“Agriculture for Profits”

Bharat Dogra

The GRAIN report, titled ‘Expanding Markets, Under mining Food Sovereignty—10 Years of Belt and Road’, released towards the end of January 2024, deserves serious attention in the context of the debate on China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

According to GRAIN China's food trade with BRI partners surged by 162 percent in the last decade, reaching USD 76.10 billion. Since 2018, China has been the leading country providing investments internationally to agriculture, averaging USD 1.71 billion annually. While China has made significant strides in securing control over its overseas food supply through BRI investments, its dependence on food imports has grown has also grown.

There is the expanding involvement of Chinese corporations through BRI across the global food chain, from seeds to processed foods. In Africa, the BRI approach, referred to as "agriculture for profit", has operated through massive private or state-owned companies and has coupled the financing of transportation infrastructure projects (like rail and ports) with projects to industrialise African agriculture through hybrid seeds, machinery, logistics, food storage and processing facilities provided by Chinese companies.

Through its massive communication network, the BRI is promoting agriculture capitalisation in Africa. China's agricultural intentions in Africa are mainly concerned with its soaring domestic meat consumption and support of its factory farming of poultry and pigs, which has created a huge demand for imported soybeans and maize for animal feed.

Despite earlier failed attempts, at the China-Africa Leaders’ Roundtable Dialogue in Johannesburg in August 2023, President Xi Jinping emphasised that China would continue to try and develop large-scale crop farming on the continent. He also stressed that importance would be given to build up seed production capacity and seed markets for its corporations.

In 2022, the GRAIN report says, the Tanzanian government provided it with 53,000 hectares for a large-scale farming operation in the Chunya District of the Mbeya Region and in 2023 it fast-tracked the approval of the company's seed varieties. This company has also expanded in South America in a big way emerging as one of the biggest seed companies internationally. What is more its GM ( genetically modified) maize varieties have been approved for use within China. Longping High-Tech and COFCO are also actively developing exports of soybeans in the West African country of Benin, which along with Tanzania and Ethiopia, was recently singled out by China for the development of soybean exports.

Benin is also a target for maize exports. Other crops for export to China, beyond maize and soybeans, are also being supported in Africa through the BRI.

Coming to the fisheries sector, the GRAIN report says that China’s rapidly expanding fleet of deep-sea trawlers as a techno-fix to deal with the decline in global fish stocks is actually playing a major role in accelerating the depletion. “Having badly overfished their own coastal waters, Chinese companies are sending their giant trawlers further and further overseas, bringing them into increasing conflict with coastal communities who depend on these same waters for their livelihoods and food needs”.

Under current BRI projects, the GRAIN report says Chinese fishing companies are encouraged to leverage BRI investments in harbour infrastructure to gain more fishing access in foreign countries, for instance Somalia, at the expense of local fishing communities and the sustainability of local marine resources.

Chinese fishing companies started moving into Somali waters in a big way after December 2018, when the Somali government issued renewable annual fishing licenses to 31 vessels that are part of the China Overseas Fisheries Association. A new deal with Chaoliang Group under the BRI framework will only worsen the situation.

In Pakistan, the GRAIN report says, a major project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the BRI, is the development of a massive deep-sea port in the fishing village of Gwadar in Balochistan that will connect by rail and road to China’s Xinjiang region. The project, which gives control of the port to Chinese companies, has also brought an influx of Chinese fishing trawlers to the area. One of the Chinese companies now fishing the waters off of the Gwadar coast is Fujian Hengli Fishery, which is known for its illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in West Africa, with evidence of various infringements including illegal nets, shark finning and fishing without licences.

In December 2022, the Haq Do Tehreek (Gwadar Rights Movement) led a two-month protest to demand an end to deep-sea fish trawling by Chinese vessels and, together with thousands of people from local small fishing communities, staged a blockade of the port. Despite the strong community resistance, the Chinese companies are eager to fish in Pakistan’s waters as they can sell the catch back home duty-free.

“Agriculture for profit” is not only an economic gamble, but also a social and environmental one–for China and its BRI partners”.

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Vol 56, No. 34, Feb 18 - 24, 2024