Food security has always been of central concern for China. With 1.36 billion people, the world’s most populous nation only has nine percent of the total arable land. Africa, a region paradoxically plagued by food shortages currently has 60 percent of the world’s usable acreage. China’s rising political might and greater African presence spur rumors of Chinese farm land acquisition, large scale farmer resettlement and massive food shipments back to China.

Is this the reality on the continent or are other factors at play? Dr. Deborah Brautigam, a Johns Hopkins professor and author of “The Dragon’s Gift,” is a leading expert on Chinese African relations and attempts to separate sensationalism from truth in her new book “Will Africa Feed China?”

Currently – Who is feeding who?

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Dr. Brautigam describes how famine has unfortunately plagued China. This reality has had monumental effects on Chinese history and politics, in different eras sparking invasions, rebellions and turmoil. The concern of food security is so paramount, the Chinese government introduced a strategic pork reserve in 2007 to limit the price fluctuations of this highly popular meat. Additionally, the Chinese government now maintains the world’s largest grain reserves.

Dr. Brautigam believes China’s experience with trade embargoes, including the U.S. embargo from 1950 to 1971 has further highlighted the importance of food reserves and independence. In 1996 Chinese leaders set the grain self-sufficiency benchmark at 95 percent of China’s grain requirements. This means China is required to produce domestically nearly all staple foods needed.

China became a net food importer in 2004. By 2012 China’s agricultural exports were worth 63.2 billion USD and imports worth 112.4 billion USD. Despite this, problems related to obesity are of greater concern than starvation.

Africa, to a much larger extent, continues to struggle with food security.  Widespread famine has occurred as recently as the 1970s with an estimated 100,000 people dying in the Sahel. Colonial influences have left an emphasis on commodity export. Despite this, African countries spend two dollars on food imports for every dollar of food they export.  Dr. Brautigam shows, to a large extent, Africa is reliant on foreign food production.

Blessed with abundant natural resources, Africa’s need to import large quantities of food stems from its lack of technology. 65 percent of plowing, cultivation and harvest operations are the product of manpower.  The vast majority of agriculture in Africa is rain fed subsistence farming and merely four percent of farmland is irrigated. In this setting, 20 percent of harvests rot in poor storage or are lost to pests.

It is more common to see Chinese grown and packaged tinned tomatoes or sardines in even remote areas of Africa than to see African produce available in Beijing or Shanghai.

Rumors Abound

According to Dr. Brautigam, the belief that China has acquired large areas of farmland in Africa appears to be more of a myth than reality. Chinese mega-projects proposed by African leaders or being negotiated by Chinese and African stakeholders are assumed to be a certainty yet frequently fail to get off the ground. Figures on Chinese acquisitions have been overstated as they move from African country to African country finally published as fact. Estimates place Chinese land acquisition at 239,365 hectares.  This is a sizable amount and has grown recently, but much less than the six million hectares frequently quoted.

Dr. Brautigam believes the idea that China wants to grow food in Africa for Chinese export appears to be a myth. From a business perspective, this would be an unusual model. With Africa struggling to produce enough food, there is a huge local demand. China’s position across the Indian Ocean makes shipping massive quantities of perishable items a challenge. These logistical realities would deeply cut into any corporation’s bottom-line.

Finally, Dr. Brautigam writes, the acceptance that Beijing plans to send displaced farmers to Africa borders on a conspiracy theory. There is no unified Chinese national policy on agriculture going out and simply no evidence of peasant export. Chinese agricultural engagement has been gradual and experimental. Chinese farm operators are people from a variety of backgrounds who entered farming as a business venture through their own personal decision.

China’s Aim in Dr. Brautigam’s Eyes

Dr. Brautigam predicts Chinese farms in Africa that grow mixed produce for the local market will increase, leading to the question: why? This is because of the unique characteristics of China’s agricultural engagement with Africa.

Chinese assistance blends aid and business. Training programs include demonstration centers, a common component in many aid plans which showcases Chinese agricultural equipment and products. These centers are an effective advertising technique which may allow Chinese firms to grow both in prestige and market share.

Using money from the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Commerce creates incentives for Chinese firms to invest abroad. Currently, most Chinese firms are not modern, not vertically integrated and have little brand recognition.  These firms need to become more sophisticated to compete globally.

Dr. Brautigam believes large Chinese firms aspire to be future John Deeres and Cargills.  At the same time the Chinese government is creating incentives for relatively small scale farmers and ventures to operate in Africa.  With these many agricultural startups, one may develop into an industry leader.

It seems that China wants to cultivate a national agricultural champion much like Huawei is in the telecommunication equipment sector; China desires an innovative firm with the strategic vision to unlock Africa’s enormous agricultural potential. This astounding feat can revolutionize global agriculture markets and create a world class company in the process.  Africa is not feeding China. It is a continent for agricultural experiments and innovation. It is the lab were Chinese brands maybe born.

William Pierce holds the graduate assistantship for The Carter Center’s China Program. He is a masters student at Rollins School of Public Health, with a policy and management concentration. Mr. Pierce served in the Peace Corps, living in a Ghanaian village, carrying out public health programs from 2013 to 2015. William holds an executive position in the Rollins Returned Peace Corps Committee.  He has worked at CARE International within the new business development department, responding to U.S. government solicitations, including those from USAID.  William holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University at Buffalo. He speaks Hausa and Buili.