In this last post in our series of updates from the multi-stakeholder workshop on “Urban food, sufficiency, and sustainable agriculture in China” held in August 2023, we will summarise some of the points from the group work at the very end of the workshop.

The informative and engaging workshop presentations set the stage for the subsequent discussions. Participants were divided into five mixed groups, all discussing profound and important topics that will feed into MidWay’s research design for future work. 

MidWay China Workshop group work

The groups emphasised that a significant challenge is to balance the trade-offs between resource constraints, food security, environmental sustainability, and social welfare. This is particularly pressing as China has almost one-fifth of the world’s population but only nine per cent of its arable land and five per cent of its water resources. At the same time, healthy and nutritious foods must be prioritised, where health is related to the ideal level/forms of consumption. Questions of nutrition and sustainability should be seen together, and government recommendations could include planetary and human health in food recommendations.

The topic of sufficiency was also widely discussed. In particular, the groups discussed measuring and achieving sufficiency in food production and consumption while considering the future demand and supply scenarios, the limited resources, and the environmental impacts of animal-based agriculture. This discussion encompassed overconsumption and food waste, which are increasing problems in China. An ideal level of animal-based food consumption could be defined as ‘enough’ and ‘good enough’, which means sufficient, high-quality, and sustainable.

MidWay China Workshop group work

Another central topic pertained to the different scales and structures of animal agriculture. The groups emphasised the importance of learning from the experiences and mistakes of industrialisation in other countries and exploring and systematising the existing practices and initiatives that could contribute to a better food system in China. Small-scale farming, alternative food networks, green development, and food waste reduction are some such initiatives. The groups also discussed how to assess the issue of relatively few large-scale companies, the closed-loop systems for fertilisation, the small-mid scale level of farms and cooperatives, and the different animals and their requirements. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there is a need for balance and diversity. The production scale involves a trade-off between large-scale and small-scale farming, which has different implications for food security, environmental protection, rural development, health, and wellbeing.

The groups also discussed the consumer versus the system of provision. This included discussions around the need to avoid food waste, personal health, and the demand for quality and safety of animal products. Who is responsible for making decisions about health, nutrition or sustainability, and how can food practices change to become more sustainable? These are pertinent questions that can follow the MidWay project along the way.

Lastly, the groups also discussed the role of the government in China. As a key actor in most decisions, to facilitate suitable solutions, it is central to keep in mind the balance between state control and privatisation, the top-down versus bottom-up solutions, and general communication with the government.

MidWay China Workshop group work

Based on these reflections, we can distill five questions that we will continue to keep as a backdrop for the MidWay project:

  1. How can China achieve a balanced and sustainable food system that caters for its people’s needs and preferences while respecting the planet’s limits and the well-being of animals?
  2. What is the optimal level and form of animal-based food consumption in China, considering the trade-offs between food security, nutrition, health, environment, and social welfare?
  3. How can China productively consider different scales and structures of animal agriculture, ranging from small-scale to industrialised production and diverse to specialised farming systems?
  4. How can demand-side aspects be considered more systematically, including the way in which supply and demand are co-produced, considering information about the impacts of animal-based food products and their quality, safety, health, and environmental impacts? 
  5. What is the role of the government in China in shaping and regulating the animal-based food system, balancing between central planning and market forces, and fostering collaboration and innovation among different stakeholders?
MidWay China Workshop group work

The MidWay project aims to provide a rigorous scientific basis for considering a sustainable agri-food system in China, including conceptual discussions, reflections, and lessons from qualitative research. The project does not necessarily aim to give advice but to provide insights from our research that potentially can be useful in identifying and solving barriers and opportunities for a sustainable agri-food system. Although scholars in Europe and China are considered our primary target audience, we also aim to think about how we can make a broad set of stakeholders relate to our work, including looking beyond academia.

We look forward to four more years of researching this very exciting topic!

Funded by the European Union (ERC, MidWay, project 101041995). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.