Farm overseas to help nation, companies told
Greater support for agricultural investment overseas has been written into China's new five-year blueprint for agriculture, as limited farmland and water resources present a growing challenge to provide food for the nation's expanding population.
The government is 'building up platforms for companies to expand international co-operation and exchanges in agriculture', according to a Five-Year Plan issued by the Ministry of Agriculture on Thursday.
Although Chinese companies have aroused accusations of land-grabs and even colonialism, especially in Africa, the ministry vowed to give more support to those that go abroad.
Guaranteeing an adequate supply of agricultural products to China's 1.3 billion people will be a top priority, according to the plan. Annual grain production should be no less than 540 million tonnes, and the total acreage of grain-growing farmland should remain above 106 million hectares, it said. But industrialisation and urbanisation are consuming much more farmland than the amount being reclaimed.
The government in April offered its first pragmatic encouragement for companies to farm overseas, by issuing a notification that up to 30 million yuan (HK$36.55 million) in subsidies could be granted to a company that makes overseas investments in agriculture, forestry, fishery and mining.
At a meeting with top companies in December, Agricultural Minister Han Changfu said conditions had matured, and overseas farming had become an important strategy.
It was the right move, said Professor Zheng Fengtian from the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development under Renmin University, but more private companies should be encouraged to farm overseas. 'The experience is that state-owned companies such as COFCO have poorly managed farms overseas, and often their investment easily arouses criticism, as they represent the government to some extent,' he said.
'But private companies in this field are relatively small and don't know the global market very well,' he warned, adding that another challenge would be getting enough US dollars while the yuan was still not an international currency.
Exploitation by foreign agricultural companies, including those from China, has been blamed for contributing to the ongoing food crisis in the Horn of Africa, where a drought and famine have left more than 12 million people in need of help.
A German official was critical last month, saying local governments in Africa would have made more effort to develop their own agriculture if these companies had not bought large plots of land there.
World Bank president Robert Zoellick said in Beijing on Monday that the organisation was encouraging deeper co-operation between China and Africa in agriculture to help improve production and productivity.
'Property rights, irrigation, fertiliser, storage facilities - about half of Africa's production is lost on the way to market. Also, research development on seed varieties,' he said.
The number of teams of agricultural specialists sent to 13 African countries by Beijing
- They have trained 874 locals since 2009