Feeding the World

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[Photo of Fishermen]China’s rapid economic growth has bolstered its role as a major player in the worldwide food supply chain, especially in Asia.

First, there was counterfeit infant milk. Then came dirty dumplings. But Chinese food products, tainted or not, still end up on the dinner tables of many Asian homes. It seems the recent episodes over soiled food products from China did little to diminish the mainland’s role as a food provider for many countries, especially its neighbors within the Asian region.

Today, China is among the leading exporters of cheap commodities like vegetables and fruits, fish, and processed food to many middle- and high-income sectors in Asia where productive resources, such as land, are scarce.

Growing Gold

About three-quarters of China’s cultivated land is planted to food crops (with rice accounting for 25%), mostly in the fertile southern and central plains and also the northeast regions. These areas yield an average of 180 million tons a year based on International Rice Research Institute estimates.

Wheat, which comes second to rice, is grown mainly toward the north, while farmers in the northeast plant corn, millet, and soybean, which is used to make tofu and cooking oil.

Black tea is another export crop, together with jasmine, green tea, sugar beets, and sugarcane.

Other major crops include oat, white potato, sweet potato, and a variety of other vegetables and fruits including tropical fruits grown in vast areas of the south, peanuts and oilseed crops as well as other industrial and edible oils.

China is one of the world’s leading cotton producers. Other fiber crops include hemp, jute, flax, and ramie. Significant silkworm cultivation, or sericulture, is also practiced in southern and central China.

Vast livestock populations include fowl and hogs and, in the rural areas of western China, nomadic herders raise camels, goats, sheep, and yaks, which are their sources of food, fuel, and shelter. Other major livestock include donkeys, mules, horses, cattle, and water buffalo.

In terms of fish production, China accounts for about one-third of the worldwide output, with fish farmed in lakes and ponds representing more than half of the yield.

Export Giant

As early as 2002 (its first year as a World Trade Organization member), China has strengthened its role as a major exporter of agricultural products.

While its imports increased by US$369 million (2.57 billion yuan) from 2001 to 2002, it posted a US$1.52 billion (10.57 billion yuan) increase in exports for the same period—exports rose by 13.23% from 2001 (US$11.49 billion or 79.88 billion yuan) to 2002 (US$13.01 billion or 90.45 billion yuan).

China exported corn more than any other agricultural products, like fruits, vegetables, and nuts, during the same period, while consumer-oriented agricultural products enjoyed brisk exports as these were in high demand in most Asian countries.

In the early part of 2007, the country’s agricultural exports to countries in Asia were valued at about US$3.5 billion (24.33 billion yuan), with US$1.1 billion (7.65 billion yuan) going to Europe. Foreign-invested agricultural export ventures accounted for the largest share, followed by private enterprises then by state- owned firms.

Losing Momentum

While China pursues an official policy of food self- sufficiency, it has never formally proclaimed any system to promote agricultural exports. But it seems provincial and local governments have something else in mind. Most are highly profit-oriented and have even laid out plans to gain more access to the lucrative agricultural export market.

But for some, especially those in the coastal provinces, rapid industrialization has dampened their hopes of cashing in on the agri export windfall. Rising costs of labor and land have made agricultural production less competitive than the services and manufacturing sectors.

China’s agricultural sector also has to deal with trade barriers, often in the form of sanitary standards, after the US, Europe, and Japan all tightened their food security procedures.

Still, given the magnitude of China’s economic turnaround in the span of one generation and with countries becoming economically connected more than ever, the mainland is still expected to feed the world and be the biggest frontier market at the same time.

print ed: 07/08


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