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Lessons for India from China’s food import

In our country where mainline economists revel in cut-paste prescriptions in the name of agricultural reforms, China’s example illustrates how the transformation from state-regulated to market-oriented farming has brought it to the brink of an unmanageable food crisis. — Devinder Sharma


Speaking at an international conference in 1998 at the University College Cork, in Ireland, to commemorate 150 years of the Great Irish Famine that killed nearly one million people, I was asked a question: who will feed India? This question cropped up at a time when the world was already deliberating a hypothesis floated by the well-known environmental researcher and thinker, Lester Brown.

Founder of the US-based environmental think tank, the Worldwatch Institute, and later president of the Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown in 1995 had built on his analysis to come out with a book Who Will Feed China? This had triggered a hot debate, prompting numerous seminars and conferences across the globe. I remember having participated in a few of these conferences, witnessing heated debates that followed. There were terrific academicians who would support Lester Brown’s hypothesis, and there were experts who openly challenged it. Nevertheless, 25 years later, faced with record high domestic grain prices, China has emerged as the world’s biggest food importer — a reminder of what Lester Brown had warned decades back.

While the severity of China’s food crisis is being denied, questions continue to be raised especially after President Xi Jinping launched an ‘Operation Clean Plate’ campaign in August last year, asking people to ensure that no food is wasted. With an estimated 6 per cent food wasted every year, good enough to feed 200 million people, the campaign even involved restaurants to ensure people are not provided with lavish spreads. If the consumers order for five meals, the restaurants would serve food for four people.

This reminds me of the times when in 1965, the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had asked Indians to observe a fast every Monday. This was primarily to ensure that people learned to ‘share and care’ at a time when food was in great shortage. In fact, in 1965, a year prior to the start of the Green Revolution, India had imported 10 million tonnes of foodgrains to tide over the severe food crisis. It shows how precarious the situation was. But after the onset of the Green Revolution, India attained food ‘self-sufficiency’ but with the easy availability of food over the years, a kind of complacency has set in.

Similarly, China too had taken long strides in food production. It was in 1996 that China had brought in a policy focus to ensure that it meets 95 per cent of its food needs from domestic production. But by 2011, as per the World Trade Organisation (WTO), China had become the world’s largest food importer. With rising incomes, the food preferences of the burgeoning middle-class had undergone a change that shifted the food habits from staples to an exploding demand for meat and nutritious products, including dairy.

The changing food habits prompted the government to shift the policy focus from food self-sufficiency to allowing ‘moderate imports’. Denials notwithstanding, mass urbanisation and the efforts to move a bulk of the farming population away from agriculture to join the industrial workforce in the cities did leave a gap in production. At the same time, intensive farming practices resulted in heavy soil contamination, groundwater decline as well as pollution, and the resulting environmental degradation reduced the extent of arable lands, prompting China to announce that it will protect 120 million hectares of farmlands to meet its food security needs.

As the average farm size in China declined to 1.6 acres, the growing appetite for chemical fertilisers, including nitrogen, coupled with direct income support for farmers had resulted in a grain surplus of 600 million tonnes in 2017. Although the silos were bursting, the growing demand for nutritious foods including beef, also soared meanwhile. The sale of beef to China, for instance, had grown by 19,000 per cent. A change in diet therefore forced China to scout for food all over the world, including India and Pakistan.

According to Fitch Ratings, China’s imports of corn, wheat, sorghum and barley in 2020 soared by 136 per cent, 140 per cent, 437 per cent and 36.3 per cent, respectively. It expects the trend to continue in 2021 as well. Already it has exhausted soybean supplies from Brazil, the world’s biggest soya producer, and is now turning to the US. So much so, as Forbes points out that despite being the world’s second biggest wheat producer, China holds over half of the world’s wheat stocks. Similarly, it has 65 per cent of the world’s corn inventories.

Unable to meet its growing food needs domestically, China has been on an aggressive spree buying farmlands in Africa and Latin America, and is now turning its attention to purchase farm lands in America, European Union and Australia. The website farmlandgrab.com estimates that since 2010, China has already made an investment of $94 billion in farm activities abroad, purchasing 3.2 million hectares.

While China is clearly on the brink of a severe food crisis, there are important lessons here for India. In a country where mainline economists revel in cut-paste prescriptions in the name of agricultural reforms, the Chinese example illustrates how the transformation from state-regulated farming to market-oriented agriculture has brought it closer to an unmanageable food crisis, perhaps pointing to a bigger crisis ahead. With the experiment to transform China into a manufacturing hub going awry, especially after Africa was able to provide cheap workforce, restoring farm viability now is becoming a still bigger challenge.

China provides $206-billion farm subsidies every year (add to it tens of billions spent on importing food year after year) that shows if the same amount had gone into converting small farm lands into an economic powerhouse, the world’s biggest grain producer could have easily avoided turning into world’s biggest grain importer. There was an alternative economic pathway, more sustainable in the long run, that China failed to undertake.

India cannot afford to go on the same beaten track. Or else, the question as to who will feed India will continue to haunt future generations.

The author is Food & Agriculture specialist


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