China aims to upgrade farmland the size of the Republic of Ireland. Here’s why

William Zheng
·4-min read

China has said it aims to upgrade almost 25 per cent more farmland in 2021 than it did this year, in an attempt to boost its food security while the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains.

The agriculture ministry said in a statement on Thursday that 100 million mu (6.66 million hectares, 16.5 million acres) of farmland would be upgraded to a “high standard” – up a quarter from the target of 80 million mu in 2020, and roughly equal to the size of the Republic of Ireland.

Large-scale mechanical farming would be used on the upgraded farmland to increase crop yields and productivity, while the irrigation of a further 15 million mu of farmland will be upgraded to conserve water, the ministry said.

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Acknowledging the task as “very challenging”, the ministry said priority should be given to grain-producing areas to make up shortfalls in China’s agricultural infrastructure and increase capacity.

China needed to produce about 80 million mu of “high-standard farmland” this year to meet the overall target of 800 million mu by 2020 that was set a decade ago.

The ministry’s announcement followed a directive last month from the State Council, China’s cabinet, to all local governments that banned further changes in farmland to non-grain crops and ordered that crops be monitored using satellite remote-sensing technology.

To ensure self-sufficiency rates of over 90 per cent for cereals and 95 per cent for rice and wheat, China is reinforcing and restoring grain zones, in the form of large areas of permanent farmland with temperate weather, high-quality soil and efficient irrigation. The government has also promised to increase minimum purchase prices for wheat and rice, and continue to offer subsidies for rice, corn and soybeans.

Despite several years of bumper harvests, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top leaders have repeatedly stressed the importance of food security, with the coronavirus disrupting global food supply chains and most of China’s rice production areas being affected by floods.

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On a visit in July to the northeastern Jilin province, a major grain production area, Xi urged local officials to protect high-yielding black soil, apply modern agricultural technology and ramp up the scale of grain production to ensure food security.

In August, he called the nation’s food wastage “shocking and distressing” and launched a national campaign to address the issue.

The top food consumer globally, China is the world’s largest importer of food, buying over 100 million tonnes of grain annually since 2014 and 115.1 million tonnes in the first 10 months of 2020.

To restock its reserves, and as its hog numbers rebounded from a major outbreak of African swine fever that had decimated its herd, China imported 7.8 million tonnes of corn in October, up 97 per cent from a year earlier. Its purchase of foreign wheat in the same month rose 164 per cent to 6.7 million tonnes.

“The crux of China’s food concern is not the staples but the protein, as the more affluent Chinese population is consuming more meat and the majority of China’s soybean and corn imports are used to feed animals and produce oil,” Zhang Hongzhou, a food security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said.

Zhang said that although China was importing more pork and oil directly, the pandemic “has created new uncertainty over China’s meat imports” after the country reported multiple cases of coronavirus contamination on packaging of frozen food imports.

“But overall I am not too worried about China’s food security, because the global market is still a buyer’s market and using food as a sanction instrument has been proven to be ineffective compared with energy products,” he said.

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