China is reeling from a record-breaking summer of rainfall and flooding that submerged furrows and destroyed crops, offering a window into how climate change-fueled extreme weather will complicate Beijing’s long-standing quest for food security.
China’s leaders have long agonized over how to feed the country’s sizable population—nearly one-fifth of the world—when it is home to just 9 percent of the world’s arable land, territory that has been shrinking as a result of excessive fertilization and overuse. For Chinese officials, those fears stretch back thousands of years, when issues of hunger and food insecurity sparked protests and imperiled regimes; more recently, food shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic sparked unrest in cities.
If Beijing was already worried about food security, rising geopolitical tensions have only turbocharged its bid for self-sufficiency in agricultural production. Over the years, China has grown increasingly reliant on foreign food imports—a habit that Beijing is trying to kick to kick by expanding its farmland. But as climate change drives increasingly extreme weather, the resulting fallout could pose yet another challenge to Beijing’s food security campaign.
“Food security is a very important concern for the Chinese government,” said Zongyuan Zoe Liu, an international political economist at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Most of the ancient Chinese dynasties were toppled by an uprising of the farmers because of extreme weather conditions that caused famine or food crises.”
Those fears haven’t gone away. Floods battered southern China again this week, the latest disruption in a string of extreme weather events that have pummeled the country’s agricultural sector and inundated harvests. In the cities of Harbin and Shangzhi, floodwaters mauled 220,000 and 105,000 acres respectively of crops last month; earlier this summer, extreme rainfall is estimated to have impacted as much as 30 million metric tons of grain in Henan province, a region that is widely called the granary of China. As farmers braced for more disruptions last month, officials announced that they would pour $60 million in flood relief funds dedicated to agricultural production.
“The number is rising, and the intensity is rising, in terms of the floods and the extreme droughts” hitting China, said Wendong Zhang, a professor at Cornell University. “There is less climate resiliency in the Chinese agricultural production system.”
It’s not just floodwaters that threaten to impact China’s agricultural output, either. In other regions, extreme heat has killed pigs and fish, and also stoked uncertainty about China’s rice crop and its production of key staples such as wheat, corn, and soybeans.
While flooding and drought aren’t unusual in China, climate change—which is fueled by human activity—makes precipitation and extreme heat both more intense and more frequent. China was drenched this summer by some of its heaviest rainfall in 140 years, according to officials, extreme weather that was also driven by this year’s El Niño weather pattern.
“There’s a very strong link between climate change and a growing number of extreme hydrologic events, including both flooding and drought,” said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and senior fellow at the Pacific Institute. “We’re already seeing, around the world, increases in extreme rainfall events that we know are influenced by climate change, and that has contributed to a lot of the flooding that we see not just in China, but all around the world.”
Rising geopolitical tensions have given fresh impetus to Beijing’s efforts, underscoring how food security has become increasingly intertwined with broader security concerns. While China is the source of one-quarter of global grain production, it has become progressively dependent on food imports in recent decades.
“Food security used to be more of a departmental priority,” Zhang said. “But this [has been] heightened to a level that is thinking from a major portfolio approach, thinking about this as one of the main key aspects of the national security for China, along with energy security” and other issues, he said.
This year, China is importing more wheat, corn, and sorghum than it expected to. Wary of its growing reliance on agricultural imports, Beijing has ramped up efforts to expand its arable land, reclaiming as many as 420,000 acres since 2021. As climate threats become more pronounced, Liu, the Council on Foreign Relations expert, said that Beijing has also focused its response on improving food technology and developing climate-resilient crops while also working to expand arable land and improve soil quality.
“The Chinese government feels like they shouldn’t depend on a particular country or a particular part of the world for supplying their food,” said Holly Wang, an agricultural economist at Purdue University. “That will only make them work harder and take it more seriously to emphasize domestic production. But at least so far, China still acknowledges that it will depend on the world market to supplement some food.”
Instead of preparing to attend the upcoming G-20 summit in New Delhi, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled on Thursday to flood-hit villages in northeast China, where he inspected the floods’ impact on rice crops. But Beijing has been reluctant to explicitly link this summer’s extreme flooding and heat to climate change, instead doubling down on its permitting spree for coal power plants.
What happens in China won’t necessarily stay in China, either. Given the size of the Chinese agricultural market and the scale of its demand, Zhang, the Cornell economist, said that severe climate disruptions impacting Chinese producers could ramp up demand in the global marketplace. Last month, Fitch Ratings, a U.S.-based ratings agency, warned that heavy rainfall in three Chinese provinces—Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Inner Mongolia—could intensify pressures on the global rice market.
The disruptions to Chinese harvests come at a time when global grain supplies are already strained by Russia’s continued interference with exports of Ukrainian wheat. Moscow not only refuses to renew a deal to allow the unfettered export of Ukrainian grains, but has also attacked agricultural export facilities in southern Ukraine and forced other countries to intervene in a bid to protect the flow of food. That, coupled with crazy weather, makes China’s headache a pain for the whole world.
“China is so big that these domestic shocks that arguably mainly affected the Chinese market are increasingly [having] significant global market implications,” Zhang said.