The Ministry of Commerce of The People’s Republic of China1 indicates that 2006 exports of Chinese agricultural products to the United States increased by 34.1 percent, while those to the European Union increased by 25.4 percent. We monitored similar trends in 2007. This increase mostly involves “first transformation” products, i.e. those intended to the manufacture of agribusiness products: yoghurts, jams, fruit juices or prepared dishes. According to the Association Nationale des Fruits et Légumes Transformés (Anifelt)2 ––the French Fruit and Vegetables Transformation Association––between 25 and 30 percent of the tomato paste used in France is imported from China. Likewise, Eric Marescassier, head of a company specializing in trade between Chinese producers and European agribusinesses, indicates that half of asparagus spears come from China.
There is only one reason to this state of affairs: manufacturing costs of agricultural products–– labor costs in particular––are unbeatable, as it is the case for industrial products. If the international community can benefit from lower prices, we must not forget, however, that, when agribusiness is concerned, opting for the same strategy than that prevailing in industrial businesses involves strategic threats.
On one hand, this choice implicates risks in terms of food security, as we must not forget that especially low production costs in emerging nations are often achieved to the detriment of social, health and environmental standards. The recent scandal of Chinese tainted milk and BSE cases concerning Brazilian beef are obvious testimonials to the sanitary perils that excessive agricultural product reliance on emerging nations can bring about.
On the other hand, this also implicates a risk in the security of supplies: the fact that China is becoming “the factory of the world” for certain basic industries, such as textiles, does not involve major menaces in terms of national security, since these are second necessity products; Conversely, the situation is not the same for food products, which are really vital products. What would happen if, tomorrow, we would exclusively rely on “first transformation” Chinese food products and an embargo was decreed?
2 As quoted by Les Echos, « Importations chinoises : les produits alimentaires en forte augmentation », November 24, 2008 and following an AFP report.