The Future of Food: China’s Transition Towards Resilient and Sustainable Food Systems

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Ricefields in China ©️ Bytran2710 / Public Domain / Pixabay

Ambition is a word that well suits China’s position on sustainability. The country is hosting the next UN Biodiversity Conference, during which the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Targets will be adopted. China has also been covering top positions in international organizations that are key for sustainability, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and – until September 2021 – the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Moreover, at the latest UN General Assembly in September 2021, President Xi Jinping identified the need to revitalize the world economy through greener development as a top priority, together with Covid19 recovery, multilateralism, and equitable governance (United Nations, 2021). This has been paired with ambitious domestic goals, such as the domestic climate target to reach a peak in emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060, announced in September 2020. But what does this mean for China’s food systems?

The short answer is: potentially, a lot. Agriculture has been central in the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), especially in its efforts to reach out to the most vulnerable parts of society. Nowadays, food production remains the fourth most important contributor to China’s GDP (Textor, 2021); its relevance in any future direction, including sustainability-related changes, is undeniable. And not only at national level: given the country’s size both in demographics and geographical terms, the whole world has its eyes on China’s food systems, a sine-qua-non factor to promote meaningful changes in global food production and consumption. To give a longer answer to the question above – what does sustainability mean for China’s food systems? – we need to zoom into different elements.

Environment and climate change boast a whole chapter in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and Vision 2035 of the People's Republic of China (People’s Government of China, 2021). The green economy, nature conservation and ecosystem restoration have been mentioned as important elements to be furthered in upcoming years. The chapter dedicated specifically to agricultural development also highlights that nature protection, pollution and resource efficiency are paramount for the future of food production. The Plan also mentions the concept of Ecological Civilization, already introduced in the CCP constitution as of 2012 (Wang et al., 2014). The term, which defines a society that takes “a positive path to development that ensures increased production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems'' (National Congress, 2017) recently gained a lot of attention, especially in the context of the UN Biodiversity Conference that China is hosting in 2021-2022. In the first part (11-15 October), four sessions were convened under the theme of ecological civilization (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2021). This could be, potentially, a turning point in sustainable development, breaking the historical silos between environmental objectives and the development agenda. Such dichotomy can be observed in most countries and goes up all the way to the global level, with the UN Environment Program and FAO sometimes having overlapping, conflictive objectives. While China is still part of these – hopefully changing – global trends, the concept of Ecological Civilization could change the rules of the game if successfully implemented.

Beyond that, issues like pollution, resource efficiency and food safety have been addressed by the Health China 2030, a declaration released in 2016 that remains central in linking human and environmental health. Of course, when it comes to food, a key measure to mitigate environmental impacts is eliminating (or at least reducing) food waste. In relation to this, a new law was introduced in April 2021.

At a different level, it is interesting to see how corporations can contribute to sustainability objectives. Let’s consider, for example, COFCO, the largest agri-food company in China. While the company has been shifting toward renewable energy sources and increasingly engaging in sustainability, corporate targets relating to environmental policy only address traceability and water use (COFCO, 2021). Of course, given that China and the EU have been undertaking two different development paths, expecting the same level of ambition would be unfair. What can be observed, however, is that coordination between China’s declared ambitions and actions is expected to be strengthened in the upcoming years, if the country is to lead the world toward a better way to produce and consume food.

Sustainability is not only about the environment, as society and the economy are equally important, and China knows that; this is highlighted in key initiatives, including the 14th Five-Year Plan and the Health China 2030. In this context, an issue of paramount importance is China’s elephant in the room: the rural-urban divide. But recently, the problem has been acknowledged and tackled in the 14th Five-Year Plan, which calls for further improvements in biotechnology, smart agriculture, and rural infrastructure. On digitization specifically, China has a great potential to make remarkable advances that would benefit agricultural production and the environment alike. If compared to the US and the EU, China has better access to data (Castro et al., 2019), which can result in increased efficiency and effectiveness when it comes to developing AI for agriculture. To be noted, technological progress to achieve food security was also China’s top recommendation during the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (United Nations, 2021).

There are also emerging sectors that well fit within the Ecological Civilization framework and have clear development and environmental benefits. These include, for example, bamboo cultivation, a nature-based solution that can help supporting livelihoods while promoting the use of a low-carbon material. Similarly, Chinese wine production is a great source of income for rural communities and can be a win-win solution for people and nature, particularly for those grapes that can grow in arid soil and thus require less or no pesticides. On this topic, a webinar hosted by European Guanxi explored the nexus between these two sectors and sustainability.

The sustainable transformation of Chinese food systems does not come without challenges. Equity - between and within nations - is surely one of them, but most recently Covid19 represented a major barrier, impacting global markets and trade of food products. As a response, China has established an effective system to ensure continued production and supply. Such a system entails measures like a more targeted use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to better match producers with consumers and the establishment of the so-called green channels to guarantee smooth transportation of foodstuff (Fei et al., 2020). These are concrete examples of how China is well-equipped to quickly transform its food system when faced with major socio-economic changes. While several challenges still need to be fully unpacked, such as the rural-urban divide but also health problems including obesity, the future of food in China looks bright and transformative.

What does this mean for the EU and the world? In the past years, the EU has put forward the Green Deal and it’s Farm to Fork Strategy. While these initiatives have a considerable impact on European food production and consumption, their objectives cannot be achieved without allies. Recently, an article figured on POLITICO's front page, pointing at the increasingly deteriorating cooperation on food reforms between the EU and the US (Wax et al., 2021). The two transatlantic powers seem to have grown into different views and strategies on the future of food, with the EU taking a more conservative approach and the US unleashing the full potential of technological innovation. With China standing somewhere in between the two approaches, this is an invaluable opportunity for EU-China cooperation if the Green Deal is to have an impact.

And it is not only a matter of diplomacy: cooperation between China and the EU on food sustainability is paramount to make European internal markets truly sustainable. The EU has become the third largest importer after the US and China (European Commission, 2021) and China is the fifth most important source of imported agri-food products in the EU, constituting the 4% of total imports – and the trend is rising. How both the EU and China will change their production system will have serious consequences at both the global and European level. A key element in this context is ensuring a level playing field between European products and imported goods: this would guarantee that all those reaching European consumers comply with the same environmental and social standards. Therefore, cooperation with major importing countries, like China, is paramount to ensure an effective implementation of Europe's ambitious targets.

The world’s food systems will be going towards major changes in the future. China, the EU and the US are moving accordingly. One thing is clear: the world cannot achieve sustainability without China, and China cannot achieve all its goals without allies in science and trade. A window of opportunity is open there, for a collaborative, more sustainable future. But with the EU and the US taking different directions and China taking a diversified approach, that window could be closing faster than we expect.

Jacopo Pasquero is International Affairs Advisor at the European Bureau and Conservation and Development, an international environmental NGO based in Brussels. There, he works on the interface between food security and environmental policy in the context of global processes (CBD, UNFCCC, FAO, BBNJ). He has also been working on youth engagement in the G20 Summit and G7 Summit. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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