Over the past decade, China has undergone a number of food revolutions. While much attention in the food sector has focused on global issues such as trade flows, disputes over beef or soybean imports, or the environmental costs of food investments, equally profound changes are happening at the domestic consumer level. The most recent transformations in food culture have been online, with innovations in social media and finance, and have accelerated during the period of Covid-19 lockdown.
The supermarket revolution
The most evident transformation is in retail, with a move from small shops and produce markets to centralized supermarkets, and now to online channels. The first shift began in the mid-1990s with the arrival of global conglomerates such as Carrefour and Walmart. These were joined later by local competitors including Vanguard (华润万家) and Wumart (物美), allowing Chinese shoppers in lower tier cities to buy a previously unimaginable variety of branded goods, as well as year-round fresh produce, all under one roof. By 2020, the entire supermarket retail sector (including convenience stores and online shopping) topped 2.4 trillion yuan (US$377.1 billion).
China’s supermarket revolution is far from complete. In 2018, the five largest retailers held only 26.8 percent of total food spending. Yet that degree of concentration reflected the growing consolidation and increasing efficiency of the country’s entire food system. Chains like the ones that bring tropical mangos reliably and cheaply to supermarket shoppers in snowbound Harbin are a triumph of innovation in logistics, but they do come at a cost. Driven by decades of food safety scandals, most notably the 2008 melamine poisoning of infant formula, stricter regulatory requirements raised barriers against newcomers entering key food processing industries. In sectors such as dairy, safety regulation demands investment in automation, pushing out small producers in favor of large, often state-linked companies.
For small farmers, urban planning that concentrated shopping in large markets also closed off informal retail channels such as roadside stalls, leaving many unable to sell their produce. (The common perception of Asian “wet markets” as an unregulated haven of illegal wildlife trade has further accelerated pressure to restrict the informal sector.) Urban consumers recognize the consolidation of long-distance food chains as a double-edged sword, one that lowers prices and expands choice on a global scale but diverts them from availing of the fresh food grown nearby.
Covid-19 lockdown rapidly accelerated the move to online food shopping. E-commerce had been growing sharply in China for some years, and the percent of online sales in 2019 was already more than twice that in the United States. Concerns over safety during the early months of 2020 drove millions of new users to online grocery platforms such as JD.com’s Jingdong daojia 京东到家 and online/offline hybrids such as Alibaba-owned Freshippo 盒马鲜生. Having grown accustomed to both the convenience and expanded choice of hard-to-find items including local specialties, organic produce and semi-prepared restaurant meals, many never switched back. As is the case with most new technologies, the first adopters of online food shopping were disproportionately young and urban, but more recent growth among older shoppers and shoppers in smaller cities suggests that the trend will continue to develop as it radiates out into the mainstream.