Written by Nicoletta Ferro.

Ensuring food security, in terms of ongoing availability of food provisions, has always been one of the top priorities in the Chinese government agenda. Memories of the Great Famine are still vivid in the mind of many Chinese and while the country has succeeded in combating hunger and gained food self-sufficiency, concerns still exist. As Beijing is faced with the challenge of feeding its growing population (around 1.3 billion of which 65% will be living in urban areas by 2050) with only 7-10% of arable lands, solutions are envisaged for the future. But while boosting domestic agricultural productivity is a goal that can be achieved through both technological innovation and land acquisitions for agricultural use (what is generally defined as land grabbing), food safety, an umbrella term that encompasses many facets of handling, preparation and storage of food to prevent illness and injury, is emerging as a much more complex issue for China to confront in the next few years.

The intensive exploitation of natural resources, partly due to unregulated economic development and to an excessive use of cheap chemical fertilizers, has jeopardized food safety in the country. Recently disclosed official data reveal that at least 60% of Chinese ground waters are severely polluted. Unofficial data rise this percentage to nearly 90%. As ecosystems are closely connected, bad water also means contaminated soil. Been locked away as a state secret until recently, data on land pollution have been made public following a survey released in April 2014 that claims 16.1% of the country’s land and farmlands contain excessive levels of pollutants. As food safety includes a wide range of issues (poisoning, alteration, bad storage, additives) and involves the whole food chain, from production to consumption, threats do not only come from contaminated natural environment or poisonous productions processes, but also from unregulated and harming food processing procedures.

The 2008 milk formula scandal (when baby milk was poisoned with melamine) that brought the country’s dairy industry to collapse, was only the beginning of more food related scandals that followed and that continue to be reported by both domestic and foreign media. This lead to a strong call for industry sector reform. Changes can start from the government side but efforts are also expected from Chinese agri-food companies that are called to commit to a massive transformational change, encompassing both mindset, behavioral change and processes upgrade. Innovation in business models is not only a firm-level issue. Developing knowledge and capacity necessary to accelerate the transformation of business to safer and more sustainable enterprises, includes learning how to change the way individuals think and act; change the structures, strategies, processes and products of organizations. Moreover, it must go through changing the systems that corporations are part of – markets, regulations and culture. A complex challenge that China has to embrace if the country wants to operate the shift to a more mature industrial model (as recent political reforms witness), boost its national competitiveness on a global scale and assure a good quality of life for its citizens.

Nicoletta Ferro is Senior Researcher at GOLDEN (Global Organizational Learning and Development Network) a global research network focusing on business model innovation towards sustainability based at Bocconi University. This article is an excerpts  from the book she curated on China and sustainable development, ”Cina e sviluppo sostenibile, le sfide sociali ed ambientali del XXI secolo”. Image Credit: CC by Design for Health/Flickr