China food security: Inflated crop yields threaten ‘rigour, authority’ of scientific research

China’s increased efforts to seek technological advancement in agriculture to ensure food security could be undermined by exaggerated figures in crop yield tests, state media has warned.

While record-breaking yields of newly-developed food crop varieties have frequently hit the headlines in recent years, many of the results had been massaged for publicity purposes, said China Comment, a bimonthly magazine produced under the state-backed Xinhua News Agency.

Local authorities and agricultural companies fabricated results to either enhance their image or secure financial support as China, with 1.4 billion mouths to feed, has heavily invested in biotech research and seed development, according to the report published in the magazine’s first issue of 2024.

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The criticism came as Beijing has placed a growing importance on food security, with President Xi Jinping labelling it as a “top national priority”, amid food export bans, geopolitical uncertainty and extreme weather events.

Excessive production testing activities and lax supervision will inevitably undermine the rigour and authority of scientific research work
China Comment

The report listed a series of falsified tests organised by unnamed organisations, involving some of the most high-profile species, including so-called seawater rice -which grows in salty, alkaline soil – and giant rice – with stalks that can reach around 2 metres (6.6 feet) tall.

“[For seawater rice], there ought to be very strict standards on freshwater irrigation and the use of barrier agents in formal tests, but some agricultural companies don’t follow these rules,” the report said.

To improve giant rice figures, some firms included straw and leaves in their yields, promoting the result as “total biomass” while playing down the very low quality rice output, the report quoted an industry insider as saying.

“Excessive production testing activities and lax supervision will inevitably undermine the rigour and authority of scientific research work, and also blotted out the factual basis for policymaking and situation analysis,” the report warned.

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Ma Wenfeng, a senior analyst with Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultancy, said such a phenomena is largely the result of an exaggerated and grand style prevailing among officials that is reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward movement between 1958 and 1962, when fake production figures were common as officials tried to fulfil unrealistic goals.

“The culture of exaggeration and pleasing their superiors are creating a false impression about technological improvement,” he said.

Various crop yield records have been broken across China in the past couple of years, according to official media reports.

The most recent examples included a national record soybean yield – over 467kg (1,038lbs) per mu – achieved in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in September, and a world record peanut yield – over 865kg per mu – in Shandong province in the same month. A mu is a unit of area measurement used in China, with 15 mu equivalent to one hectare.

Zheng Fengtian, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development in Beijing, said while some test results may be true, “the question remains on how they will really benefit actual farming, as the yield may reduce from the laboratory to small-scale planting, and further to large-scale promotion”.

Fabricated test results, which are motivated by huge government investment in agricultural research, are made possible thanks to flawed assessment exercises, which often lack the engagement of third-party individuals or organisations, he added.

China has been a world leader in hybrid rice development and among the best performers in wheat production efficiency, but it relies heavily on imports for soybeans and corn, where per unit yields are just about 60 per cent compared to the United States, official data suggested.

China’s grain output increased to a record high of 695.41 million tonnes in 2023 amid a nationwide farmland reclamation drive.

In the same period, the world’s largest crop producer and consumer also imported over 59 million tonnes of grain, representing an increase of 11.1 per cent from the previous year.

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