Promises to develop neglected lands undermined by unresolved issues at home
During the spike in global grain prices a decade ago, Chinese officials urged agribusinesses to secure farmland overseas to fill the country’s growing food deficit.
Now the country has 1,300 companies which have made $11.7 billion in total investments in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries in 85 countries and regions, according to the agriculture ministry. To help propel the Belt and Road Initiative’s infrastructure-building campaign, Chinese leaders have recently rebranded these foreign farm investments as a form of international cooperation.
The strategy described in recent speeches and state news reports envisions giant agro-industrial parks, tractors and irrigation networks spreading out along the “New Silk Road” of railroads, highways and ports being built by Chinese companies to link up the neglected regions en route to Europe. In this vision, new flourishing farms in the deserts, mountains, hillsides and steppes of Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe will promote global food security, end poverty and spread environmentally friendly production methods.
China’s aspirations to play a more active role in global affairs should be taken seriously by business and government leaders in food and agricultural spheres. However, its promises to overhaul agriculture in other countries may be premature in view of the ongoing overhaul of China’s own farming sector that is still in its initial stages. China’s offer of a superior “inclusive” approach to global governance in agriculture should be evaluated by carefully weighing both the successes and shortcomings in China’s experience feeding its people.
Via its new strategy, China has promised that poor countries can enrich their rural population and modernize their farms by studying its reform experience over the past 30 years. Beijing is pledging to reshape institutions such as the World Trade Organization to make them more inclusive and “respect the views of different countries.”
Despite this benevolent rhetoric, Belt and Road agricultural cooperation strategy at its heart still seems largely about feeding China. As Ye Xingqing, director of an agricultural economics think tank affiliated with the State Council, wrote in June in a newspaper commentary, agricultural investment in Belt and Road countries is needed to stabilize China’s future food supply and diversify its food import sources.
Sharing technology and encouraging institutional innovation will eventually produce food surpluses in these nations to address future food deficits in China, he wrote, and avoid risky dependence on supplies from the U.S. and other nations in the Americas and Oceania. The shift toward Belt and Road imports will help narrow regional inequality within China, Ye added, by channeling food trade now focused on coastal ports through western and southern regions instead.
Troubles back home
China’s plans to overhaul food production in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe mirror its efforts to do the same thing at home. Officials worry that China’s fragmented small-scale farms cannot meet the food needs of a large population with rising living standards. Agricultural productivity growth has slowed considerably in the new millennium.
Plans and policy documents call for investment funds, government loan guarantees, interest subsidies, experimental mortgages and arm-twisting “guidance” to convince banks and business tycoons to invest in farms, flour mills and grain silos. The menu of farm machinery eligible for purchase subsidies is being expanded to include equipment for drying and processing grain and for farming overseas.Discover More