Social Sciences

The Global Impact of Food

Will transformations in food production destabilize China?

China now has 20 percent of the world’s population of seven billion people, but less than 10 percent of the world’s arable land. This lopsided equation is of special interest to Dan Buck, an associate professor of geography.

But it’s not just the disproportion that’s worrisome, says Buck, who holds a joint appointment in Asian studies. China’s overall approach to modernization—including the modernization of its food systems—adds layers of uncertainty to the equation.

“China is trying to solve the food problem by consolidating its small family farms into large-scale modern farms,” he explained. “It hopes this will increase output and food supply, but will it succeed?”

And consider this complicating factor: Moving hundreds of millions of farmers into cities is creating demand for new food industries—and building cities for them to live in is driving China’s economic growth. But while this is part of China’s master development strategy, “those small family farms are still the economic safety net for hundreds of millions,” said Buck. “Will they find enough jobs in the cities to buy the food they used to grow for themselves?”

If not, Buck fears this could destabilize China. 

For the past several decades, China has been self-sufficient in terms of food production. Small farmers produced what China needed to feed itself. In fact, food self-sufficiency has been a deliberate national strategy at least since Mao Zedong, designed to protect China in times of hardship or war.

Agribusiness takeover of Chinese family farms should increase output, says Buck, but there’s no guarantee it will be enough to maintain self-sufficiency, especially with a growing middle class that is consuming more meat and dairy every year—foods that require much more land than the traditional diet.

China is already a huge market for food producers elsewhere. For instance, government campaigns to get China’s citizens to drink more milk have been an export boon for Oregon, New Zealand and Australian dairy farmers. Believing that milk products build bigger, stronger bodies (thereby “making the national body strong,” says Buck), Chinese officials promote their equivalent of the “Got Milk” advertising campaign to encourage dairy consumption. Studies have shown that after just one generation, Chinese children are indeed getting taller (though meat and other factors are surely involved as well).

To avoid becoming reliant on other countries for food imports, China is following in the footsteps of Japan and South Korea. Those countries, once food self-sufficient, are producing food for their populations on immense tracts of agricultural land they have bought up in Brazil, Africa and Southeast Asia. The reason, Buck explains, is that like China they don’t have much arable land compared to their large populations. They have found that it’s much cheaper to grow food abroad than to produce it in-country.

Asia will comprise 40 percent of the global food market by 2020. All that growth is changing the world as food systems try to adjust to China’s growing market and rising influence. As Buck travels throughout Asia to research these effects, one unexpected trend he has discovered is a contest of cuisines: each country is trying to promote its national cuisine to be the most popular across all of Asia.

“Right now, Korea seems to be winning,” he said.

These dynamics—the intersection of food production systems, global economics, geopolitics and cultural norms—illustrate how the burgeoning field of food studies is about so much more than food itself. 

Buck is a member of the advisory board for the UO’s new food studies program, which delves into these interrelationships.

Among the many courses he teaches are Geographies of Food, which examines the ways in which “food links together nature and society, country and city, third world and first world, local and global, and producer and consumer,” and Food in Asia, which probes the questions: “How did different Asian cuisines develop and how are things changing with modernization, globalization and the rise of China?”

“Food is a vehicle for understanding globalism, in all its dimensions,” he said.

— Lisa Raleigh