China has claimed victory over the coronavirus outbreak inside its borders, but now the country faces another crisis: food shortages.
Rumors of a food shortage have swirled on social media for weeks, in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown that stopped tens of millions of people from going to work, and a leaked government document made public on Thursday shows that government officials have also been planning for a shortfall in food supplies.
The document, dated March 28, was drafted following a meeting of a party committee in Linxia Prefecture, a region of 2 million people in central China. The meeting was called to make special arrangements for food security.
“The State Party Committee and the state governments and counties and cities must do everything possible to transfer and store all kinds of living materials such as grain, beef, mutton, oil and salt through various channels,” the document said, according to a report from Radio Free Asia.
The document also calls for the “mobilization of the masses to consciously store grain and ensure that each household reserves between 3 and 6 months of grain for emergencies.”
There is also evidence that citizens in certain parts of the country are panic buying in response to rumors around a food shortage.
As the rumors gained traction on social media, the government denied that the country is facing any crisis.
"Consumers have no need to worry about the shortage of food supplies and the sharp rise in prices. They don't have to concentrate on buying bulk food at home,” Wang Bin, deputy director of the Department of Consumer Promotion of the Ministry of Commerce, said Thursday.
Beijing has also mobilized the state-run media to try to convince the world that China is not facing a food crisis.
Wang’s comments are in stark contrast to those from the Ministry of Commerce in February, when a spokesperson admitted that China’s agriculture and food industries would be “heavily impacted” if the coronavirus crisis persisted.
Six weeks later, parts of the country are still in lockdown and the government is even locking down new areas in an attempt to prevent a second wave of infections.
Wang’s claim is based on the fact that China’s stocks of wheat, corn and rice in 2019 totaled more than 280 million tons, while yearly consumption on average is more than 200 million tons.
But the three-month-long coronavirus lockdown saw China’s economy grind to a halt, and has had a huge impact on the country’s food production capabilities. Data gathered by the Qufu Normal University in February found that 60% of village officials in 1,636 counties were “pessimistic” or “very pessimistic” about the planting season.
Farmers are struggling to find feed for their livestock and fertilizer is now in short supply. Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, is also the country’s main producer of fertilizer, and factories have struggled to reopen. One estimate puts the shortfall in fertilizer production at 40%.
Another major part of the problem for Chinese farmers is that they rely heavily on domestic migrant workers. Many workers returned home during the Lunar New Year festival at the end of January, but with public transport coming to a halt and tens of millions of people in lockdown, farmers have struggled to find enough laborers to cultivate their crops.
“China’s agricultural industry has collapsed without the free flow of labour and raw materials,” said Ma Wenfeng, an analyst at CnAgri, a consultancy in Beijing, told the Financial Times last month.
Cover: A woman carrying a suitcase and vegetables enters the city of Wuhan which is still under lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak but have started allowing some residents to return in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, April 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)