Thursday, May 12, 2022

Wheat Silage Debate: No Freedom to Farm in China

In a socialist country where farmers are just borrowing the land from the State they do not have the right to decide how they will grow and sell their crops. The State can change its mind and make up regulations on the spot on a document no one has read. 

China's agriculture ministry was outraged early this month by reports that some farmers have been cutting their wheat fields a month before harvest to sell as silage for animal feed. The Ministry was responding to online videos advising farmers to cut down their wheat to be chopped up and fed to cattle. The Ministry sent out investigation teams to ascertain the extent of the practice, instructed local officials to investigate the "destruction" of wheat fields, and promised to investigate those who violate unspecified regulations. Henan Province immediately issued an emergency document banning the sale of wheat for silage.

Truck loaded with wheat chopped for silage.

Securities Times explained that silage is an animal feed made by controlled fermentation of green material like corn stalks, leaves of sugar cane or sweet potatoes, hay, or wheat. It has a sour smell, is delicious, nutritious and digestible for cattle and sheep. The head of a big beef-farming company in China told Securities Times that commercial demand for silage is booming as companies like his replace small-scale "backyard" cattle growers. Last December China's customs authority opened trade in silage imported from Myanmar to address the tight supply. The beef tycoon said wheat silage is more expensive than other types of silage and expensive to transport, so he had never used wheat silage for  his cattle.

Renmin University Professor Zheng Fengtian told Global Times there are two main reasons why farmers are selling their wheat as silage. One is the poor quality and low yields of wheat expected by many farmers due to floods that delayed planting of the crop last fall, the weak state of seedlings, and problems with plant disease and pests. Zheng also cited a shortage of corn silage due to the high corn price last year that induced farmers to sell corn grown for silage as grain, tightening the supply of silage. Some livestock farms are unable to buy silage and may have temporarily begun buying wheat for silage, but Professor Zheng thinks this is not widespread. Another farmer told Securities Times that farmers anticipating a poor crop of wheat see an advantage to cutting their wheat fields now to avoid the peak summer harvest period and plant a corn crop in the wheat field earlier than usual that will have an extra month to grow and produce a higher yield in the fall. 

Still, Zheng thinks wheat should not be sold as silage and calls for a crackdown on people who "disrupt the nation's grain market." In this debate some people argue that farmers have a right to grow, harvest and sell their crops as they see fit, but Zheng says this is mistaken. Professor Zheng claims that only grain crops can be planted on subsidized "high-standard fields" and "permanent farmland," stipulations included in this year's communist party "number 1 document" which called for clarifying categories of rural land use and prioritizing grain production. 

While Zheng insists that land designated for grain cannot be used for feed, he acknowledges that corn is one of those grains--and it is used primarily for animal feed; the government has been subsidizing production of corn for silage, alfalfa and oat hay for years to fill the shortage of feed for dairy and beef cattle; and the government sold millions of tons of wheat from its reserves last year primarily to use as animal feed. According to Chinese Government's premier grain analysis group, only 90 million tons of the 130-140 million tons of wheat is used for human food. 

A Chinese social media post suggests that the destruction of wheat fields is an American plot to destroy China's food supply and thus conquer the country. Citing a story about a similar stratagem in China's "spring and autumn period," the author suspects that American companies are buying wheat silage at high prices as a sneaky way of destroying the wheat crop in a "food war." The author of the post disagreed with people who argue that the government has no business interfering with how farmers sell their crops, suggesting that they also support Ukraine, oppose the zero-covid policy, and support "lying flat." The post continues by praising the superiority of China's socialist model that features active intervention over the "stupid" American economic thinking that relies on markets to equilibrate supply and demand.

Ministry of Agriculture notice warns that it is investigating
destruction of wheat fields. The fonts are very
similar to 1960s and '70s propaganda posters.

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