The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture started the year with an awkwardly named but nevertheless resonating event: at the “Potato Staple-ization Strategy Research Symposium” Vice-minister of Agriculture Yu Xinrong proclaimed that potatoess shall become China’s fourth staple food. That netizens tweeted more than half a million responses on Sina Weibo about this denotes more than sheer curiosity. While many of the conversations focused on a perceived Chinese consumers’ tardiness in getting on the Columbian Exchange bandwagon, the announcement could have an impact throughout the country and affect the ethnic minority regions and the Southwest in particular.
Historically speaking, potatoes, an American contribution to the world’s food basket, quickly became a mainstay on the tables through most of the Old World, despite initial trepidation among the Europeans. Research suggests they might have contributed extra nutrition and thus the population boom that brought about the Industrial Revolution. The Irish Famine ensued, and the rest of history is laced with potato jokes.
In China, however, spuds have largely remained within the category of dishes (菜) rather than the staple source of carbohydrates and thus energy of the meal (主食). Unlike the other new comer, corn, which has successfully shed its foreign flair, the name Western taro (洋芋) has stuck with taters and is further strengthened by deep-fried potatoes served up by fast food industry that positions it as a Westernized modern food choice. The association of potatoes with foreignness has also been brought to the New World by immigrants, and in a subaltern twist the term potato queen is used to describe Asian gay men that prefer non-Asian partners.
Besides foreigners, the other factor that gives spuds a bad name is poverty. An unnamed researcher has been widely cited saying that potatoes are the staple food for 75% of China’s officially poor counties, where potatoes are consumed “instead of cereals” up to half of the year. What’s more– a lot of that poverty is concentrated in ethnic minority areas: the backward denizens of supposedly sad places like Yunnan, Guizhou, and Gansu rely on spuds to scrape out a living.
The reverse side of the perceived unfortunate overlap between ethnicity, poverty, and potatoes is something that a southern Yunnanese acquaintance imparted over lunch the other day: spuds are grown for oneself. Adapted for a wide variety of ecological conditions and productive even in poor soils and under other unfavorable circumstances, potatoes provide easy and reliable sustenance. More importantly, in the words of anthropologist James Scott, potatoes can be “appropriation-free”: bulky, low in commercial value, and harvested intermittently, potatoes like other tubers are a good way of keeping the tax-collectors and their ilk at bay. It is no coincidence that potatoes are so prevalent in refuge zones as different as Guyuan in southern Ningxia and the balmy mountain slopes of Yunnan and Guangxi.
While direct requisition of crops is not much of a concern for farmers today, especially since the abolishing of farming taxes in 2006, potatoes are nevertheless strongly affected by farming policies and national food security strategies. For justifiable historic reasons the Chinese government, which is linked to some of history’s worst natural and man-made famines and related unrest, at all levels is extremely concerned with ensuring availability of food. With national grain self-sufficiency as the core principle, the central government has consistently demanded and incentivized production of staple crops through a mix of administrative mandate to grow certain crops, direct subsidies to house-holders and larger producers, and intervention pricing. While intervention purchases and stockpiling has been extended to the somewhat-ridiculed strategic swine reserve, it still mostly focuses on grains and shuns spuds because of the difficulty of appropriation.
Unlike bacon, you can’t just put some taters on ice for a few years, or depending on the situation either cellar the spuds for a good while or alternatively sell at a commodities exchange in Chicago if the price is right. Potatoes don’t keep well and the bulk makes them a lousy commodity for shipping. Despite globally being the fourth most significant staple (hence the frequent misstatement in the press that somehow the UN has declared potatoes as one of the global four staples), the governmental preference for a government-focused national-level food security rather than rural household level food-sufficiency has led to spuds falling behind in output growth. However, food security (what the Chinese government calls 粮食安全, not to be confused with food safety – 食品安全) is primarily concerned with the provision of food at the national level through market mechanisms rather than household self-provision. In other words, there is no tater scarcity at the household level, where those who choose to grow them can have their fill, but that does not result in peaceful minds behind the planners’ desks.
It is not to say that potatoes are some sort of primeval anarchist food taking on the capitalist-with-Chinese-peculiarities hegemony. For one, local governments have been as quick as ever to get their paws in the potato pot and are pushing potatoes as one of the options for farming development. According to the National Statistics Bureau, between 2006 and 2012, total potato output increased by about 40%. That’s a solid increase of over more than 5% a year, albeit rather low when compared with the expansion of many other indicators over the same time period. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, China is the world’s largest producer of potatoes. Mind you, the FAO estimate for 2006 exceeds the Chinese central government’s estimates 5-fold, so go figure on who’s right.
It would also be a mistake to say that there is much pride in the importance in the potato in the regions where potatoes are important to the diet. During a recent month-long research stay with various rural households in Ningxia, I heard several apologies for offering too many potatoes and not enough rice to the guest. My insistence that, having grown up on a Latvian potato farm, I gladly take spuds over rice any time was accepted with a polite smile and puzzlement over the impossibility of such a statement. The shame of living off potatoes even by those who grow them is an obvious obstacle in increasing the demand for fresh potatoes and possibly even derived dry goods.
The drive to (let’s borrow a word from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ repertoire) hype spuds encounters the simplest of economic realities: if there was demand for potatoes the farmers would meet it despite regulations slanted against it. After all, regulations have not stopped urbanization and the emergence of a secondary market for theoretically untradeable farmland. And if indeed the potatoes were so good for you as some have suggested, the market would have overcome the consumer acceptance obstacles described earlier and we would be eating spuds left and right.
The Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to “staple-fy” spuds should be interpreted as increased pressure to expand potato production – the stated goal is to almost double the current reported plantations of 80 million mu to 150 million mu. That’s increase of almost half a million hectares. New investment in growing technologies and varieties will be made available, which has predictably caused knee-jerk concerns about potential weakly regulated experiments with genetic modification. It also means a push towards more industrially processed and thus durable potato products, particularly using potato starch that, unsurprisingly, transforms the crop into long shelf-life products favored by retail supply chain managers and government food provision planners alike. To celebrate the new national potato staple-ization strategy, Shanxi potato entrepreneur Feng Xiaoyan, who goes by @sisterpotato on Sina Weibo, has launched a product line of potato mooncakes.
And while you praise the crackdown on superfluous gifts and thus a reduced (albeit not eliminated) chance of getting your next year’s Mid-Autumn bonus in the form of candied fork floss covered potato starch mooncakes, the good folks in China’s agricultural research and development industry are getting ready to partake in the expected windfall in research funding and new experiments. Local government officials and their cousins who own the farming companies are looking forward to filling their coffers with infrastructure programs and potential subsidies.
A curious and unfortunate potential side-effect of expanded cultivation is the replacement of existing technologies and varieties with improved yields with the accompanying other side of the coin– disappearance of existing livelihoods and genetic as well as cultural diversity. While the farmers of hilly dry parts of Yunnan will not be marching down the streets of Kunming against Monsanto (in fact, poor Monsanto is unlikely to be able to stick its finger in this pie), the fact remains that intensifying farming can leave the growers and the rest of us with fewer resources for when the bad times of crop failure, pests, or climate change hit.
Interestingly, this year’s Central Government Document Number 1, the annual proclamation of rural and development priorities, did not address potatoes and did not call for any expansion of the staple policies to include new crops. The State Council might not be as excited about spuds as Ministry of Agriculture is. Just like many issues, this one will be decided in the well-ventilated halls of newly built governmental districts with limited direct public input. Regardless though of whether one roots for the spud or takes a more tater-phobic stance, the potato staple-ization controversy has stirred minds and brought to dinner table conversation some of the fundamental issues at play in Chinese agriculture, particularly in the economically marginal regions.