Food self-sufficiency no longer option for China, farm official says

Reuters — China’s pursuit of self-sufficiency in food output is no longer possible as soaring demand and rapid urbanization stoke appetites, a top government farm official said, in comments that appear to be the most direct yet to rule out achieving this aim.

China’s soaring imports of agricultural products remain a sensitive topic for the ruling Communist Party, which has traditionally put self-sufficiency and food security at the top of its agenda. It also fears a spike in imports could hurt the vast farming population and raise the spectre of rural unrest.

Chen Xiwen, director of the Chinese Communist Party’s top policy-making body for rural affairs, told a forum at the weekend that food supplies would come under increasing pressure as incomes improved, and China needed to boost production, but it could not turn back the clock when it came to imports.

“During the process of urbanization, we must pay attention to modern agricultural development and to farm product supplies, but of course, we certainly cannot pursue self-sufficiency,” he said, noting that last year’s import volume amounted to around 12 per cent of China’s total food demand.

He said the question of food supply required close attention to ensure that urbanization did not stop or reverse course.

Since China embarked upon its modernization program in 1978, around 260 million farmers have moved to the cities. China’s total rural population fell by 80 million between 1982 and 2010, census data shows.

Import debate

Chen’s comments are part of a debate in the central government about the role imports should play in feeding China’s increasingly prosperous population, especially as its cities expand and farmland and rural labour dwindle.

China’s plan for development in agriculture over the five years to 2015 retained the aim of self-sufficiency in agriculture production, setting a target of 95 per cent of supplies to be sourced domestically.

But with the country increasingly dependent on the international market, a top government researcher has urged Beijing to ease controls on farm product imports.

“For a country with 1.3 billion people, it is impossible to rely on ourselves to guarantee all farm products supplies,” Han Jun, the head of the rural department of the Development Research Centre, a cabinet think-tank, told a forum last week.

“To ensure grain security and supplies of major farm products does not mean that we should go back to the way of self-sufficiency,” he said.

He said China should loosen controls over corn imports and rely more on the global market for cotton, sugar and soybeans.

Demand for corn in China, already the world’s second-largest consumer, is set to rise sharply. Corn is used in livestock breeding, and rising incomes are expected to boost consumption of meat, dairy and eggs.

China’s grain and soybean imports topped 70 million tonnes for the first time last year, with imports of vegetable oil also reaching 8.45 million tonnes. Imports of farm products accounted for 12 per cent of domestic consumption last year, said Chen.

China’s farm trade deficit in 2012 increased 44 per cent on the year to $49.19 billion, the Agriculture Ministry says.

Cereal imports rose 157 per cent on the year to 13.98 million tonnes, with a total value of $4.79 billion, while imports of livestock products reached $14.9 billion, up 11 per cent.

China is expected to remain mostly self-sufficient in rice and wheat. It is the world’s largest consumer and producer of the staples, whose global trading volumes are small.

China’s Farm Ministry said over the weekend that supplies of rice remained sufficient, and that price issues accounted for the rise in imports last year, rather than increasing demand.

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