China Power | Environment

The Bitter Aftertaste of China’s Hunger for South American Food

China’s quest for food security is exacerbating environmental crises like deforestation and overfishing in South American countries.

By Agostina Blengino and Jordy Pasa for
The Bitter Aftertaste of China’s Hunger for South American Food

A July 14, 2018 satellite view of the Amazon rainforest, showing that large patches have been clear-cut by loggers.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ESA/A.Gerst

While food security is a grave concern all across the world, to China it is an exceptionally crucial matter. With its population of over a billion people experiencing unprecedented levels of development for the past few decades, ensuring reliable access to food items is by far one of the greatest challenges faced by the country’s leadership. For a long time, Beijing’s approach has been to strive for self-sufficiency and, indeed, much has been done to increase China’s capability to meet its own growing demand for food. Yet, recent changes in demographics and consumption habits, as well as environmental limitations, have made the country increasingly dependent on food imports.

Abundant in natural resources but notoriously vulnerable to climate issues, South America is one of the many regions impacted by China’s search for food security. In what ways does China’s global quest for food materialize in the continent?

In Brazil, things are not looking good. Over the past year, the country has faced growing levels of deforestation paired with some of the most serious wildfires in its recent history. From the vast green areas of the Amazon to the fields of the Cerrado and the Pantanal, tens of thousands of square kilometers of some of the most biodiverse biomes in the world have been wiped clean. Among the many devastating aspects of such a scenario, one specific dimension is particularly concerning: in its overwhelming majority, deforestation is not a coincidental trend. On the contrary, experts point out that the deliberate practices of Brazil’s expanding agricultural sector – led, among other factors, by the recent international devaluation of the Brazilian real – are the main driving force behind it.

Granted, there are important domestic aspects to this phenomenon, such as President Jair Bolsonaro’s climate change denialism and, subsequently, his administration’s defunding of state environmental protection agencies as well as systematic attacks against Brazilian organizations engaged in environmental advocacy and protection. As the biggest individual buyer of Brazil’s agricultural produce, though, it can’t be denied that China also shares some of the blame. Despite research showing that a significant portion of Brazilian agricultural exports are linked to environmental irregularities, not much is being done on the Chinese side to ensure that further environmental damage does not come as a side effect of the country’s growing appetite for Brazil’s food commodities.

South America’s second largest economy also faces considerable environmental and sovereignty challenges. With Argentina’s economy going through one of its worst performances in the last couple of decades, the need to continue exporting commodities to China is pushing the country in the same direction as Brazil. While soybean exports to China are on the rise – Argentine sales to the state-owned Sinograin are expected to climb to 4 million tons in 2021 – the Gran Chaco forest, second in size only to the Amazon in South America, has become a target of deforestation with the aim of allowing further expansion of the grain’s production. This practice affects not only the biodiversity of the forest, but also the native communities that have long inhabited the area.

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The matter of economic relations with China, and the impact on Argentina’s sovereignty, was recently at the center of public attention when the Argentine government announced a proposed agreement that would increase pork production and exports to the Asian country, generating an additional $2.5 billion in revenue and creating almost 10,000 new jobs. While the deal would provide a much-needed push to the sector in Argentina – and help alleviate China’s demand for pork in the midst of its African swine fever crisis – activists have pointed out the many possible long-term environmental consequences that such an agreement could bring about in the South American country. Aggravating the issue, Argentina’s environmental laws are not strong enough to deal with the overwhelming power of both Chinese and local agro-industrial corporations.

There is also plenty to be said about the rest of the continent. According to a report recently released by the maritime conservation group Oceana, about 300 Chinese boats amassed over 70,000 hours of fishing near Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands between the months of July and August this year. China has a poor track record on illegal fishing – the country ranked last in a 2019 Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Index jointly developed by Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Limited and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Thus, its massive presence in the sensitive waters around the Galapagos – a sanctuary that houses many species not found in the rest of the world – is, understandably a cause of great concern to the Ecuadorian government.

And Ecuador is not the only country in the region that has had to deal with the presence of Chinese fishing vessels nearing or at times illegally entering its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Chile, Peru, and Argentina have also reported several such instances. In 2018, for the first time ever, the Peruvian government filed a lawsuit against a Chinese captain for illegally fishing in the country’s EEZ. On the other side of the continent, reports of the Argentine navy capturing illegal Chinese vessels are not uncommon, prompting tense exchanges between China’s embassy in Buenos Aires and Argentina’s government. Aside from the obvious violations to South American countries’ sovereignty, these practices pose a serious risk to the marine biodiversity of the southern Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The transnational nature of these challenges requires a coordinated regional response, which is what Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia recently set out to do when their foreign ministers issued a joint declaration against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. The four countries expressed their concern about foreign vessels nearing their EEZs, arguing that South American countries need to work together in ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of the region’s resources. Even though the declaration is not explicitly directed at Chinese fishing vessels, the timing of its launch hints that they are likely the main reason behind the initiative.

Overall, these concerns are serious enough that measures to tackle the main issues are nothing short of urgent. On China’s side, one would expect the Chinese government and the country’s companies to adopt more strict standards of environmental protection in outward direct investments, as well as to require higher standards from suppliers of food commodities in South America. Last July, China’s COFCO International announced, for instance, that it will demand full traceability of all soybeans coming from Brazil starting from 2023. While a step in the right direction, it is still a rather limited approach to the widespread problem of deforestation in South American countries. In terms of fishing, China needs to ratify and abide by international agreements on the maintenance of fish stocks and on illegal fishing worldwide – in addition to, of course, reinforcing respect for other countries’ national sovereignty, a concept that Beijing itself holds very dearly.

On the South American side, countries need to find a way to foster their own economic growth while also preserving their sovereignty and environmental well-being. This would entail, firstly, a reassessment of their economic development models, factoring in the importance of sustainability in the contemporary world. Countries like Brazil and Argentina should consider implementing and enforcing wide-ranging environmental laws to better protect the region’s natural resources. Secondly, South American countries need to reach a higher and more comprehensive level of regional cooperation, with the aim of guaranteeing their own interests in the face of foreign challenges. In this sense, it is essential for the region to overcome political differences and attempt to reach a basic consensus on these issues if it is to build a future in which such concerns are finally overcome.

Agostina Blengino is pursuing a master’s degree in China Studies with focus on Politics and International Relations at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. She has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the Catholic University of Argentina. She is currently a Junior Editor at Shūmiàn 书面 and has worked as an international affairs adviser for the Buenos Aires City Government. She also lectures on Latin American Compared Political Systems as a teaching assistant at the Salvador University.

Jordy Pasa holds a BA in International Affairs from UFRGS in Brazil and a ML in Chinese Politics from Renmin University of China. Currently, he is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University researching economic development and industrialization in Brazil and China and the Senior Editor at Shūmiàn 书面, a media platform focused on Chinese issues and geared towards a Latin American audience.