From French baguette to American pork: China looks abroad to feed its 1.4 billion

China is acquiring overseas farmland to fill its food needs, with the latest being the purchase of vast wheat fields in France by tycoon Hu Keqin.
China is acquiring overseas farmland to fill its food needs, with the latest being the purchase of vast wheat fields in France by tycoon Hu Keqin.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - A Chinese tycoon's purchase of vast wheat fields in France highlights China's increasing acquisition of foreign farmland as the Asian giant seeks to keep up with its massive population's growing appetite.

With 1.4 billion mouths to feed - one-fifth of the world's population - but less than 10 per cent of the planet's arable land, China has looked abroad to fill its food needs.

In addition to rising consumption, appalling food safety scandals at home have also boosted the appeal of imported products, seen as safer bets.

Chinese investment in agriculture abroad has soared to at least US$94 billion (S$124 billion) since 2010, with almost half of that invested in the past two years, according to statistics from US-based think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Private and state-owned Chinese enterprises have made investments covering nine million hectares in developing countries as of 2012. But in recent years, attention has shifted to Australia, the United States and Europe.

Here are some of China's biggest overseas agriculture deals:

French wheat farms

Chinese billionaire Hu Keqin has snapped up in the past few years 3,000 hectares of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions, including next door to Bernardet.

The fields may be bare for winter, but Hu has big dreams: eventually they'll provide some of the flour for 1,500 French bakeries in China, catering to a burgeoning middle class.

Central to Hu's plans to conquer China with baguettes is a partnership with France's biggest cereal cooperative Axereal to supply flour as well as bread-making know-how.

 

Hu is banking on China getting hooked on the crunch of a traditional French baguette as more and more of its middle classes take European holidays.

His Reward Group has since 1995 built an empire of everything from cleaning products to powdered milk.

Australian mega ranch

In 2016, Chinese property developer Shanghai CRED went in with a local mining group to purchase the biggest ranch in the world - S. Kidman & Co in Australia, which owns 185,000 cattle and controls 2.5 per cent of all the country's agricultural land.

The acquisition came on the heels of a controversial 2012 takeover of Australia's largest cotton farm by Chinese company Shandong Ruyi.

New Zealand dairy

Chinese food giants Bright Food, Yili and Pengxin have bought dozens of New Zealand dairy farms despite grumbling local farmers, and now churn out products there that are very highly regarded in the mainland market.

American pork

Pork producer WH Group, formerly known as Shuanghui International Holdings, bought US company Smithfield Foods for US$4.7 billion in 2013. With debt included, the deal was worth US$7.1 billion.

Ukraine rejection

In 2013, reports that Ukraine - the breadbasket of Europe - would lease three million hectares of agricultural land to a Chinese group sparked a heated controversy, but the Ukrainians eventually denied the reports.