While Beijing continues to stress the importance of self-sufficiency when it comes to food, its attitude towards agricultural imports has changed markedly over the years.
Fearful that cheap foreign farm produce could be dumped on the mainland, former premier Zhu Rongji said that agriculture was his greatest concern when China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001.
However, 'encouraging international trading of produce' has since been written into the mainland's agricultural blueprint.
Beijing is seeking greater participation in the global agricultural market by attracting foreign investments in agriculture and encouraging the trading of agricultural produce, according to the National Plan for the Development of Modern Agriculture, released earlier last week.
It is the first time the mainland has issued a national plan on boosting agriculture through the State Council instead of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Li Guoxiang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Rural Development Institute, said it meant Beijing was being more open in its agricultural trade policy, given growing demand for food.
Cheng Guoqiang , who studies policymaking at the State Council's Development Research Centre, said he expected the mainland to become the world's biggest importer of agricultural produce in two to three years. The mainland's agricultural imports surged nearly 30 per cent last year.
'China took only a year to see an increase of US$20 billion in farm imports [last year],' Cheng said. 'In the past, it usually took two to four years.'
The Ministry of Agriculture said on February 6 that the mainland imported nearly US$95 billion worth of farm produce last year, with its agricultural trade deficit surging 47 per cent to US$34 billion.
At the ceremony for China's US$4.3 billion order for American soya beans in Iowa on Wednesday, Assistant Minister of Commerce Yu Jianhua said China imported 58 per cent of America's soya bean production and 36 per cent of its cotton in 2010. 'China has become the biggest single foreign market for US soya beans and cotton,' he said.
But Chen Mengshan , the agriculture ministry's chief economist, said the mainland was more than 95 per cent self-sufficient with regards to major food commodities such as rice, wheat and corn.
Even so, agriculture remained an area of concern in the nation's modernisation efforts, Chen told a press conference on Tuesday.
'Compared with developed countries, we're 20 percentage points lower in term of science and technology's contribution to agriculture,' Chen said.
According to the national plan, east coast areas, suburbs of major cities, and major reclamation areas should be practicing modern agriculture by 2015.
Chen said that meant farming in a 'highly productive, high quality, highly efficient, ecologically friendly and safe' manner.
The plan also requires that the annual increase in a local government's expenditure on agriculture should be higher than that for its fiscal revenue, and that local governments should prioritise rural areas for fixed-asset investments.
China imported more than this amount, in US dollars, of food commodities from New Zealand in the first nine months of last year