Is the Belt and Road a Food Security Plan?

Guest contribution by Rebecca Arcesati. Rebecca is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University specializing in Chinese politics and China-EU relations. She holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Turin, where her thesis focused on China's food security discourse.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.

A wheat field in the China-Kazakhstan Modern Agriculture Innovation Park in Almaty (photo credit: Beijing Review).

A wheat field in the China-Kazakhstan Modern Agriculture Innovation Park in Almaty (photo credit: Beijing Review).


Of the many faces of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), agriculture is one of the least discussed by international news outlets. Yet, Chinese experts and policymakers alike have spoken about the potential of the BRI to drive agricultural “going-out” and help realize China’s - and the world’s - food security through improved yields and import diversification. Timing also helps. As Beijing retaliates against Trump’s tariffs by blocking soybean shipments from the US – where a third of its imports of the crop originated in 2017 – the need for agricultural diversification has been further strengthened.

The vast Central Asian land mass features prominently in this vision of a Silk Road of cereals. China’s calculus follows strategic as well as diplomatic considerations. But while BRI has the opportunity to address the many food security challenges facing Central Asia, China must carefully weigh the risks associated with extensive grain cultivation in this ecologically fragile region; only by doing this can BRI deliver on its promises of sustainable development.

An Agricultural Silk Road

Last year, the document “Vision and Action for Building 'One Belt One Road' Agricultural Cooperation”, appeared on Farmers’ Daily. It described China’s proposal for agricultural production, unconstrained trade and investment, sharing of information and technology between BRI countries, and green development. Through collaboration between governments, research institutes and companies, the plan envisions cross-border mechanisms ranging from harmonization of inspection and quarantine to e-commerce platforms and agri-tech parks.

The Belt and Road has given further impetus to China’s dynamic agricultural operations in Central Asia; "a vast hinterland of abundant agricultural resources with huge development potential (…) and markets with strong complementarity," the 2017 document reads. In Tajikistan, where China had leased land prior to the launch of the BRI, Xinjiang’s Zongtai Group opened an agriculture and textile industrial park for cotton production and processing. The two countries were also in talks over a potential agricultural free-trade park in bordering countries. In Kazakhstan, the China-Kazakhstan Modern Agriculture Innovation Park was completed in 2015 by Shaanxi-based Yangling Agriculture Hi-Tech Zone, one of the selected national hubs for agrarian internationalization under the BRI umbrella. Chinese media frequently cite these projects as examples of the Belt and Road’s rich opportunities for agribusinesses. Grain, animal husbandry and cotton are the announced targets of agricultural synergies with countries located on China’s West.

Strategic goals: restructuring the global grain trade?

Research as well as government announcements have shown that Chinese agricultural investments in the developing world fulfil a variety of objectives, including profit, foreign aid and diplomacy. BRI aims to facilitate and support profit-driven ventures of Chinese firms in Central Asian agriculture; at the same time it also sustains Beijing’s diplomatic commitment to play a greater role in fighting world hunger. Last year alone, China announced a $300 million emergency food aid plan for countries along the Belt and Road.  

But above and beyond all of this, food security is undoubtedly the key priority. As Chinese agricultural strategists Cheng and Zhang write: “The most powerful approach to achieve global food security is by enhancing the agricultural production capabilities of developing countries.” Boosting global productivity by eliminating bottlenecks and stabilizing volatile international food markets underpins China’s new outlook on food security. China’s domestic agricultural problems have further accelerated this shift; a shortage of arable land – in decline for the fourth consecutive year in 2017 – as well as serious environmental degradation have forced the leadership to recalibrate their priorities. Instead of promoting self-reliance at all costs; the focus has shifted to increasing imports and pursuing strategic integration of Chinese agribusiness conglomerates across all levels of global food supply chains.

As a Chinese former high-level diplomat told me, the 2008 global food crisis exacerbated the government’s distrust for international food markets which remain dominated by the United States. To power its huge meat industry, China imports 60 percent of the world’s soybeans. Last year, 34 percent of those imports came from the U.S. Seen under a geo-economic perspective, strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing threatens China’s food security. Given its focus on infrastructural connectivity, improving market access and elimination of trade barriers, BRI is set to play a key role in diversifying China’s sources of crop imports.

The trade spat is already pushing China to source more of its grain and oilseed imports from countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Supply sources are just as important as trade routes, as most of our food passes through few chokepoints which can be vulnerable to security threats ranging from climate change to terrorism. China’s efforts to mitigate against such threats through reshaping supply chains are already paying dividends; a Chatham House report found that only 4% of China’s grain and fertilizer imports pass through routes for which no alternative exists.

Kazakhstan, the world’s eighth largest wheat exporter that is strategically located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, is becoming the hub of a “grain Silk Road corridor”, as Chinese scholar Xu Haiyan named it in an article on Guoji Wenti Yanjiu. The article calls for Chinese agricultural technologies and infrastructures to liberate the potential of Kazakhstan’s – and Central Asia’s – vastly underexploited arable land and resources, thus improving global food security thanks to efficient transportation networks and agrarian innovation. Agriculture is a key component of the solid strategic partnership with Astana, which looks to modernize its farming sector and diversify its economy. Last month, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Agriculture announced that it would triple its supply of wheat to China by 2020, in addition to increasing shipments of Kazakh soybeans that began in 2016. At the same time, a “green channel” for agricultural products between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, as well as Cosco’s acquisition of the world’s biggest dry port in Khorgos, are new steps towards what looks like an ambitious reconfiguration of global grain trade.

The sustainability imperative

Since approximately a decade ago, a sea change has occurred in the Chinese leadership’s food security discourse. Policy announcements now emphasize tackling hunger through reform of the international food governance system; representing China’s responsible contribution to the world, especially to developing countries. Such commitment resulted in efforts to incorporate food security into the G20’s agenda, food aid – of which Beijing became the world’s largest provider – and a South-South cooperation partnership with the FAO. The Belt and Road agricultural strategy thus reiterates principles of green development, mutual benefit, and reduction of poverty and malnutrition.

However, planning of the agricultural Silk Road needs to tread carefully. China must avoid creating the impression that it is buying up other countries’ land only to feed its own population, jeopardizing local right to food. While the “Chinese land grabs” debate is largely politicized and often lacks nuance, Beijing will have to make extra efforts to prioritize comprehensive impact and sustainability assessment of its agribusiness multinationals’ investments along the Belt and Road, and to communicate these plans more transparently. Social risks of Chinese land acquisitions have already resulted in protests in Vietnam. And fears of widespread Chinese land buyouts is behind protests in Kazakhstan against proposed land reform.

In terms of environmental risks, wheat and cotton monoculture is slowly exhausting natural resources in Central Asia: just as it caused the disastrous drying of Lake Aral in the Soviet era, it is reportedly reducing soil fertility in Kazakhstan. Moreover, scientists warn that water level in Lake Balkhash, a precious ecological resource located in the Ili River Delta close to the Chinese border, is declining dramatically due to irrigation for cotton and rice cultivation. More dams planned by China in Xinjiang may further complicate this scenario, calling for the two countries to jointly design – together with neighbors – new and sustainable water policies along the Silk Road.

If the agricultural silk road can live up to its promises and be planned in a manner that mitigates against these social and environmental risks, it could go some way in solving the significant food security challenges in Central Asia and China. In particular, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan still suffer from nationwide malnutrition challenges – of which rural and marginalized groups are the most vulnerable. But Chinese planners’ design to boost grain output in the region must consider that, while environmental conditions are partly to blame for food insecurity in the region, more so is the Soviet legacy of top-down food policies built around structural dependence on extensive wheat cultivation, associated with poor land and water management, and autarchic self-reliance policies in some cases (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan).

Incidentally, China has already made similar mistakes at home, where grain self-sufficiency policies have exacerbated environmental degradation (leading to serious land pollution due to overuse of chemicals) and placed many farmers out of the market. By bringing in best-in-class agricultural practices and improving connectivity, the agricultural silk road can help the central Asian landmass fulfil its agrarian potential. However, it can only do so by keeping an eye on the environmental and social needs of the region and its population.