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What should be done to ensure food security?

By Wei Longbao and Chen Zhangliang | China Daily | Updated: 2016-02-11 14:57

Editor's note: How to ensure food security will be a key issue for the authorities during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period. Late leader Deng Xiaoping laid down a principle: China should avoid relying on imports to meet its food demand and grain imports should not be more than 10 percent of its total need. The principle has been emphasized by all Chinese leaders since then.

Wei Longbao

Change practice and import more

Data from 2014 show the principle has been adhered to. China imported large quantities of soybeans, but the import of grains was just a little more than 19 million tons, or 3.1 percent of the total need.

Since 2003 the government has been offering subsidies and buying agricultural products at protective prices to encourage Chinese farmers to grow more grains. That policy has played a key role in increasing China's agricultural production for 11 successive years.

But things have changed in the global agricultural market. As prices of agricultural products overseas have remained low for quite a long time, prices in the domestic market have been falling too. Even though the government still buys grains at protective prices, which are higher than market prices, enterprises that need farm products have been eyeing overseas markets to fulfill their requirements.

Therefore, it is time for the government to adjust its policies to ensure food security. And importing a larger part of the grains the country needs, if handled properly, will not jeopardize China's food security.

Of course, China needs to diversify its imports to avoid relying on one or two overseas supplier and prevent the fluctuations in the global agricultural market from affecting prices at home. As such, the government needs to make more efforts to get more long-term agricultural trade partners overseas so as to avoid trade risks.

Another way of meeting the domestic demand for agricultural products lies in Chinese agricultural enterprises "going global". Some Chinese agricultural enterprises have the technology and funds to operate farms overseas, and the government should encourage them to do so, for the time has come for China to coordinate global resources to ensure its food security.

The author is a senior researcher at and deputy dean of China Academy for Rural Development, Zhejiang University.

Chen Zhangliang

Provide policy support to farmers

The seeming contradiction between ever-growing food production and importing food products lies in prices - imported agricultural products are cheaper than those grown in China. For example, the price of corn imported from the United States is about 1.14 yuan ($0.17) per kilogram, but corn grown in China costs about 2 yuan per kg.

Among the many reasons for higher grain prices in China, the primary one is rising labor costs and the country's declining demographic dividend. It is good that Chinese workers are being paid higher wages, but that also increases commodity prices.

Since China's population is expected to stop rising after some years, it is necessary that food growers reduce their production costs using means other than lowering workers' wages. That will, however, require the government to provide policy support to food growers, for which it has to take certain measures.

First, theoretically all land in China belongs to the State and farmers can cultivate the plots they have the land-use rights for. Given this fact, the government should allow farmers to rent out their land-use rights to others to facilitate the merger of small farms into bigger ones, because only when a farm is big enough can a farmer reduce the production costs with the help of better management and machines.

Second, the government should encourage farmers to use more machines. True, for years the authorities have been encouraging farmers to do so, but they have to take more measures to produce better results. Some scholars worry that the use of more machines will reduce agricultural jobs, but now that the supply of labor is declining such concerns seem unnecessary.

Third, policymakers should support experimentation with new technologies, and apply them if the experiments are successful. For instance, as the debate over the safety of genetically modified food products continues, the authorities need to organize transparent discussions among experts, so that people get to know whether GM foods are safe and decide whether they should consume them.

The author is a senior agricultural researcher at the China Association for Science and Technology. The article is an excerpt from the speech he delivered at the Urban China Initiative annual meeting.

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