Sunday, May 4, 2008

Food: The New Colonial Imperative?

The search for food security has always been a major factor in establishing patterns of dominance among groups of people, but can it happen in the globalized 21st century? The front page story in London's Financial Times of 9 May didn't spell it out in those terms, but the meaning between the lines was unmistakable.

"Chinese companies will be encouraged to buy farmland abroad, particularly in Africa and South America, to help guarantee food security under a plan being considered in Beijing," said the lead. Under a proposal from the Agricultural Ministry, reported Jamil Anderlini from Beijing, China would officially encourage "offshore land acquisition" by domestic companies. If approved, "the plan could face intense opposition abroad." He cited "an official close to the deliberations" saying the proposal by the Agricultural Ministry "was likely to be adopted" even though opposition to the plan "might come from foreign governments unwilling to give up large areas of agricultural land."

Anderlini reported that food-poor oil-exporting countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa are also exploring similar options. Libya is talking to Ukraine about growing wheat; Saudi Arabia has said it will invest in food production abroad.

Chinese inability to meet the growing food demands of its population is driving the new policy, Anderlini noted: "China has about 40 per cent of the world's farmers, but just 9 per cent of the world's arable land." He cited a Chinese scholar's argument that "domestic agricultural companies must expand overseas" if the country is to "guarantee its food security and reduce its exposure to global market fluctuations." This was seen as a "win-win" situation, benefiting all parties involved, even if other countries might not see it that way. Anderlini noted that "Some countries would find it particularly problematic if Beijing supported Chinese companies to use Chinese labor on land bought or rented abroad - a common practice for most companies operating overseas."

Whether intentionally or not, the article will make developing countries insecure about cooperating with China on large "Model Farms" and infrastructure projects like ports and railways that ease access to agricultural resources. Such projects are spread across a number of key countries, from Pakistan to the Sudan, and they are often lauded as disinterested "South-South" cooperation.

The 2007-2009 "Beijing Action Plan" adopted at the 2006 China-Africa Forum stressed the importance of intensified agricultural cooperation in "ensuring food security for both sides. " China pledged to "Send 100 senior experts on agricultural technologies to Africa and set up in Africa 10 demonstration centers of agricultural technology with special features; Give encouragement and support to Chinese enterprises in expanding their investment in agriculture in Africa and getting more involved in agricultural infrastructure development, production of agricultural machinery and processing of agricultural produce in Africa."

India, Russia and South-East Asian countries are also likely to experience increased mistrust in Chinese protestations of goodwill, for they have rich agricultural regions on which China has or had territorial claims. China has significant territorial disputes with the Russian Federation, India, and Vietnam.

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