Wheat farmers attacked for ‘compromising China’s food security’

In early May, numerous short videos appeared on social media showing Chinese farmers cutting immature wheat and selling it to animal husbandry companies for silage – an animal fodder made by fermenting plants. 

A storm of social media criticisms quickly followed, accusing the farmers of compromising national food security by turning staple food into animal feed. Some netizens even claimed, without evidence, that foreign countries were coordinating the practice as an act of “food war”. While others tried to defend the right of the farmers to sell their product. Both Henan province and the Ministry of Agriculture quickly banned the practice on food security grounds.

Media reports show that Chinese farmers do have incentives to sell young wheat for feed instead of ripe wheat for human food. The financial news site Yicai reports that, in some cases, they receive 1500-2000 yuan per mu (1/15 of a hectare) for young wheat but only 1400-1600 yuan per mu for ripe wheat. Selling the former also saves them chemicals, labour and harvest cost (as livestock companies will pay for cutting). 

Experts point out it is normally uneconomical for livestock companies to use wheat silage. Corn silage has dominated the menu of farmed herbivores in China, as it’s much cheaper and more nutritious than wheat silage. But the excessive rainfall and devastating flooding in the lower Yellow River basin last autumn reduced livestock companies’ stockpile of corn silage, and it will only be available again in autumn. Moreover, the price of soybean meal, the main source of protein for farmed animals, is high. Last but not least, Covid restrictions have impeded the transportation of forage grasses such as alfalfa across the country. Together, these factors could have made wheat silage the substitute choice. 

An editorial in Farmers Daily says the cutting of young wheat for silage is not as widespread as netizens’ perception, which may have been amplified by social media. The Henan provincial government announced on Thursday that its investigation hadn’t found any such cases in its jurisdiction.

The strong discourse on food security reflects the anxiety of both the society and the government in the face of supply chain shocks brought about by both the war in Ukraine and the zero-Covid approach at home.