Up in smoke

Burning wheat fields are a hot topic online


Controversy over wheat crop

The current crop of China’s senior political figures, including President Xi Jinping, were born in the 1950s. As teenagers during the Cultural Revolution, many of them were sent to work as labourers in rural parts of the country. That programme meant that Xi and some of his colleagues have experienced poverty and hunger firsthand, it has been claimed.

Less wonder, perhaps that Party cadres also treat food security as a policy priority. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Xi warned that China must never be in a position of relying on imports of food staples and that “Chinese rice bowls” should always be filled with local produce.

China is the world’s biggest wheat producer but the country’s leaders are also concerned about wider shortages in wheat and other crops, because of disruption to agricultural output in Ukraine, another of the world’s leading producers of staples including wheat.

Food security fears were underlined in heated debates online this week after video footage was posted  of acres of Chinese wheat fields being cut down before they reached full harvest.

Some of the footage shows farmers slashing down fields of greenish, immature wheat. Reports were soon doing the rounds on social media that mysterious buyers have been offering to buy the crop at Rmb1,500 per mu (1 mu is about 666 square metres). This compares with about Rmb1,000 per mu for winter wheat, which is set to start ripening for harvest in about three weeks’ time.

The videos, filmed in different areas of China, seemed to indicate that the early harvestings aren’t isolated cases in specific districts. The video evidence so worried the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs that it published an agitated statement warning of a clampdown on “the destruction of wheat crops” and urging a round of inspections to prevent any activity that endangers the country’s food security.

“Who has been buying green wheat at high prices?” was one of the most-discussed questions in the Chinese media over the past week.

According to China Economic Weekly, a magazine run by the Xinhua news agency, some of the wheat fields have been destroyed by local authorities, as farmers have  been growing their crop on polluted land that is forbidden for agricultural activity. There also seems to have been genuine demand for greener wheat as fodder for animals, because prices for other animal feed such as corn have climbed rapidly over the past year.

Plausible answers like these have not prevented conspiracy theories from spreading, however. Some have suggested that farmers have been destroying their crop because their fields have been acquired for real estate development (this practice has generally been banned by the central government, with a policy directive that China maintains at least 1.8 billion mu of farmland).

Others think that American speculators have been snapping up green wheat from China because the Russia-Ukraine conflict has resulted in a global shortage of supply, with prices surging over 50% this year (India’s recent export ban hasn’t helped in this regard either).

Some took the speculation even further, claiming that the American government is directing a plot to weaken China by endangering its food security.

The latter rumour attracted a lot of attention, although most people didn’t think it was credible. Other commentators thought that the video footage more likely pointed to economic necessity and that wheat farmers are taking the decision on early harvests to generate much-needed income. 

“No one in the world treasures their food more than Chinese farmers. The ultimate reason for them to harvest green wheat is because they are still poor,” a response on the question-and-answer platform Zhihu explained.

Still, the volatile mood points to the political conflicts that are being blamed across the globe for food shortages and price inflation. Foreign ministers from the G7 nations said in a joint statement on Saturday that Russia’s military action against Ukraine has generated “one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history”.

So expect increased vigilance from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs – especially if more wheat videos appear online.

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