Over the past few years, Chinese buyers have bought farmland in countries ranging from the U.S. and France to Vietnam. In 2013 Hong Kong-based food giant WH Group bought Smithfield, America’s largest pork producer, and more than 146,000 acres of Missouri farmland. In the same year, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps bought 9% of Ukraine’s famously fertile farmland, equal to 5% of the country’s total territory, with a 50-year lease. (In 2020, the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Chinese company over human-rights abuses.) Between 2011 and 2020, China bought nearly seven million hectares of farmland around the world. Firms from the U.K. bought nearly two million hectares, while U.S. and Japanese firms bought less than a million hectares.
“What matters most is what the Chinese do with the land,” said J. Peter Pham, a longtime Africa analyst who served as the Trump administration’s envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “they got approval from the previous regime to take 100,000 hectares to produce for palm oil,” the cultivation of which causes damaging deforestation. “And in Zimbabwe, they’re producing beef for export back to China, which is neither a sustainable nor wise use of farmland in a country where people go hungry for want of basic staples.”
Loss of arable land is becoming calamitous for countries better-positioned than Zimbabwe. By April, mostly as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, wholesale food prices had risen 18% from a year earlier. That’s the largest 12-month increase in nearly five decades, Bloomberg reports. In France, wheat prices have doubled since 2020. And China is likely to want to buy more foreign land. It has 21% of the world’s population but only 7% of productive farmland. [Continue reading…]