Food security: Lessons from past and present China

Posted: 17 April 2024 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott reflects on his visit to Xi’an, China, drawing parallels between ancient food security strategies and modern challenges.

chris' corner

I was finally able to visit the ancient capital of China, Xi’an, home of the Terracota Army and over 5,000 years of Chinese history last week. This trip was first planned before the COVID-19 pandemic to support the research work on food authenticity in the country but also to gain more insights into the rich cultural heritage of the country.

Perhaps it was due to the fact I will always primarily look through the lens of food security but for me there were multiple lessons to be learned from what I heard and saw. Ensuring sufficient food supplies for the nation in the past was hugely important to many of the emperors of the dynasties and those that neglected this often paid the price as farmers revolts and civil uprisings often resulted. 

I was able to observe some of the artefacts recovered from just a few of the large number of emperor’s mausoleums in the province of Shaanxi which Xi’an is the capital of. Wall paintings depicting farmers ploughing fields, harvesting crops and rearing livestock were in abundance.


A photograph taken by Professor Chris Elliott of a painting depicting farmers ploughing fields, harvesting crops and rearing livestock. Photo Credit: Chris Elliott

While the discovery of the Terracotta Army 50 years ago rightly gained much international awe, I saw massive herds of terracotta swine, cattle, sheep and goats which to me underlined the importance placed on animal derived foods as part of the food system thousands of years ago.  

There have been periods of severe famine across China, often brought about by natural disasters but also by those in seats of power concentrating the efforts and resources of the region into other activities such as defending from attacks and indeed attacking others to grow the empire.

I’m not sure if it is fair to try and reflect on what I saw and learned in Xi’an and draw comparisons with modern day Britain but I thought is worth at least attempting this. As I have written previously for New Food and increasingly so in recent times, I believe our past five Prime Ministers – David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – have been more interested in fighting internal political battles, building their own empires than anything related to national food security. Warnings of future food shortages have been dismissed as either untrue or simply not of political importance.

In China the development of the ‘Silk Road’ over 2,000 years ago to open up trading with over 100 countries around the world, of which trade in food and beverages was hugely important, we in the UK have decimated our trading relations with the world’s largest market, Europe.

Understanding that China cannot be self sufficient in food (as is the case with the UK), it is now expanding its trading relationships, especially in energy and food with the world through the ‘Belt Road’ and BRICS. In my view it is beyond ironic that at the same time the UK struggles to put in place any new trade agreements that will support national food security to any meaningful degree.

Modern day China understands they face substantial food security issues going forward due to the same issues that face the rest of the world. What is very different in that their leader, President Xi Jinping, in his re-election speech in 2022 mentioned food security several time stating that “We must reinforce the foundations for food security on all fronts”.

Compare this to the present government. The former Secretary of State for DEFRA around the same time when the UK was facing shortages of fresh produce told us all we should eat more turnips. We are now facing one of the worst harvests in many years due to the deluge of rain the country have suffered from and warnings of a crisis abound. So it seems the ‘turnip strategy’ of the government may not have succeed….

Net Zero farming: A recipe for food insecurity in the UK?

My good friend and expert commentator on the UK food industry, Dr Clive Black, wrote an article for New Food recently stating that we urgently need a UK Minister for the Food System as the current structure in the UK Government isn’t working for food. I fully endorse this view and hope that we in the UK can really start to formulate a long-term national food strategy. To look to see what China is planning would be a very good starting point.

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