China economy
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
China has designated corn as one of its strategic grains – one that is a crucial ingredient in animal feel, alcohol and ethanol fuel. Photo: Xinhua

China corn video stokes food security fears amid coronavirus pandemic, flooding and drought

  • Beijing criticises local move to ban mobile devices from granaries, says investigation shows no problem with corn quality
  • Suspicions about quantity and quality of corn stockpiles arose due to a recent jump in market price and record purchases from United States

China’s state agency in charge of its strategic grain stockpiles has sparked concern over the quality of national grain reserves, particularly corn, after a local unit moved to ban all photo-taking devices from its granaries.

The order, by the storehouse unit of the China Grain Reserves Cooperative (Sinograin) in the northern province of Heilongjiang province last week, came as the impact of the coronavirus, heavy summer flooding and record purchases from the United States have increased worries about food security in the world’s most populous country.

The device ban followed the online posting of a video showing a pile of corn from a Sinograin warehouse in Zhaodong, a county-level city outside Zhaozhou, in mid-July.

Much of the grain appeared to be mouldy and mixed with bits of dirt and other foreign matter. The clip circulated on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.

A video posted to Weibo – China’s Twitter-like platform, appears to show dirty and mouldy corn at a grain-storage facility in Heilongjiang province. Image: Screengrab
The clip and the government agency’s reaction come amid growing nationwide anxiety about a potential shortage of crops. In recent weeks, Beijing has strengthened its rhetoric on protecting national food security, following disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, floods in the south, and a drought in the northern region, in addition to the uncertainties caused by deteriorating US-China relations.

There is currently no evidence suggesting that the country is facing an insufficient food supply.

But the video showing the stockpiled corn triggered public questions about whether the official grain reserves were safe and sufficient enough to meet domestic demand.

The ban on carrying mobile phones into granaries further fuelled online speculation that the state-owned grain reserve agency could be hiding a deterioration in the quality of stockpiles and was moving to prevent exposure.

We never prohibit outsiders from bringing their mobile phones into the warehouse
Chen Yuan, Sinograin

In response, Sinograin issued a statement on Weibo on Sunday night, confirming the clip showed the Zhaozhou warehouse but adding that the parent company was not trying to conceal any problems.

It also admitted that the local ban was a crude step and said it had severely criticised the Heilongjiang subsidiary.

The subsidiary also said it would allow the public to visit local granaries on certain days, but did not give a timetable or registration guidelines.

“We never prohibit outsiders from bringing their mobile phones into the warehouse,” Chen Yuan, a press officer with Sinograin in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post. “However, from the perspective of personnel safety, we do not recommend using mobile phones in the grain-storage area.

“Frequent use of mobile phones may cause a lack of concentration, which could result in a safety hazard.”

The quantity and quality problems of the batch of corn reflected in the video are basically inconsistent with the facts

The official statement said that the company had tightened the internal management on mobile phones, “in response to some customers’ practice of overgeneralisation and influencing public opinion during grain sales”, making an indirect reference to the controversial clip.

In an earlier statement on July 14, Sinograin said that none of the problems alleged in the video had been found after an investigation.

“After preliminary verification, the quantity and quality problems of the batch of corn reflected in the video are basically inconsistent with the facts,” Sinograin said in the statement.

It confirmed that it found some foreign materials in certain parts of the pile, which were left in the corn after the warehouse failed to clean them up. “[But] the foreign matter did not affect the quality and quantity of the whole corn warehouse,” the state stockpile manager said.

The food supply for the country’s 1.4 billion people has long been a top priority for Beijing, and the central government has promoted the huge national reserves of grains as the key guarantee of China’s food security.

Sinograin, however, has always kept the overall size of grain reserves a secret. China has designated corn, wheat and rice as strategic grains that it relies on to ensure adequate supply.

The latest available data was from a food security white paper issued by the State Council Information Office last year, which showed that the storage capacity of China’s warehouses had reached 910 million tonnes in 2018.

China also said the country’s summer grain output reached a historic high of 142.81 million tonnes this year, up 0.9 per cent from last year, citing this as further evidence of food security.

But a nearly 30 per cent jump in futures prices since January still suggests a domestic supply gap in corn – a crucial ingredient in animal feed, alcohol and ethanol fuel.

In response to the higher prices, China stepped up corn purchases from the United States, with a deal for 1.937 million tonnes confirmed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Thursday.

That was the third-largest deal for corn to any destination on record, and the biggest US corn purchase ever by China, topping the previous largest deal to China of 1.762 million tonnes just over two weeks ago, the USDA said.

Ma Wenfeng, a senior analyst with Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consulting, said that the soaring corn price pointed to a possible decline in the total output of summer grains, in contrast with the official statistics and comments.

He determined that the output of summer grains might have declined by up to 4.6 per cent from a year ago to 135.17 million tonnes, 7.64 million tonnes lower than the figure cited by Beijing, and also the lowest since 2013.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Grain body moves to REASSURE ON quality