PINGGU, China — Village-to-village wheat harvests in China have been inconsistent this season.
A field on the flat plains east of Beijing was patchy, with knee-high emerald stems in places and nearly barren elsewhere, damaged by last fall’s torrential rains. In the next village, a lavish wheat crop flourished after this spring’s bright sunshine and slow, soaking rains.
China’s winter wheat harvest next month is one of the major uncertainties in a global economy already struggling with high commodity prices, especially in regions heavily dependent on crops from Russia and Ukraine. If the Chinese harvest is bad in the coming weeks, it could push food prices up further, fueling hunger and poverty in the world’s poorest countries.
World food prices have already risen sharply, with wheat rising nearly 80 percent since July.
It has been a perfect storm of war and weather.
The Russian invasion, including a blockade of ports, has disrupted supplies to Ukraine, a leading grain exporter long known as the breadbasket of Europe. The United Nations World Food Program last week called for the immediate reopening of Ukrainian ports “before the current global hunger crisis spirals out of control”.
Energy prices have risen since before the war, forcing many fertilizer producers to slow down or close their factories. As fertilizer costs rise, many farmers around the world use less, contributing to smaller harvests.
Bad weather has increased the challenges. This spring has been scorching hot in India, a major wheat exporter, while drought has affected crops in the southern Great Plains of the United States and in East Africa.
It is a double blow to East African countries, including Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, which rely heavily on Russia and Ukraine for most of their wheat imports. Bread prices have doubled in some areas. The World Food Program warned last Friday: “44 million people around the world are marching towards starvation.”
China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of wheat, is the next pressure point for prices.
Last fall’s floods left the ground so swampy that wheat couldn’t take root easily, said Ren Ruixia, a 45-year-old farmhand, as she inspected a wheat field that looked like it had a bad haircut. The coronavirus lockdowns also slowed the arrival of fertilizers, she said.
“At the moment it seems that the harvest is definitely affected,” said Ms. Ren at the end of April. “But it also depends on the weather next month — how much rain we have.”
Food adequacy has long been an important issue in China, where tens of millions of people died of starvation during Mao’s disastrous farming experiments in the early 1960s. Strictly enforced rules require that much of the country’s acreage — 463,000 square miles, larger than Texas — be cultivated. Rural villages are sometimes bulldozed to maintain the national target for cultivated acres.
Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, has made food security one of the top concerns, especially when commodities became a trade issue with the United States during the Trump administration.
“In the future, the demand for food will continue to increase, and the supply-demand balance will become increasingly tight,” he warned in a policy speech published March 31 in Qiushi, the leading theoretical journal of the Chinese Communist Party. “In addition, the international situation is complicated and serious and we must always be vigilant to ensure food security.”
China’s Agriculture Minister Tang Renjian sparked international concern in early March when he said the wheat crop would be the worst on record because of last fall’s deluge. Other Agriculture Ministry officials have issued warnings, though not as gloomy.
Western experts analyzing satellite photos of China’s crops were generally less concerned than Chinese officials. The US Department of Agriculture estimated last month that China’s wheat crop would be 3 percent smaller than last year’s.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a disaster, but I don’t think it’s a normal crop either,” said Darin Friedrichs, founder and director of market research at Sitonia Consulting, a commodity analysis firm in Shanghai.
Top Chinese officials have in the past, particularly in 2011, issued pessimistic warnings to ensure lower officials pay close attention to the harvest. A global food shortage may make Chinese officials particularly cautious this year.
China has a significant stock of wheat for emergencies. But some of the wheat may only be suitable for animal consumption, given its poor storage, said Joseph W. Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
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“The international situation is complicated and serious, and we must always be on our guard to ensure food security – we prefer to produce more and increase reserves,” said Mr. Xi in late March comments.
The coronavirus complicates things. The lockdowns this spring have disrupted agriculture in large agricultural areas such as Jilin province. And many families, who are not allowed to leave their apartments to do their shopping, struggle to find enough food.
Some people have stockpiled, fearing they would face the same lockdown restrictions. Cai Wenling, a 43-year-old resident of Chongqing, said she bought four liters of canola oil, nearly 100 bottles of mineral water, four weeks of milk and so much pork, beef and chicken that her refrigerator and freezer were empty. full. She still plans to buy another 110 pounds of rice.
“Even though I’ve stocked up, I’m still confident about epidemic prevention in Chongqing.” Ms. Cai said: “For middle-aged people like us, we would be more conservative when we think about things. We have the confidence, but preparedness prevents danger.”
China’s nervousness about its food supplies could ripple through the global supply chain.
China has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, so it has the ability to buy as much wheat as it needs in world markets. But doing so could drive the price of wheat even higher, making it unaffordable in many poor countries.
China’s next step will be the harvest.
Wheat farmers in villages around Pinggu gave mixed reviews. Much depends on how well-drained their fields are, but everyone agreed that the rain last fall had been remarkable.
Week after week, the rain poured down into China’s wheat belt, drowning hundreds of people in tunnels and along riverbanks. In Pingyao, the ancient city walls, made of mud cores, collapsed after being soaked last fall.
Zhang Dewang, a 69-year-old resident of Daxingzhuang village, west of Pinggu, said the wheat in his family’s field grew quite well. The crop was planted unusually late, after the autumnal equinox, the traditional last planting day in the area.
But in recent years, the weather has remained warm later, said Mr. Zhang, so the wheat has a chance to germinate before the winter frost forces it into dormancy.
“The wheat grows so well,” he said. “It’s going great.”
Claire Fu† Liu Yi and Li You research contributed.