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Food facilitator

The BRI creates adaptive innovation to facilitate the expansion of agricultural value chain for a more sustainable agri-food system in the Global South

By QI GUBO | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-12-27 07:41
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The BRI creates adaptive innovation to facilitate the expansion of agricultural value chain for a more sustainable agri-food system in the Global South

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the global agri-food system is facing huge challenges: 783 million people were in hunger and almost 3 billion people could not afford healthy diet in 2022. Coping with those challenges requires an agri-food system transition in the Global South and broader scope of collaboration. As one party in the Global South, China has received agricultural assistance for decades while providing assistance to other developing countries since the 1950s. Until 2022, China had been enhancing its outflowing assistance volume and cooperation style based on its accumulated experiences, with more than 2,000 agricultural experts and technicians being dispatched to 70 Belt and Road countries; and the amount of China's outward foreign direct investment in agriculture and its annual agricultural trade volume also increased to more than $14 billion and $139.4 billion respectively in 2022 in the countries which had signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with China. However, there are still suspects on the justice of agricultural cooperation between China and other countries, querying if it is just for land acquisition and fulfilling China's own domestic food demand.

Looking into the structure of FDI and trade and induced impacts, the main efforts of the cooperation focus more and more on value chain expansion of the agri-food system in the Global South; and free trade patterns contribute to increasing agricultural outputs for self-consumption and reaching both the domestic and international markets. At the same time, agricultural cooperation also increases employment opportunities.

About 868 Chinese enterprises have invested in not only food production and processing but also irrigation, storage, logistics and trade in 90 partner countries, which has helped build closer vertical connection between material supply, primary agricultural production and marketing channels. According to China Agricultural University's study on BRI agricultural cooperation, those enterprises invested in only one stage of the whole value chain accounted for 37 percent of the total enterprises in 2020, while it was 49 percent in 2017. China-Africa Cotton is one of those enterprises investing in the whole value chain in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, with more than $60 million investment in research, planting, purchase and processing, spinning and edible oil production, benefiting more than 200,000 smallholders. The company purchased cotton from local farmers through contracts signed before production and provided seeds and fertilizer as interest-free credit to the farmers planting on their own land. Some Chinese agribusinesses have made efforts to align their operations with international principles and standards such as Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems. As the database of Land Matrix updated until Nov 1 shows, there are six out of 185 deals of Chinese companies investing in land for agriculture and forestry through purchase and the area of land with this type of investment account for only 2.35 percent of total invested land area, while the leased land area accounted for 78.23 percent.

Along with the implementation of the BRI economic infrastructure construction, the value chain was expanded. Irrigation infrastructure construction in Ethiopia, Kenya, the Philippines, the six Lancang Mekong countries, and other countries contributed to increased food production. A highway reconstructed and operated by China Railway Construction Corp in Chile since April 2021 has shortened the delivery time from cherry orchard to refrigeration centers at port, reducing logistics loss before the fruit being exported to other countries. More open and accessible free trade partnerships improved trade volume. For example, the Philippines reduced its agricultural products' shipping time to China from the previous four to five days to the present two to three days since becoming a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and it has also expanded its market to Europe, Central Asia and Russia via China by railway. Since 2018, Afghanistan exports around 3,000to 4,000 metric tons of pine nuts to China every year by air freight, with the support of the Protocol on the Hygienic Conditions of Pine Seed Plants Exported from Afghanistan to China. Another example is gin factory investment and operation in Tajikistan, which has improved cotton planting technologies, upgraded the industry, and created thousands of local job positions.

Technological cooperation in production processes are mostly based on resources available in partner countries, which are always facing a dilemma of high demand of food and lower access to extra expenditures on food production. The total 1,500 agricultural technology innovations had been demonstrated and extended in 70 Belt and Road countries through China-supported Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centers and China's agricultural experts' field work until 2022, and had brought up yield increasement by 40-70 percent. Within those technologies, Fungal Grass Technology was employed in more than 100 countries, benefiting millions of people. Fungal Grass Technology was called "Juncao China" and the experts reduced its cost to one-tenth when introducing to other countries, using agricultural waste as material, such as cotton seed hull and stalks. Labor intensive maize production technology disseminated in more than 10 villages in the Morogoro region in Tanzania has lasted more than 12 years. It was initiated as "small technology, big harvest" and turned into "small beans, big nutrition", with the intercropping of maize and soybeans, and processing soybean juice, cake and bean curd. This project is implemented by a team consisting of local officials, agricultural extension staff, farmers, and researchers of China Agricultural University and Sokoine University of Agricultural in Tanzania. Those innovations have improved the food supply by more than three times in partner countries on the one hand and enhanced nutrient situation of smallholder farmers on the other hand. In Liberia, rice is grown by 71 percent of farm families but rice consumption is still highly dependent on imports, and increased rice production due to China-Liberia technology cooperation were primarily for domestic consumption. At the same time, China exports of rice to Liberia was $6.6 million during 2020, accounting for 4.78 percent of total imports of rice in Liberia in that year.

Furthermore, existing multilateral and regional cooperation mechanisms guarantee a more pro-poor and demand-driven agricultural development in partner countries. The setting-up of the China-FAO South-South Cooperation Trust Fund since 2009 had injected a total amount of $130 million until 2020, with more and more projects of digital agriculture, e-commerce and green agricultural development. Other regional cooperation mechanisms also integrate agricultural cooperation as a critical topic, such as the Exchange and Training Base of Agricultural Technology of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Agricultural and Forestry Economic and Trade Forum of the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries. Agricultural investment is one of the main areas of the China-LAC Cooperation Fund, and poverty reduction and benefiting farmers is one of nine projects announced at the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2021.

Considering partner countries' resources availability and basic infrastructure of value chain expansion, locally-based cooperation was the main style which allowed both engagement of China's input and local contribution as base. Those could be considered as sharing of China's own agricultural development experiences, such as contract farming — farmers owning the land and selling products at viable price to the investor or supporter. Increased productivity contributed directly to domestic food consumption in these partner countries rather than exporting, not to mention exports to China, with existing multilateral and regional cooperation mechanism. While looking forward, research and development of frontier technologies such as digital and biological technology urged infrastructure construction, but appropriateness and affordance are more critical for the application. China needs to build up a complete statistical system for agricultural cooperation through various mechanism, monitoring and sharing the process and creating knowledge.

The author is a professor at the College of Humanities and Development Studies and the College of International Development and Global Agriculture at China Agricultural University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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