piglet on a farm

Expansionism and food security can be the same thing

Pork consumption in China grew from 2 to 55 million tonnes in 60 years. Good news for the Chinese, along with a significant rise in expectations. Is food the reason for expansionism…

A few of my golfing buddies say they hate China. They’re always going on about how horrible that country is, and I’ve often wondered why they have such hatred in their hearts. These are not generally bad blokes. But they seem to have followed the Australian way of becoming racist almost overnight. 

Their standard beef is always about China buying up Australian land, taking over Australian companies, and infiltrating our agriculture. No matter that the most prominent landholders in Australia are foreign superannuation firms.

Perhaps expansionism fears that many people in small countries, particularly isolated ones like Australia, will always have somewhere in the back of their minds. 

Should a colossus like China decide to take over Australia, its military and economic might could make it happen in a heartbeat. In other words, we have virtually no deterrent other than the conventional wisdom that countries will abide by international law — and some submarines in 20 years!

So the fear is understandable. 

An attitude against expansionism is a standard fear-based response. Diss what makes you feel uncomfortable. 

postcard image of a history Chinese town
Photo by manos koutras on Unsplash

Xitang, a picture-postcard historic town in Jiashan County, Zhejiang, China.

I got to thinking about what it was that China was doing to make my buddies so adamant. 

We know that China has grown enormously in the last few decades, particularly since it embraced its form of capitalism. It dominates global markets in terms of goods produced and has built a fleet of container ships to move those goods worldwide.  

Roughly every sixth person in the world is a Chinese citizen. With nearly 1.4 billion people living in China, secure food resources are essential. In the first instance, I imagined that this was the reason behind a lot of their land and business acquisitions worldwide, the need for long-term food security. 

What I didn’t realize was expansion is more political than it is strategic. China is purchasing land worldwide as the capacity for various commodities to prop up their internal food markets not just from a food security perspective but from a pricing perspective.

 According to The Land Matrix land acquired by the big players through large-scale land deals in 63 low- and middle-income countries is at least 44 million hectares since 2001. China is investing in a food supply buffer to ensure that supply and demand don’t get out of hand domestically. There is a global concern that this has already happened in the Chinese property market, and food could be next.

Remember, most of the Chinese population before the move to a more commercial approach to global markets was rural. An economy for the majority on a hand to mouth existence. There was rural poverty and food insecurity in many parts of the country. China has turned that around by improving the food supply base, and wealth creation has given the people much more confidence in their well-being with no desire to return to those darker times. 

Politically, that means keeping the people happy even though they remain in an authoritarian regime and happiness means a balance in food supply and demand. 

This is true in China and every other country in the world.

Pork consumption in China

Global meat production has quadrupled since 1961. 

In 2018 production was around 340 million tonnes, with about one third being pork.

graph showing a steady increase in pork consumption in China

In China, pork consumption has grown from less than 2 million tonnes to 55 million tonnes in 60 years, a remarkable change in demand and supply. The former comes from increased wealth, allowing people to purchase more nutrient-dense foods, and the market ramped up to deliver supply.

China’s international purchases of imported pork totalled US$4.5 billion in 2019, mainly from Spain, Germany, Brazil and the US, but the bulk of the supply is from domestic production. Local pork output has declined in recent years due to outbreaks of African Swine Fever but still reached 41 million tonnes in 2020.

When there are many people, keeping up with demand is a challenge. And demand is as much about expectation as needs. The growing middle class in China has the means and expects to have more protein in their diet.

Pork illustrates how big this expectation is, close to 3x the global production of when I was born in 1961.

What sustainably FED suggests…

China is flexing its considerable muscle around the world. Perhaps my golfing buddies were right to feel fearful. But they were wrong in their reasoning that China was trying to overtake us because we were weak, and they were strong, readying to take over. 

China wants to secure their people and maintain political strength by keeping its people happy. And when you have 1.4 billion people to deal with, that takes some doing — 50 million t of pork each year for starters and mains. 

The supply of food and resources must move indefinitely and regularly with only short, local blips in the system. Keeping the lid on volatility within a massive population is a problem China has chosen to solve in part by acquiring buffer resources from other parts of the world. 

That might come across as expansionist, but I doubt that a territory grab is a driver.

The opportunity for sustainability is to recognise that such global processes of land exchange and international deals for access to food are in motion. And to perhaps leverage them for better outcomes for everybody. 

There’s nothing to stop Australia, for example, from producing part of that additional food supply for the rest of the world while maintaining its independence and self-determination and, indeed food security for Australians. There are ways of being able to share outside of a market mechanism, and that’s essentially the idea behind trade agreements—opportunity through government mechanisms and the market. 

So back to my golfing buddies and their knee jerk expansionist explanation. The big bully around the corner is coming over to knock us about. Well, that’s perhaps the reaction that we have to help people understand. The bullying tactics are not necessarily always nefarious; they may just be about looking after themselves. 

Indeed, a mirror is handy here. Recall there is one country with military spending 3x greater than China

The reality is that any country will look after its people in its way before it looks after the rest. Every country in the world is like that.  We’ve already noted the extraordinary decline in the relative commitment of Australia to its overseas aid

The challenge of feeding everyone well also includes geopolitics. The world is a connected place that now includes large-scale connections in the production and consumption of food. 

Hero image from Photo by Nicolas Castez on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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