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Why China Wants (and Needs) Foreign Farm Land

China eats about 20 percent of the world’s food, reasonably expected for its 1.3 billion people. But the country only has nine percent of the world’s farmland.

For decades, the disparity was tolerable. China found ways to maximize its domestic food supply with its agrarian society. Now as China’s population continues to rise, fueled by rapid industrialization, the country is running into a wall. Numbers like that simply aren’t sustainable.

It’s a common reality faced by industrializing countries. At a certain point in the development process, nations face a perfect economic storm. Population increases, which fuels consumer demand. Housing more people means building homes where crops might normally grow. And environmental changes tend to limit the food output. South Korea, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have all been in that position over the past five years. They could use more farmers, but what they really need is more land.

What’s the solution? In short, to buy more land—and to buy it from countries that either don’t need it, or could use the money instead. In 2008, UAE brought 324 hectares (1.25 square miles) of land in Pakistan. A year later, South Korea bought nearly twice that amount in Sudan. This week, China announced the biggest land lease ever: 3 million hectares (11,500 square miles) of Ukrainian land. Or put more simply: 1/20th of all Ukraine.

Deals like this aren’t a win-win. Land is inherently zero-sum, so terrain that China is harvesting in the Ukraine won’t be used to feed the future appetite of Ukrainian people.

But the Eastern European country doesn’t entirely lose, either. The deal will funnel $2.6 billion into Ukraine annually for the next 50 years. China will also send seeds and fertilizer, as well as build some vital infrastructure in Crimea, an autonomous part of Ukraine.

Still, it seems to raise the prospect of a new type of colonialism, where wealthy countries extract resources from poorer ones all under the guise of an economic transfer. According to a study in January, between 0.75 and 1.75 percent of the world’s farmland has been transferred from locals to foreign investors. Those aren’t just transactional relationships. Over the next 50 years (the length of the China-Ukraine agreement) the relationship may play into policy matters, too—when, for example, China tries to build support for a new trade policy or against a military action.

Countries conduct economic transactions everyday, perhaps none more than the U.S., which is one of China’s largest debtors. But Ukraine may be the biggest case study of what will happen when a creditor moves from the financial ether of computers into a country’s literal backyard.


  1. Niyi Folowosele
    Lagos, Nigeria
    January 16, 4:30 am

    I am the CEO of Queenstyle properties in Lagos Nigeria.We have acres of land for commercial purposes and farm land for sale in various locations in Nigeria. My company is ready to do business with you in the area of real estate thanks.

  2. Ayah
    January 10, 12:25 am

    In my country sudan i have heard news that china will take over some of our farm lands from the long lasting depat that is not payed .

  3. samuel kamau
    July 9, 2016, 4:38 am

    I have a land 437acres in kenya selling at ksh 9million per acre and its under coffee and can be converted in a horticulture farm or a real estate.It located 30km from Nairobi

  4. Izcandrie
    April 8, 2016, 9:19 am

    Great post… but if china is looking for outside land for farming the should come to Africa. As WOMEN IN AGRICULTURE who are in Ghana are looking for country that want to invest in agriculture. Thanks

  5. John Suares
    May 13, 2015, 10:23 am

    I would like to be great involved on farming, so I humbly propose to whom it may concern a partnership on my 400.000ha of land in Angola

  6. Alex
    October 28, 2014, 9:38 pm

    I would like to know personally what exactly will happen to the people of Ukraine with all of this occurring. And second what is china doing with all this land when some if it isn’t even neccessary according to other sights I have researched.

  7. justice tetteh yeboah.
    August 12, 2014, 10:10 pm


  8. dottie
    July 30, 2014, 10:25 pm

    If farmland is purchased by China, would they farm under China’s rules or follow USA rules ?? If you walked on their farm, would you be in China or in the USA ?

  9. Sigrid
    April 24, 2014, 3:18 am

    @John Oslek

    Sorry for the delayed reply to your question.

    Yes I did live in China for many years (left last year), and I wrote my dissertation on Chinese food security and overseas investment in agriculture. The UN has good statistics on population growth, the US census also release estimates (which do not deviate much from the UN figures).

    There are undoubtly several challenges facing the Chinese government in securing food stability. However, looking at China’s productivity growth in for example grains, registered outward investment and Chinese white papers stating the direction of policies on this issue shows that the Chinese policy aim is to focus on domestic food production and that so far they have been quite successful in this regard. The situation is not so dire as one may believe.

    You could of course discard this argument by stating that any empirically based argument is useless as you do not trust Chinese statistics (although blaming Chinese domestic statistics does not explain the absence of Chinese agri-investors internationally; the Ukraine purchase of 3 million ha was later exposed as flawed reporting, China never bought 3 million ha of land, like much of the reported Chinese “land grab” has been uncovered to just be sensationalist news with no basis in reality).

    If you choose to disregard empirical arguments then we are left to evaluate whether vertically integrating food supply is a sound strategy that increases security as opposed to trading on the open market and safeguarding domestic production. In light of the recent developments in Ukraine, the Chinese “purchase of 3 million ha farmland” serves as an excellent hypothetical example illustrating why vertically integrating food supply is not such a silver bullet solution. Who would be happy to have millions dollars in investments locked into land in Ukraine right now? Although exposing you to price volatility, the advantage of sourcing from the open market means that you can shift your sources of supply swiftly rather than being locked in one location/source. In sum, there are few Chinese agro-investments globally compared to the amount invested by companies from other countries; secondly relying on investments in locations far away expose you to all the challenges and political problems of that country as well as locking your supply to that source.

    For now the stated strategy China is to focus resources on domestic food security as this insulates you from both the problems of vertically integrating as well as open market volatility. There is a reason for why this is an important policy for many governments around the world,not just China. The EU, Japan, USA all subsidize their agricultural sectors heavily to maintain food production domestically (whether such policies are good from a global perspective is a different matter).


    Where do you get your information from? Have you lived in china, visited many times, hard to tell from your article.
    A few points 1. population figures can’t be believed as country china have many children to run the farm not one.

    2.Urban area like Beijing has expanded by 25% and is closer to 20 million now. The locals say too many people now live here.

    3. 99% of Chinese companies are controlled locally by the Chinese government representative, either directly or through the workers rep.

    4. the arable land is becoming polluted and producing food high in cancer causing agents. Call into a local hospital.

    The Chinese have no option but to look elsewhere for food security in the future. The long term result may be protection of those acquired assets and that’s where the conversation will really get complicated

  10. MR. Pyae Sone
    March 17, 2014, 2:28 am

    there are a lot of wild land or farm land for long term lease about 50 years. the place is located between two biggest population country . China and India.

    if u wanna know anything , feel free to contact me. uopyaesone@gmail.com

  11. Kasirye Patton
    February 28, 2014, 12:49 am

    I also have access to 10sq of arable land that I would like to lease out for 49yrs.all neccesarry documents are available and u can email me on kasiryepatton@yahoo.com

  12. Armand Strauss
    February 21, 2014, 7:06 am

    If you know of anyone looking for farmland in South Africa please get in contact with me I have plenty of land available: strauss@xlr8ed.biz

  13. Andreas
    January 28, 2014, 1:28 pm

    What strikes me as odd is how USA has become one of the largest buyers into this new land grab market. As it USA didn’t have enough farmland as it is. I smell dirty traders long way!

  14. Observer
    January 2, 2014, 2:28 pm

    When it comes to a country’s land, that country people decide for the best of their future. So as long as those people were given enough opportunities the deal is fair. But in my experience these kind of deal happens with corrupt officials without considering country’s future, there should have been a general consensus before this deal went through.

  15. john oslek
    January 1, 2014, 6:43 pm

    Where do you get your information from? Have you lived in china, visited many times, hard to tell from your article.
    A few points 1. population figures can’t be believed as country china have many children to run the farm not one.
    2.Urban area like Beijing has expanded by 25% and is closer to 20 million now. The locals say too many people now live here.
    3. 99% of Chinese companies are controlled locally by the Chinese government representative, either directly or through the workers rep.
    4. the arable land is becoming polluted and producing food high in cancer causing agents. Call into a local hospital.

    The Chinese have no option but to look elsewhere for food security in the future. The long term result may be protection of those acquired assets and that’s where the conversation will really get complicated.

  16. Bob Loblaw
    December 31, 2013, 12:13 am

    China’s human right’s record makes colonialism pale in comparison. The best academic research numbers suggest that during the years 1928-1987, approximately 76,702,000 people were killed in China, under the various movements; The Totalization Period, Collectivization and “The Great Leap Forward”, The Great Famine and Retrenchment Period and The “Cultural Revolution”…..and yes I am including the deaths associated with the conflict with the Japanese during WW2, but they accounted for 3.9 million deaths, leaving over 72 million to die at the hands of their own people. Oh and math, not opinion squashes the theory that China’s population is slowing or stopped, on the contrary the best math models show that their population will rise by 5% by 2020 and by another .5% by 2030. China is a pariah country dealing with an illegitimate government in Ukraine that does not seek the consensus of it’s own people……….

  17. Elena
    December 28, 2013, 11:33 pm

    When China looks to foreign land for outsourcing and sends its own technologies, such as seeds, it displaces native biodiversity and can also send its own workforce, bypassing local trade unions.

    Some thirty agricultural deals have been sealed in recent years to give Chinese firms access to foreign farmland in exchange for Chinese technologies, training and infrastructure development. This article details some of the deleterious effects these deals, particularly their impact on local populations: http://www.grain.org/article/entries/93-seized-the-2008-landgrab-for-food-and-financial-security

  18. Tor
    December 22, 2013, 2:39 am

    Sigrid, I’m really surprised to hear that China’s population isn’t increasing. In fact, this is sensational news. What has happened lately?

  19. Sigrid
    November 26, 2013, 12:09 pm

    I have to disagree with this article’s analysis on a number of points:

    1. China’s population is not increasing, the restrictions popularily referred to as the one child policy have been fairly effective in limiting population growth (the urban proportion of the population is however increasing, and with higher incomes follow new dietary preferences, such as meat- the changes in demand stem from this not population growth)

    2. Chinese agriculture is highly productive and continuously growing (5% anually), in fact they surpassed their 2020 target for grain production already in 2011. In addition further agricultural reform is expected to be able to boost productivity and so there is room for further agricultural expansion domestically.

    3. The national policy of China is to be self-sufficient and produce 95% of food consumed domestically. So what is the basis for these “investing in foreign land for food-security” speculations?

    4. Chinese outwards FDI in agriculture is actually very small relative to that into other sectors and industries. I would rather say that Chinese outwards FDI into agriculture has been lagging behind. Why is it then so strange that the world’s second largest economy engages in the global value chains? Isn’t a more plausible explanation for why chinese agro companies are expanding abroad now perhaps because they possess agricultural expertise (after all it is quite an amazing feat that a country with 20%of the world’s population can manange to be nearly self-reliant despite only possessing less than 9% of the world’s arable land).

    5. Why is it that when a european / american company invests some where we refer to it as an American company (or Norwegian company), but when it is a Chinese company investing somehwere, then all of a sudden it is refered to as “CHINA”? Since when did China become a monolithic entity?

    6. Why is it when a european/american company invests it is reported in the media as “investment”, but when a chinese company invests it is “neo-colonialism” and “land-grabbing”?

    7) As for legal rights, I would expect anyone investing or buying property to gain some legal rights to it…that’s kind of the basis of functioning markets no?

  20. Beware
    November 19, 2013, 1:13 am

    The biggest mistake the Ukrrainians can do is to give the Chinese land. They wil come like flies and invest the country and after the 50 years has passed there will be more Chinese than Ukrainians. Safe youreselfs and get rid of them.

  21. Yulia
    October 20, 2013, 10:52 am

    This is poor reporting. The apparent “3 million hectare deal” was refuted within a day or two of the media report. Shame on you National Geographic! You ought to be more diligent in your reporting.

  22. Robi
    Czech Republic
    October 11, 2013, 5:53 am

    Well guys, Chinese people and goverment are the most clever in the world and the West is the most stupid. Ok, we sell land to China and let chinese own the biggest part of the land and resources in the world. What will be the next step ?
    A war. War for food and oil and uranium. This will be the end of the West. We have not chance against nowadays China with our “human rights’ concept and with our care for “multiculti” and for every looser, homeless economy imigrant from the world. We pay to loosers by chinese money earned from selling our own land. OMG !!!

  23. bfar
    September 27, 2013, 2:19 pm

    Mao is but ONE EXAMPLE of the murdering intolerance of dissidence in China history. HUMAN RIGHTS for everyone?
    “RIGHTS” dont exist in China — the individual doesnt matter or count. Just read history before you make it sound like the West is evil …..and China is some warm, good, kind empire……nothing could be further from the truth — and i would never dream of supporting chinese ownership of farmland in ANY country i cared about — which is all of them.

  24. bfar
    September 27, 2013, 2:13 pm

    you dissent from the Chinese powers-that-be? you are DEAD.. FACT = SEVENTY MILLION DISSIDENTS were slaughtered — many more tortured enslaved -labor camps — these are the “good guys”??????– MURDER OF SEVENTY MILLION dissidents in China —- 70 MILLION dissidents . Dead. Wake up. China makes ANY country the West look good in terms of Humanity.

  25. James Towel
    September 26, 2013, 12:18 am

    Me thinks Paul G is one of the famous Chinese government sock puppets.

  26. Ralph
    South Africa
    September 25, 2013, 11:50 pm

    How does a deal between rich China and impoverished Ukraine qualify as ‘fair trade’? This is the elephant bargaining with the mouse. And take a look at China’s rapine behaviour in places like Papua New Guinea before you portray them as benevolent investors.

  27. Paul G
    September 25, 2013, 8:06 pm

    Your piece is extremely biased. All fair trade is inherently win-win. The Chinese did not use the threat of force to acquire the farmland. They asked the Ukrainians if the Ukrainians were willing to lease them 3,000,000 hectares of land for the price of $2,600,000,000 per year. The Ukrainians agreed. This is not colonialism.

    The British, French, Germans, etc raped and killed millions of people in Africa, North America, South America, Australia, and India. They took land by force and enslaved the local population. This is colonialism.

    Please do not try to compare China’s business deals, conducted between two willing parties, with the shameful history of the West. They are not the same.

    For what its worth, the Chinese treated the people of Africa, the Native Americans, the Indians, the Mayans, and the Australian Aborigines far better than the Caucasians ever did.

  28. Dan Stone
    September 25, 2013, 2:09 pm

    A good point, Joe.

    But I think it’s important to realize how this exchange differs from more conventional economic transactions. Certainly in this case Ukraine elected this arrangement. But it still sets up a scenario where China will have legal rights on Ukrainian land, which is not a usual part of economic transfers.

  29. Joe S
    September 25, 2013, 12:59 pm

    Why use loaded words like “colonialism”? It’s simply an economic transaction. If the Ukrainians decide not to sell the products to China, what is China going to do? Invade it? No.