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 and a hint at why expansionism and food security are linked.

China is flexing its considerable muscle worldwide, worrying people in the West. Here we look at the connection between expansionism and food security as a logical explanation for the behaviours and the rhetoric.

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 they fear expansionism, a fear 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 and the perpetrator is a standard fear-based response. Diss what makes you feel uncomfortable. 

China’s expansionism and food security

I thought about what China was doing to make my buddies so adamant. 

We know that China has grown enormously in the last few decades—roughly every sixth person in the world is a Chinese citizen—particularly since it embraced its form of capitalism. It dominates global markets regarding goods produced and has built a fleet of container ships to move those goods worldwide.  

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 supply—expansionism and food security. 

I didn’t realize that expansion is more political than 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 supply and demand don’t get out of hand domestically. Global concern is that this has already happened in the Chinese property market, and food could be next.

Remember, most of the Chinese population was rural before moving to a more commercial approach to global markets—an economy for the majority on a hand-to-mouth existence. Before commercial expansion, 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—why do you think the British sent settlers to Australia all those years ago?

My golfing buddies choose to ignore the irony.

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

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

Pork consumption in China

When there are many people to feed, keeping up with demand is a huge challenge. And demand is as much about expectation as needs.

Global meat production has quadrupled since 1961, my lifetime. In 2018 production was around 340 million tonnes, with about one-third being pork.

graph showing a steady increase in pork consumption in China and a hint at the link between expansionism and food security

In China, pork production 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.

Population has more than doubled since 1961 but so too has purchasing power. The growing middle class in China has the means and expects more protein in their diet. Pork illustrates this expectation’s size.

Now think about this from a strategic perspective. 

China has 1.425 billion people, many with the means to buy and the expectation to have access to protein-rich food. Over 900 million Chinese live in urban centres with little or no capacity to grow their food and rely exclusively on the food supply chain. 

What would you do if you knew how precarious this situation was for the people and the country?

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 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 tonnes 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 partly by acquiring buffer resources from other parts of the world—expansionism for food security—but mostly by ramping up local protein production, especially with pork. 

That might come across as expansionist, but I doubt a territory grab is a driver—the reason is expansionism and food security.

Opportunities and risk in geo-politics

The opportunity for sustainable food 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 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 our reaction to help people understand and make us feel better. 

What can look like bullying tactics are not necessarily nefarious; they may just be about looking after themselves. 

Indeed, a mirror is handy here. Recall that one country has military spending 3x greater than China, and the golf course was built on land taken in an expansionist play.

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

Here is the truth.

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. 

It is always worth remembering that expansionism and food security are closely linked.

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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