A drought in China is threatening food production, prompting the government to order local authorities to take all available measures to ensure crops survive the hottest summer on record.
On Tuesday, four government departments issued an urgent joint emergency notice, warning that the autumn harvest was under “severe threat”. It urged local authorities to ensure “every unit of water … be used carefully”, and called for methods included staggered irrigation, the diversion of new water sources, and cloud seeding.
A record-breaking heatwave combined with a months-long drought during the usual flood season has wreaked havoc across China’s usually water-rich south. It has dried up parts of the Yangtze River and dozens of tributaries, drastically affecting hydropower capacity and causing rolling blackouts and power rationing as demand for electricity spikes. There is now concern about future food supply.
Even Pay, an analyst at Trivium China who specialises in agriculture, said her immediate concern was for fresh produce.
“The kinds of fresh vegetables that supply the local markets where people buy their produce each day – that’s the category that is least likely to be in a major irrigation area, and which is not likely to be strategically prioritised in a national push to protect grain and oil feeds,” she said.
Crop losses would also hit supply chains and exacerbate supply problems, Pay said, as a Chinese city’s produce supply was often grown close to that city, but would have to be sourced from further away and could rot on longer journeys.
Pay said the concerns were mainly domestic, and that categories of food that would affect the global markets were “keeping pretty safe”. But she said attention should be paid to rapeseed if the drought was still going when crops are planted in the autumn.
China is now relying more heavily on its own corn production – 4% of which was grown in drought affected Sichuan and Anhui – after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drastically destabilised global supplies.
Pay added:“I think we’re going to start to see reports of livestock farmers getting hit. A lot of pig farmers have upscaled in recent years … There are big intensive vertical farms, and if the AC gets cut off [the pigs] are not going to be in good shape.”
Pay was relatively optimistic about the measures announced on Tuesday, and its call for tailored local solutions. The order to divert water sources would probably help areas where water is inaccessible, she said, and subsidies have already been announced.
“But we’ve now had 35 straight days of heat warnings. We have dry season water levels, or below typical dry season water levels. The conditions are very, very extreme and there’s no question that there will be some loss of crops.”
Tuesday’s notice heavily emphasised that it came from the highest levels of government, partially titled “emergency notice on thoroughly implementing the spirit of general secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions”.
“That’s a really important signal to localities that there is a very high degree of political will behind the push to do anything and everything possible to support farmers and ensure crops can be saved,” said Pay.
It was also a sign of the pressure on China’s Communist party to avoid food price rises and inflation, as it prepares for its five-yearly congress meeting in the coming months.
“It’s signalling to markets, anyone with the jitters, or thinking of stocking up on food, that: hey everybody is mobilised and we’re going to do everything we can,” said Pay. “It’s also signalling to local province and county level governments that they need to get out and be seen to do something even if there is nothing that can be done.”
China has made climate crisis commitments to peak its carbon output before 2030, but – along with some European countries – has recently reprioritised coal production to stave off a global energy crisis.
Pay said China was making big efforts in adaptability. She said the hydropower failure in Sichuan – where it contributes 80% of power supply – would probably lead to a fossil fuel-driven response in the short term before efforts to boost other renewable sources which had struggled to compete with cheap hydropower.
“What’s happening this summer is going to be the base case for what a climate emergency looks like, and we’re likely to se a lot of policy research and redesign … and a lot more attention around water availability.”
Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu