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Economy

Degraded farmland diminishes China's food sufficiency

Japan has been affected by explosive growth in Chinese food imports

Hiroto Kawasaki, a Japanese agricultural expert, is promoting organic circular agriculture in Xinxiang, Henan province. (Photo by Tsukasa Hadano)

BEIJING -- The National People's Congress of China on March 11 adopted Premier Li Keqiang's policy proposal that the government promote food saving to tackle shortages that have become a major national concern.

President Xi Jinping called for an end to food leftovers in August 2020, and statements on food waste issues by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have become more strident as the future of China's agriculture sector becomes an increasing concern.

China's grain self-sufficiency "exceeds 95%," according to a 2019 white paper on food security. Beijing often touts that number when talking about food self-reliance, but some points are unclear. For example, does this relate to calories produced or market value?

Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries regularly compiles food sufficiency data for countries based on the value of production and calories, but not for China for which there is "inadequate data," according to an official. The official described China's food-sufficiency level as "unknown."

Goro Takahashi, a professor emeritus at Aichi University deeply familiar with Chinese agriculture, has been calculating mainland food self-sufficiency based on calories using data gathered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. He estimates that for 54 main food products the figure was about 80% in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.

That compares with 94% in 2000, 89% in 2005 and 83% in 2010, according to Takahashi. In 2020, it may have declined further to around 76% because of weather and other factors, he said.

Takahashi attributes the sustained decline to fewer farmers and "an aggravated deterioration of agricultural soil."

The government has admitted to the land quality problem. A pioneering survey in 2014 revealed significant heavy metal contamination in farmland across China. It found 16% of the land to be contaminated by metals like cadmium, mercury and arsenic.

Henan province is second only to Heilongjiang province in terms of agricultural output. It is home to Hiroto Kawasaki, a Japanese agricultural expert often featured in the Chinese press for his contribution to agricultural development around the city of Xinxiang.

After retiring in 2006 from the Federation of Consumer Cooperatives in Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan, Kawasaki studied organic agriculture using compost and manure fertilizers. He came to China in 2013, and is now working on circular agriculture at a farm in Xiaoliugu village.

Heavy residential development has often been at the expense of Xinxiang's fertile farmland. (Photo by Tsukasa Hadano)

Henan, like other provinces, has seen its soil degraded by excessive use of chemical fertilizers, and this has gravely affected farm products. Kawasaki said good farmland is also being sacrificed to residential developments and afforestation programs.

Xinxiang once had fertile agricultural fields stretching to the horizon and was dubbed "the biggest farm village in China." That has largely been buried beneath condominiums, housing projects, holiday homes and other structures. Some houses have been given to poor farmers in anti-poverty programs.

Official government data points to stagnating food production. Output of grain topped 600 million tons for the first time in 2012, but has hit a ceiling at 650 to 660 million tons in recent years.

Around Chinese New Year each year, the CCP and the government circulate what is called the Central No.1 Document to local party organs and governments to inform them of the top policy for the coming year. Agriculture and village development have filled that slot every year since 2004.

In 2021, the CCP's circular detailed plans to invest in improving agricultural land in the main food-producing areas covering approximately 6.67 million hectares. The objective is to produce a fixed amount of farm produce whether there be a drought or flooding.

In 2020, southern China suffered record-breaking floods while the northern part of the country endured severe drought. The government's response reflects a sense of crisis regarding farmland security and food sufficiency following natural disasters.

The Central No. 1 Document in 2019 was a turning point. It stated that China would proactively increase food imports along different routes. Those figures continue to rise. In 2019, China imported food and beverage products worth $88.4 billion -- a record.

The rises in prices of grains and meat caused by China's "explosive" purchases has affected Japan, which relies heavily on imports -- the country is only 38% self-sufficient in calorie terms.

In May 2017, China announced plans to resume imports of American beef after a 14-year break in a bid to ease bilateral tensions. Massive purchases of U.S. beef by major "gyudon" restaurant chains in anticipation of price hikes prompted the Japanese government to raise import tariffs. The China-U.S. friction spilled over to Japan when Washington complained about Japanese import restrictions.

China's food purchases are likely to continue affecting global food supplies, and Japan may find itself having to resort to further countermeasures.

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