This summer people in the UK and North America started to receive small packets of seeds in the post.
Two things were odd about these deliveries: one, the parcels were unsolicited; and two, the packages had been sent from China.
Conspiracy theories soon abounded, including that the Chinese were attempting to introduce destructive species and destabilise agricultural production in the West.
The deliveries were arriving at a time when many countries were failing to contain Covid-19 so it was easy to think the worst – particularly as the virus is widely believed to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan (where it was first detected).
In the end, the most plausible explanation for the unexpected packets were that they were part of ‘brushing’ scams, in which online vendors generate fake sales by sending unsolicited items.
Once the goods have been ‘sold’ the vendor generates a fake sales record of their products in a bid to boost genuine sales in future.
Quite how the seed sellers got the addresses of the online shoppers from Canada, the UK and the US is unclear. But the seeds they sent turned out to be unthreateningly healthy: source material for mint, hollyhocks, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, corn and lettuce.
In fact, the Chinese don’t have much of a reputation as seed producers. A recent feature in Outlook – a magazine run by Xinhua – lamented the country’s reliance on imported seeds to grow the crops that its people enjoy most. It said that domestic vegetable producers “rely heavily” on imported seeds and that some crops are grown “almost entirely” from foreign stock.
Bell peppers, potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, onions and white rad-ishes were singled out for mention as being grown from seeds almost entirely imported.
“Seeds are the cornerstone of modern agriculture and the foundation of national food security. To keep control of our ‘rice bowl’, China must develop a clearer understanding of the seed industry and its strategic significance,” the magazine urged.
The question is of greater significance if relations worsen with the US – one of the main suppliers of seeds to the Chinese. Food security strategists have noted that China’s other major seed suppliers are Japan and South Korea, both of which could choose to squeeze supply in the event of deteriorating ties with the Chinese .
So why is it that China, a country with an agricultural history stretching back for thousands of years, is dependent on others?
One key reason is that farms have traditionally been small ones, lacking know-how and capital. As a result industrial-scale farming is only just starting to take hold. More investment has been coming into the sector in the last 10 years as the government gives more focus to the social and economic challenges of rural China. However, seed development is a slow process, often implemented over decades. The practice demands access to a large pool of genetically diverse plants which can be studied, tweaked and interbred over time. China has lost a lot of its genetic diversity, because of intensive, monocultural farming practices. Further, the commercial budgets for the development of new strains of seed that deliver more productive and more resilient crops have been limited in China. The American seed giant Monsanto spends more on R&D every year than China’s top 50 seed developers combined, Outlook reckons.
The magazine went on to say that the seed firms need more support from academia to move the sector forward. One expert quoted by Sina News estimated that China is 30 years behind other countries in seed development and that more scientists need to be recruited for the catch-up effort. “Foreign companies have been systematically collecting seed resources for over a century, while we have been rather messy in our approach,” the report said.
ChemChina’s $43 billion acquisition of Syngenta in 2016 was part of the drive to close the gap in seed technology. That said, the Swiss-headquartered giant is still awaiting a policy change from the Chinese government that allows it to more broadly sell more of its genetically-modified product range in China. So far Beijing has only approved the sale of GMO-based seeds for papaya and cotton.
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