An objective look at China

Economist Zhan Su offers keys to understanding China and in particular the agrifood priorities of its leaders.

This is a fascinating portrait of China that the renowned economist Zhan Su painted during the luncheon organized by the Association of communicators and editors of the food industry. This event was held last December 4 in Quebec. Mr. Su is a professor of strategy and international management and holder of the Stephen-A.-Jarislowsky Chair in international affairs management at Laval University.

To understand China and more particularly the orientations of his government in the agro-food field, the speaker proposed some keys.

They are a greedy people. He likes to eat. And his tastes are very varied. Eight regional cuisines are listed. Kitchens that can be very different from each other. Thus, while some give a large place to rice, others are rather turned to wheat.

The past is heavy. China has had its share of famines caused by natural disasters such as droughts or other factors. Food shortages have even been caused by government policies. Mr. Su, who left China in the 1980s when he was in his twenties, remembers having lived through a period when a ration coupons system was in place.

The standard of living of the Chinese has increased considerably. In 1990, China’s GDP was 6% of that of the United States. In 2016, this ratio reached 60%. One of the well-known effects of this progress is the increase in meat consumption.

Chinese people are wary of Chinese food . They have not forgotten the cases of contamination or intoxication that have marked their recent history. We think, for example here, of the scandal of the adulteration of milk with melamine.

The Chinese are showing more and more health concerns as obesity wreaks havoc. It is estimated that 300 million Chinese are obese.

An agrifood sector with contrasts

China has 18.3% of the world’s population, but has barely 8.5% of the world’s arable land. The average farm occupies only 0.6 hectares. Compared to other countries, this farm has average productivity, but high production costs.

Large production and processing units are developing as a result of government agrifood policies. Thus, we have seen the appearance in recent years of dairy and pig farms with several thousand heads.

Chinese farmers use three times more pesticides per hectare than their French counterparts. Mr. Su notes that small producers tend to ignore these products.

Random market prospects

In terms of overall consumption, the economist points out that China has just overtaken the United States and is now the largest consumer market in the world. Speaking of the United States, Mr. Su describes the trade dispute between China and China as major, and believes that we are only in their infancy. He warns that this conflict will not necessarily be to the advantage of Canada.

The African plague epidemic has seriously reduced the Chinese pig herd. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2020, its level will be 36% lower than it was in 2018. On the subject of the African plague, the speaker goes there with a prediction which might surprise him: he believes it will take two or three years for the situation to recover.

Finally, here is Mr. Su’s advice to Canadian exporters doing business with China: diversify your markets so as not to be dependent on the Chinese market. And if possible, make essential appointments by offering products that no one else can offer.