The Case for U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate-Smart Agriculture

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One of today’s most urgent challenges is rising global food insecurity. Growing populations around the world will require more food while climate change and other pressures are limiting agricultural production, including in the United States and China. At the same time, food insecurity and malnutrition are threatening human health, reducing economic output, and contributing to unrest and conflict in many countries around the world. Given the scale of the challenges, and the critical roles both the United States and China play in global agriculture systems—for example, both countries are among the world’s top importers and exporters of food—U.S.-China cooperation in food and agriculture promises outsized benefits to both countries and the global community.

To this end, CSIS and Brookings convened U.S. and Chinese experts for multiday, closed-door discussions in March to probe possible approaches and areas for collaboration in this field. These conversations were part of a broader CSIS-Brookings effort to reimagine the architecture of collaboration on shared challenges in an era of strategic competition. Participants included former policymakers from the National Security Council, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Council of Economic Advisors, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of State, and Food and Drug Administration; former leadership of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition; and researchers from numerous U.S. and Chinese think tanks, universities, and private firms. Several of the American expert participants had studied or worked in China, while several of the Chinese expert participants had worked and received advanced degrees in the United States; such experience improved the quality of discussions and helped advance progress throughout the convening.

The discussions focused on areas that pose threats to U.S. and Chinese food security and agricultural interests that experts perceived the countries would be willing to jointly address and on which the global community would stand to benefit regarding U.S.-Chinese cooperation. The majority of ideas agreed upon by experts concerned climate-smart agriculture, an approach to agriculture that encompasses reducing food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, adapting agriculture to climate change, and increasing agricultural production in the face of the climate crisis.

Experts reached four areas of consensus, the first of which was on promoting sustainable agricultural production in water-stressed agricultural regions. Many of China’s grain-producing provinces are water-scarce, with farmers relying on inefficient irrigation methods, and the Chinese government is making substantial investments in water-saving technologies, with mixed results. The United States and China are independently grappling with similar challenges, testing solutions that could be mutually beneficial and that could benefit agricultural production elsewhere, including food-insecure countries for which water insecurity is set to worsen with climate change.

A second area of consensus was reducing food loss and waste, an area where both the United States and China have recently announced domestic goals. Reducing food loss and waste would deliver strong climate benefits by reducing emissions of methane and other GHGs from food waste. Food waste in landfills is a major source of methane emissions in the United States, and despite recent efforts, methane emissions from landfilled food waste are increasing. China wastes nearly four times as much food as the United States, accounting for the largest amount of food waste worldwide; China is also the world’s top emitter of GHGs. Exchanges on best practices for approaches to reduce food loss and waste could benefit each country’s efforts to achieve both food waste and climate goals. Extending these practices to third countries could have additional benefits for improving global nutrition. Over three billion people, or more than 40 percent of the world’s population, cannot afford the least-expensive form of a healthy diet, due largely to the high price of nutritious foods relative to incomes. The same foods that are most susceptible to loss and waste are also highly nutritious, including vegetables, fruits, dairy, meat, poultry, and seafood. Reducing the loss and waste of these foods could result in lower prices, increasing access and improving nutrition in many countries.

A third area of consensus among U.S. and Chinese experts was the importance of mutually agreed-upon standards of measurement for the climate impacts of agriculture. Over the past several years, governments have introduced policies that would regulate trade based on factors related to climate change, including carbon border adjustment mechanisms and the European Union’s deforestation regulations. However, there are no globally agreed-upon standards for GHG emissions from agriculture—including, for example, volumes of GHGs emitted per unit of crops produced or the amount of carbon sequestered in different types of soil—nor a board to set such standards. Cooperation between U.S. and Chinese technical experts could result in formalized, evidence-based standards to which both countries agree. Agreement on standards by both the United States and China would benefit global trade and global climate change efforts and reduce the risk of disparate, overlapping standards that could increase market costs, inhibit trade, and confuse efforts to meet global climate goals.

U.S. and Chinese experts also considered the impacts of accelerating investments in alternative proteins for animal feed and human consumption, which could insulate importing countries from global grain market fluctuations, reduce water stress, and advance progress toward climate goals. Both the United States and China could stand to benefit from increased production and consumption of alternative proteins: the United States leads the world in the number of companies working to produce alternative proteins, while China highlighted alternative proteins in its most recent five-year agricultural plan. Questions over the long-term benefit to U.S. alternative protein companies operating in China, given well-known intellectual property protection challenges, left questions about the potential for cooperation in this area, though experts agreed it deserves future exploration.

Finally, U.S. and Chinese experts agreed that improving global agriculture market transparency is crucial to all efforts to improve global food security. Improving agricultural trade data, including information on commodity supplies, demand, and inventories, as well as public health risks from agricultural pests and diseases, could reduce asymmetry in agricultural markets, in turn helping to prevent export restrictions and excessive speculation contributing to food price spikes and volatility. While climate change, wars, and domestic political interests have led to agriculture market shocks in recent years, greater transparency in agricultural markets can mitigate the effects of these shocks on global food prices, limiting impacts on the world’s most food-insecure populations.

This U.S.-Chinese expert convening occurred against a backdrop of intense and rising frictions between Beijing and Washington, but also as leaders in both countries have expressed a desire for cooperation on issues of mutual concern, including agriculture and global food security. At the Biden-Xi bilateral meeting in Bali in 2022, President Biden emphasized the importance of U.S.-China cooperation on food security, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in 2023 that the United States is prepared to collaborate with China in areas where the two countries have mutual interests, including food security. In January 2024, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hosted the first meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Committee on Cooperation in Agriculture (JCCA) since 2015, resulting in the establishment of a working group on food security, nutrition, and health under the JCCA. In his April 2024 meeting with President Xi, Secretary Blinken emphasized the importance of increasing opportunities for educational exchange between U.S. and Chinese students, highlighting their critical role in fostering collaboration on global challenges. China’s ambassador to the United States, Xie Feng, has identified agriculture as among “the most productive and promising areas for China-U.S. cooperation.”

In addition to these technical outcomes of the CSIS-Brookings-led discussions, equally important was the enthusiasm among participants to realize the ideas they put forward. Previous efforts, like U.S.-Soviet cooperation on smallpox eradication, set a strong precedent for the potential impact of U.S.-Chinese collaboration on global food security and agriculture that the discussants envisioned. At the height of the Cold War, the combined efforts of the United States and Soviet Union spurred global distribution of the smallpox vaccine, resulting in its official eradication in 1979, with clear benefits for global health security. The international food standards body Codex Aimentarius likewise sets a strong precedent: its 188 member countries meet regularly to negotiate food safety standards, resulting in mutually beneficial outcomes even among strategic rivals.

In the case of smallpox eradication, several factors were essential for success, including the ability of U.S. and Soviet experts to work in relative independence of political forces. The discussants hoped that their ideas can serve to inform future U.S.-China efforts, even as geopolitical dynamics complicate direct engagement between the two governments. Still, successful realization of many of these ideas may ultimately depend on the ability of non-state actors in the two countries to collaborate despite, not because of, their respective governments’ positions. This showcases the importance of finding creative ways to sustain collaboration among researchers, NGOs, the private sector, and a range of other stakeholders in the United States and China on global challenges in the years ahead.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jude Blanchette is the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Lily McElwee is deputy director and a fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Ryan Hass is director of the John L. Thornton China Center, Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, and senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Ryan McElveen is associate director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution.

The authors would like to thank Joseph Glauber, senior adviser (non-resident) with the CSIS Global Food and Water Security Program, and Caroline Smith DeWaal, senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Global Food and Water Security Program, who contributed to this commentary.

Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program
Lily McElwee
Deputy Director and Fellow, Freeman Chair in China Studies

Ryan Hass

Director, John L. Thornton China Center, and Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, and Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Ryan McElveen

Associate Director, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution