China seen increasing focus on food security

As China rebuilds its world’s-largest hog herd in the wake of ASF, it has been importing huge amounts of soybeans and corn, and will likely become the world’s largest corn importer soon. | File photo

Government is expected to make agricultural development and expansion an important element of its 14th five-year plan

Most people in the world think of today’s China in terms of its rapid ascent in high technology, its soaring cities, its ambitions to dominate the 21st century’s global economy.

But recently, its leaders have spent time focused on its farm economy, following the shock to its system imposed by the outbreak of African swine fever and the U.S.-China trade war.

And it’s clear that the country’s Communist Party of China doesn’t like seeing how much it depends upon foreign grain imports.

“We must ensure that the Chinese rice bowl is filled mainly with Chinese grains, and that Chinese grains should use mainly Chinese seeds,” said the country’s new agriculture minister, Tang Renjian, in a report published on the agriculture ministry’s webpage.

As the country rebuilds its world’s-largest hog herd in the wake of ASF, it has been importing huge amounts of soybeans and corn, and will likely become the world’s largest corn importer soon.

That makes the country’s leaders sensitive to the vulnerability the country and its leadership faces if anything challenges the supplies it relies upon.

“It’s been clear ever since the (ASF) episode that China was going to focus more on grain security and on its dependence on imports in general,” said Jacob Shapiro, a geopolitics expert with Perch Perspectives.

“I think folks need to think less of China as dependent on exports and trade surpluses, though it is, and more of China’s general dependence on imports.”

China has myriad agricultural challenges. From a growing middle class that demands higher quality foods to a degraded land base to polluted fresh water supplies, China’s government is grappling with the after effects of previous development policies.

It has invested in ports and railways around the world, especially in countries with significant agricultural export potential. It has used its purchases of agricultural products as leverage against countries with which it has picked diplomatic fights, such as Canada and Australia, but its need for a vast array of food products is obvious in its continued purchase of many commodities, such as Canadian crops, in the midst of these disputes.

China’s government is expected to make agricultural development and expansion an important element of its 14th five-year plan, which covers 2021 to 2025.

Notably, provincial communist party chiefs are to be held accountable for agricultural production improvements, which throws the CCP’s vast political power behind the drive for agricultural self-reliance.

Shapiro thinks China’s need for agricultural imports can’t necessarily be assumed to be a factor that will make it scared to aggressively look after its food self-interests. Relying upon today’s leading agricultural exporters’ good graces isn’t the only way to protect the country’s food import security.

“That sort of dependence on imports is what drove Japan to its imperialistic policies in the early 20th century and eventually to war with the U.S.,” said Shapiro.

“(I’m) not saying China is about to wage war on the world… but Chinese strategists are facing a similar set of strategic questions as Japanese strategists in the early 1900s, and I do expect updated versions of imperialism, mercantilism and resource competition between China and other global powers to define global affairs as the decade rolls on.”

As China has been importing record amounts of corn, it has also moved to shore up domestic production potential, approving imports of two GM corn varieties and appearing set to approve the introduction of two domestically developed corn and soybean varieties.

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