China’s strict Covid lockdowns are exacerbating serious fertilizer, labor and seed shortages, just as many of the country’s biggest agricultural provinces prepare for their crucial spring planting season.
According to official figures, up to a third of farmers in the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang face insufficient agricultural inputs after authorities locked down villages to fight the pandemic. The three provinces account for more than 20 percent of China’s grain production.
A drop in production of Chinese spring-planted grains like rice or corn could undermine Beijing’s decades-long struggle to become self-sufficient in staple foods, force it to increase imports and potentially contribute to global food price inflation.
While national and global attention for the past week has focused on a full-population lockdown in Shanghai, Jilin province battled an outbreak with even tougher measures for most of last month.
According to the Jilin provincial government, about a third of farmers didn’t have enough fertilizer at the end of March — just about three weeks before they were due to start sowing.
Farmers and factory managers have blamed the disruption on China’s no-compromise zero-Covid policy, under which authorities have imposed strict controls ranging from traffic bans to local business closures.
A Beijing-based adviser to the central government on agricultural policy said China risks “facing food shortages.”
“We need to adjust the zero-Covid policy for agriculture,” said the adviser, who asked not to be named. “We should not prioritize virus control over anything else. This cannot go on forever.”
The municipal government of Jilin City, in Jilin Province, said preparations for the spring planting season have proved very difficult. “We are behind [schedule] Making fertilizer available to every farmer,” it said in a statement posted on its website.
Li Qinghua, a 38-year-old farmer who grows rice on 60 acres of land in Jilin city, said his fertilizer stock was more than 80 percent below normal levels after shipments were delayed. “I will miss the prime time window for planting seeds if my order doesn’t arrive next week,” Li said.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture did not respond to a request for comment.
At least 23 Chinese cities with a total population of more than 190 million people are currently enforcing full or partial lockdowns, according to estimates by analysts from Nomura. “Unlike in spring 2020, when it was widely assumed that Covid-19 would end in the summer, we currently see no end in sight,” the analysts write.
The spring growing problems come as the war in Ukraine halted shipments of corn, an important feedstock, to China. Ukraine has been shipping corn to China since 2013 and became the top overseas supplier two years later, according to data from the International Trade Center.
Fertilizer factories have a hard time. A senior executive at Genliduo, a leading fertilizer maker in Hebei Province, said his company is having “great difficulties” in supplying customers and securing raw materials. The executive added that the problem was industry-wide and many smaller manufacturers had gone out of business.
In Jilin province, which has reported more than 50,000 Covid-19 cases since March, many communities are refusing to let in trucks from other regions, even if they are bringing seeds and fertilizers that are not available locally.
Adding to farmers’ frustration, many migrant workers are stuck in urban curfews, unable to return to rural areas to plant. Those who make it to the farms must also spend 14 days in quarantine before they can start working in the fields.
“This is one of the most challenging planting seasons I’ve ever experienced,” said Li Zhizhong, who farms 80 acres of land in Lishu County, Jilin Province. “I’ve rarely had so much trouble buying raw materials and recruiting workers.”
The Jilin city government said Sunday it was approving “green channels” that would allow local drivers to transport seeds and fertilizers to other areas. But it also said that outbound truck drivers would not be allowed to return to the city after their delivery.
It added that the measures were aimed at “reducing as much as possible the impact of the pandemic on spring planting”.
“I will not [risk] being separated from my family to ship fertilizers,” said Gao Fucai, a driver from Jilin City. He added that he fears being forced to “live in the truck” if he’s not allowed to go home.
Linyi, a farming town in Shandong province, stopped allowing trucks from other cities after a local driver tested positive after a trip to Shanghai. At that point, Linyi only had 58 confirmed infections.
Fertilizer shortages are the result and have not yet been resolved. “We and the government have different priorities,” said Wang Tao, a fertilizer trader in Linyi. “They only care about eliminating the virus while we have a life to live.”
Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Singapore and Emiko Terazono in London