TOKYO -- For a second year in a row China has set a record for rice production, this time with a yield of more than 18 tons on a hectare. This is almost three times the average in neighboring Japan, where farmers favor flavor over quantity and do not have 1.4 billion people to nourish.
The record was set in an experimental paddy in the northern province of Hebei that had been planted with a variety known as Xiangliangyou 900. A team of researchers led by Yuan Longping, China's "father of hybrid rice," developed the varietal.
The new strain is a global blessing. China's experiments with improving rice yields show the country's commitment to food self-sufficiency, which contributes to food security around the world. If the most populous nation were to turn to imports for major grains, it would inevitably push up international market prices.
This would also have consequences in China, whose citizens would find it more difficult to buy their necessary calories.
According to Ruan Wei of Japan's Norinchukin Research Institute, Japan "is lucky in that even if it boosts its dependence on imported food it would not greatly affect the international market."
The country's population is around 125 million and shrinking.
Since 1978, when it launched its reform and opening-up policy, China has modeled its economy on Japan's two go-go decades through the mid-1970s. It exported its way to explosive growth and is now striving to expand via domestic consumption.
However, China veered off the Japan trail when it came to agriculture policy.
As the Japanese diet westernized, the country increased its reliance on nonrice grain imports, and its food self-sufficiency ratio began to plummet.
As Japan's farmers found themselves suddenly competing against hamburgers, they were also being told to reduce the acreage they devote to rice. So the industry began focusing on engineering better-tasting grain.
One factor that pushed farmers to improve the flavor of their rice was a grading system that the Japan Grain Inspection Association introduced in 1971. Coincidentally, McDonald's opened its first restaurant in Japan that very same year. Many of Japan's rice-producing regions looked at the ranking as a contest and thus competed for the highest special A rating. That honor is still coveted and, once attained, trumpeted.
Who needs to improve rice yields when Japanese are treating their palates to fancier foods?
Although the same dynamic is now playing out in China, prospects for higher prices have left the government with no choice but to hold strong to a policy of maintaining self-sufficiency in rice, wheat and staples other than soybeans.
For growing more rice, China has two options, according to Ruan of Norinchukin Research Institute: consolidation and mechanization.
As for the trend toward richer foods, it is mostly confined to large cities. Outside big burgs, rice, noodles, dumplings and other foods made from grains that are easy to grow domestically form a core part of the diet. But in more urban areas, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbucks and other American fast-food chains are ubiquitous.
Xiangliangyou 900 can keep China's low-income masses fed while also serving as a safety net for the wider population, but it is a matter of time before the prevalence of fast food significantly alters the country's eating habits.