Can aquaculture meet China’s food demand?

Author: Yu Sheng, Peking University

China has made great efforts to meet growing domestic food demand over the past four decades. From 1978 to 2021, China’s real agricultural output grew by an average of 5.4% per year (more than five times population growth), with further diversification into high-protein, high-value products. Yet a substantial gap remains between food demand and domestic supply – and is set to widen.

In 2021, net imports of cereals were 165 million tonnes, including 96.5 million tonnes of soybeans (58.6%) and 10.4 million tonnes of cooking oils (6.3%) and 28 .35 million tons of maize (35.1%), which represents about a quarter of national production.

Given their high quality protein and relatively low production costs, aquaculture products are considered to have greater economic value than the livestock industry, both as feed and substitutes. feed grains. This makes aquaculture a priority industry in China – the world’s largest fisheries subsidizer – which could help bridge the gap between food demand and supply.

Between 1980 and 2020, the annual growth rate of the total output of the Chinese fishing industry averaged 6.7% per year, comparable to that of the livestock industry (6% per year ) for the same period. In 2020, the total production of China’s fishing industry was 65.49 million tons, of which 52.24 million tons came from domestic freshwater and marine aquaculture. This makes China the first aquaculture producer and exporter in the world, accounting for 60% of global aquaculture production in 2019.

Aquaculture in China has witnessed an expansion in production, including a rapid change in its production structure and mode of production over the past four decades. Driven by ongoing political reforms and growing economic concerns, China’s aquaculture production is focusing on freshwater and marine aquaculture, as opposed to the focus on finfish capture in the 1980s.

Offshore aquaculture produced 20.65 million tonnes of seafood in 2020, or 40% of total aquaculture production. Mussels, oysters and scallops were among the top three seafood products (accounting for 35%, 28% and 13% of seafood production respectively), while fish products accounted for only 7.3 % of the market.

Regarding the geographical distribution offshore aquaculture, the majority of offshore aquaculture activities are located along the north and south coasts of China’s exclusive economic zone. 46.7% of sea fishing and agriculture in 2020 came from the Huanghai and Bohai Seas, 29.5% from the East China Sea and 23.5% from the South China Sea. Less than 15 percent came from deep sea catches.

In the future, increasing per capita food demand, both in quantity and quality, will further increase the need for aquaculture products in China. According to recent forecasts by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, total aquaculture demand and hence production will increase from around 81 million tonnes to 100 million tonnes by 2035. This growth imperative exerts a strong pressure on domestic aquaculture production in competition for a limited feed supply.

In addition to freshwater aquaculture such as molluscs and carp, higher trophic species reared in offshore waters can also increase domestic supply in the future. The industry must dramatically increase its production and the efficiency of the use of resources. Yet challenges arise from growing environmental constraints, bottlenecks in technology and food development, interactions between political narratives and policy-making, and the availablity of seafood and animal feed resources in the world.

To solve the problems facing the future development of aquaculture in China, a new guiding principle was launched in the 14th five-year plan (for 2021-2025). This new directive emphasizes sustainable production to guide the future development of aquaculture in China and is expected to be achieved through improved productivity. As evidence, wild capture fisheries have already been severely restricted for the period 2016-2020 and their production as an absolute and relative proportion of total aquaculture production has decreased over the same period.

Along with accelerating domestic production in freshwater and marine aquaculture, China is also actively expanding its ability to outsource growing demand. On the one hand, China is intensifying its efforts in the exploration of deep-sea fishery resources along with the increase in shipbuilding capacity and technological progress. At the same time, China is increasing its overseas trade and investment to increase the import of aquaculture products.

This clearly indicates that China’s current strategy is to move towards a market-based and demand-driven economy for aquaculture products, along with the Belt and Road Initiative. While outsourcing from international markets is an attractive option, this strategy depends on China’s ability to access sufficient production internationally. Either way, the consequences should have big implications for the rest of the world.

Yu Sheng is a professor at the School of Advanced Agricultural Sciences and deputy director of Peking University’s new rural development institute.

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