However, food imports can also pose some challenges and risks for both importing and exporting countries. Some of the potential drawbacks of food imports include:

  • Reducing domestic production and employment: Food imports can displace or discourage domestic production by creating unfair competition or crowding out effects for local producers who may not be able to compete with cheaper or better quality imported products. This can reduce the income and employment opportunities for farmers and other actors in the domestic food value chain.
  • Increasing trade dependence and vulnerability: Food imports can increase the dependence and vulnerability of importing countries on external sources of food supply, which may not be reliable or sustainable in the long term. Food imports can also expose importing countries to external shocks or disruptions in the global food market due to price fluctuations, trade disputes or sanctions, transport bottlenecks or disruptions.
  • Affecting the environment and health: Food imports can have negative impacts on the environment and health of both importing and exporting countries. Food imports can increase the carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions of the food system by increasing the transport distance and mode of food products. Food imports can also introduce invasive species, pests or diseases that can harm the local biodiversity and ecosystems. Food imports can also affect the health of consumers by increasing the exposure to unsafe or unhealthy food products that may contain harmful substances, additives or residues.


Countries Most Dependent On Others For Food – WorldAtlas

Foodstuffs | OEC – The Observatory of Economic Complexity

Trade of agricultural commodities 2000 2020 – Food and Agriculture Organization

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