In China, food scares put Mao's self-sufficiency goal at risk
The discovery of dangerous levels of toxic cadmium in rice sold in the southern city of Guangzhou, the latest in a series of food scandals, has piled more pressure on China to clean up its food chain - possibly at the expense of Mao Zedong's cherished goal of self-sufficiency.
The ruling Communist Party has long staked its legitimacy on its ability to guarantee domestic staple food supplies, and has pledged to be at least 95 percent self-sufficient even as demand increases and the fastest and biggest urbanisation process in history swallows up arable land.
That has led to a drive for quantity rather than quality - securing bumper harvests even from land contaminated by high levels of industrial waste and irrigated with water unfit for human consumption. "China has a big population and we used to face food shortages so the government has focused on quantity," said Li Guoxiang, a researcher at the state-backed Rural Development Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences.
But food safety is becoming a bigger worry than food security after a series of scandals ranging from melamine-tainted milk to toxic heavy metals in rice and vegetables - and raising the share of imports may be the least-worst option.
The government, under increasing public pressure and facing anti-pollution protests, has promised to reverse some of the damage done to the environment by three decades of breakneck industrial expansion. But the scale of the problem is huge, especially as China looks to maintain its economic growth, find jobs for millions of new urban residents and ensure that just 9 percent of the world's land can feed a fifth of the global population.
"Quantity is still a precondition, but the government is now putting lots of effort into safety, and high-quality food imports will definitely increase," said Li. "People will realize there are more advantages than disadvantages regarding rising food imports and things are turning in that direction."
China is already the world's biggest soybean importer after making a strategic decision to outsource production, mostly to the United States. Some predict Beijing might have to do the same with other land-intensive farm products like beef -- a move that would benefit big producers like Australia.
While it has vowed to remain self-sufficient in major staples, imports of rice and corn are expected to hit record levels this year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts. Wheat imports, too, are seen at a near record.