Increasing food imports will ease water and energy shortages, environment official says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 3:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 7:54pm

Food imports should be increased so the country can dedicate more of its scarce water supplies to energy production, especially in arid but coal-rich regions like Xinjiang and Ningxia, a senior environmental official said yesterday.

Mu Guangfeng, the head of the environment impact assessment office at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told a conference the nation should open up further to overseas food supplies and put stricter limits on the consumption of water for agriculture in areas like Xinjiang.

He said China, the world's top manufacturing nation, sent thousands of ships to overseas ports and many of them returned empty. Filling them with grain would be an ideal solution.

"We cannot skip over energy, and if we open up our minds a little, can we not further restrict agricultural water use in places like northern Shaanxi and then break a taboo by using the space on our ships to buy grain from overseas?" he said.

Mu's comments reflect a wider debate among policymakers about the best use of the nation's increasingly scarce water resources as industrial and agricultural demand soars.

Severe drought and scorching heat had damaged more than a million hectares of farmland in Henan and Inner Mongolia , with no immediate relief in sight, Xinhua reported.

The country's per capita water supplies are only a quarter of the global average and in the northwest shortages threaten to hold back ambitious plans to develop the coal reserves, either by producing synthetic natural gas or delivering power to eastern coastal markets through long-distance cross-country grids.

China is already the world's top importer of soybeans and has slowly introduced foreign corn into the domestic market.

But it remains reluctant to allow large-scale imports of staples such as wheat or rice and has vowed to keep its total food self-sufficiency rate at around 95 per cent, despite proposals from researchers that the figure could be relaxed.

"I believe that increasing imported food will help protect China's freshwater and give ecologically fragile coal-producing regions the ability to recover more quickly," Mu said.

"Some people say we can't import food, but what about energy? More than 60 per cent of our oil is imported and nearly 50 per cent of our natural gas," he added.