China faces major challenges to ensure food safety and supply

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | June 10, 2013

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Melva Robertson
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Despite the challenges facing Chinese agricultural production, the authors describe how the rapidly growing Chinese economy has led to a gradual change in focus from food supply issues to food safety.

China's vast population and global economic importance make the stability and safety of its food supply a global public health priority and a major concern for international markets and trading partners. A study published in the June 8, 2013 issue of The Lancet examines why food supply issues have historically been of prime importance to China’s policymakers and citizens alike and  analyzes the  recent shift in attention from  supply to food safety concerns.

"In the 1990's, global analysts warned that China’s large population and the rapid conversion of arable land for urbanization and industrialization might eventually lead to a large gap between food demand and production in the country," says Justin Remais, PhD, associate professor of global environmental health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, who co-authored the paper. "This would place substantial strain on global markets for agricultural products, and potentially destabilize global food security. But since that time, China has instead increased its per person yield of key crops like cereals—the major source of calories in the Chinese diet—even as the country's population has risen."

Successful breeding programs of high-yield varieties and increasing agrochemical inputs have contributed to these gains, Remais and colleagues note, but environmental degradation from the overuse of agrochemicals is raising major concerns in the country. Maintaining adequate supply as the Chinese diet shifts towards greater consumption of animal products is another key challenge China faces in the coming decade. This is because acreage devoted to feed crops to supply the animal agricultural industry can compete with acreage for staples like rice and wheat, a trend that has been observed in China.

Despite the challenges facing Chinese agricultural production, the authors describe how the rapidly growing Chinese economy has led to a gradual change in focus from food supply issues to food safety. As living standards have increased, and less household income is spent to meet nutritional requirements, the perception of food in China has undergone a fundamental change.

Recent food contamination incidents, in particular, have jeopardized the public’s trust in food safety, the authors say, and the presence of illegal chemical additives in food have led to public health hazards, social distrust of the food industry, and loss of public confidence in the country's regulatory system. But even as these high-profile additive contamination events have captured the nation’s attention, most food safety incidents in China are related to pathogenic microorganisms and toxic animals and plants entering the food supply, are strikingly underreported, and cause significant ill health.

In response to these major challenges, the study notes that the Chinese Government has shown a commitment to reforming food safety laws and investing in vital surveillance and monitoring systems; yet weak links remain, particularly in implementation.

"Resolving the country’s food supply and safety challenges will require a multi-pronged approach, including novel legislative and regulatory actions, increased public engagement, and a renewed commitment by industry to uphold principles of environmental sustainability and consumer protection," explains Remais.  "However, my colleagues and I cautiously anticipate improvements in the coming years."

The research was supported in part by Emory University's Global Health Institute.