China’s biggest-ever overseas acquisition, announced this month, isn’t about gobbling up resources to feed its industrial maw, broadening its financial leverage, or enhancing its strategic position. Rather, the $43 billion bid for Swiss agricultural company Syngenta is about something a lot more basic and a lot more important: ensuring that its farms will be able to produce enough food to keep pace with the country’s still-growing population, already the world’s largest.
Beijing today faces a variation of the dilemma that has bedeviled leaders there for thousands of years: how to feed so many people with so little arable land. China today accounts for about 19 percent of the global population, yet has just 8 percent of its arable land. And unlike other countries with growing populations, there’s no land left to till; indeed, given years of chemical abuse in the countryside and industrial pollution that sowed heavy metals through rice paddies, China’s available farmland is actually shrinking.Lester Brown has been writing about food production in China for a long time, starting with his 1995 book "Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet." Since then, however, China has been getting richer and the population has increased its demand for meat, especially chicken and pork. These creatures need to be fed before they are "made available" for human use, and that has led to an overseas demand for soy, in particular, that is behind at least some of the deforestation in Africa and Latin America. As the FP article points out, the acquisition of Syngenta may give China the tools to increase its domestic production and thus lessen its dependence on foreign imports, assuming, of course, that there's enough water (and there may not be, as I discussed yesterday).