What the Global Battle Against the Fall Armyworm Reveals About How the US and China See the Future of Global Food Production

China and the United States have found common cause in exerting influence at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Global food production could be permanently changed.

The United States and China increasingly dominate the global system of food production and trade. This shared role is leading to greater competition between the two countries, as well as a deepening interdependence. With the appointment of an ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations-based agency charged with defeating hunger and improving nutrition and food security around the world, the Biden administration now has an opportunity to reconsider and adjust US priorities and practices with China.

To understand how these two dominant forces in agriculture worldwide are interacting in a swiftly changing landscape and how their relationship may influence future global food production, it’s worth examining in detail the way FAO has dealt with the challenge of the fall armyworm, an invasive pest that can reduce yields of crops such as corn, rice, and sorghum.

In 2016 the fall armyworm (a caterpillar, actually, which is the larval stage of the fall armyworm moth) escaped its native home in the Americas and began spreading throughout the world. Just two years after establishing itself in West Africa, the strong flier had crossed Sub-Saharan Africa and made its way to India. By 2019 the fall armyworm was also in China, which ranks as the second-largest corn producer in the world. As FAO began to respond to the armyworm by offering management approaches to farmers in Africa and Asia, a new alignment of interests between China and the United States became apparent.

The Biden administration now has an opportunity to reconsider and adjust US priorities and practices with China.

The shift seems to have begun when, in September 2019, Qu Dongyu, the newly elected Chinese director-general of the FAO, flew to Washington, DC, to meet with high-level officials of the US State Department and other Trump administration officials. Director-General Qu was seeking US support for his FAO agenda. The cordiality of his reception was remarkable, especially considering the belligerent official rhetoric and global posturing that was characteristic of the relationship between China and the United States then. Not long before, President Trump had announced that the United States would withdraw altogether from FAO’s sister UN organization, the World Health Organization, because of its alleged subservience to China. And yet here the United States was, showing glowing support for FAO’s new Chinese Director-General.

During that visit, Chinese and US officials negotiated what appears to be a gentleman’s agreement that would allow the two countries to work together in FAO. That understanding appears to have been built on a common economic interest of the two countries, namely the continued expansion of commercial technologies in animal and crop health, including pesticides and pest-resistant genetically modified (GM) crops, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia—regions adversely affected by the fall armyworm but in which the application of these technologies is still relatively low. In other words, areas that represent large potential markets for agricultural technologies.

The mainly Western corporations producing these technologies, with robust support from the US Agency for International Development, have long lobbied to move commercial agricultural practices such as pesticides and GM crops into Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world now alarmed by the arrival of the fall armyworm. At the same time, there are clear signals that China intends to compete against the West, with hopes to dominate those markets.

Shortly before his trip to the United States in September 2019, Qu Dongyu, the former vice-minister of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, had been elected by a vote of 108 out of 194 of FAO’s member countries. (FAO has a one-vote-per-country governance structure, contrasting with some other international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that base their governance structure on countries’ budget contributions.) China had successfully lobbied for its candidate, especially among countries that had received Chinese investment and support in recent years.

During the campaign and election for FAO director-general, there were rumors of forgiven debt and requirements that the country representatives photograph proof of their secret vote. Although the United States did not support the Chinese candidate (or the consensus European Union candidate, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle of France, voting instead for a wildcard candidate, Davit Kirvalidze of Georgia), neither did it mount viable opposition to Qu’s candidacy. The Trump-appointed ambassador to FAO, Kip Tom, arrived for the vote in Rome too late to lead a serious opposition.

A struggle for influence

The United States has long had great influence at FAO, in part based on its contribution of 20% of the FAO annual budget and large additional contributions to specific issue areas. But in recent years the United States has grown increasingly at odds with other FAO member countries in technical discussions about food systems. These disagreements have been especially notable over the use of GM crops, as well as hormones and antibiotics in milk and animal production—practices that are unwelcome in European countries—and agroecology (the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems), which FAO supports as an alternative to the large-scale monoculture production promoted by global agro-industry. The discussions over GM crops have been particularly acrimonious and have spilled over into discussions about the laws and policies in countries across Africa and Asia.

The US relationship toward FAO became increasingly tense during the tenure of the previous director-general, José Graziano da Silva of Brazil, a member of Brazil’s Workers’ Party and mentee of ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The United States had a series of complaints about FAO’s programs, policy support, and projects under Graziano da Silva, and had to content itself with maintaining influence only within certain spheres, notably in animal and plant health, standard-setting in food safety and trade, and emergency relief.

In recent years the United States has grown increasingly at odds with other FAO member countries in technical discussions about food systems. These disagreements have been especially notable over the use of GM crops.

Meanwhile the booming Chinese economy and rapidly expanding middle class over the past 25 years have put severe strains on China’s food systems. To meet the growing expectations of the middle class, especially for animal protein, China has become dependent on globally sourced agricultural inputs, notably feed grains. Its imports of soybeans and corn for animal feed have increased markedly.

In the past two years China has also suffered a crisis in its pig production system: a dramatic outbreak of African swine fever resulted in the death of close to one-half of the country’s estimated 300 million pigs, making it necessary to import huge volumes of meat to fill a large domestic supply shortage. A large part of these imports of feed and animals has come from the United States.

China has become the world’s largest importer of corn, and US corn exports to China are at record levels. Unprecedented high demand from China is a leading factor in the high prices in the United States, where corn prices rose from $3.20/bushel in August 2020 to $5.50/bushel in February 2021. As of May 5, 2021, the price was $7.55/bushel.

To ensure present and future supply, China has been aggressively securing sources of feed and animals from the Western food sector, as well as investing in companies and technologies that are likely to play an important role in global food production in the future. In 2013 Shuanghui International, a Chinese meat company, bought the US company Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer with 25% of the US market. Shuanghui paid a 30% premium of $4.7 billion for Smithfield, which was the largest Chinese acquisition of a US firm at the time. 

China has also aggressively expanded its role in the global food supply by purchasing key Western agricultural corporations and investing in domestic corporations that are developing agricultural production technologies. In 2016 ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, agreed to pay $43 billion to purchase Syngenta, a Swiss leader in global crop and animal health. Other Chinese agriculture technology companies have been rapidly developing new products, especially in biotechnology. Many of these companies have state-of-the-art laboratories and are creating innovative technologies that will soon reach commercial use.

The use of GM crops has a particularly interesting role in the US-China agreement at FAO. While the use of this technology has expanded rapidly in some countries, including the United States, it has been limited in China to nonfood crops (chiefly cotton) because of public opposition to its use in food crops. Chinese companies have been rapidly developing GM food crops (including a GM corn that a Chinese company has tested in Argentina), yet the government has not approved their commercial use for food crops in China.

Never let a crisis go to waste

Enter the fall armyworm outbreak. Although yield loss to the pest’s infestation typically is sporadic and often not that significant in healthy corn crops, the damage can be severe. Throughout the United States and Brazil, Argentina, and a few other countries, farmers in large commercial operations control the pest by using GM corn seed that incorporates genes from a bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt for short) that expresses toxins that kill fall armyworm and other caterpillars. This Bt-corn has been commercially successful for large operations that sell their corn for animal feed, especially where the farmers are supported by crop insurance and government subsidies.

When the fall armyworm hit Africa, US corporations that had been trying to sell their GM crops in Sub-Saharan Africa quickly mobilized, and with support from USAID, used the pest as a pretext to push governments to allow the use of GM crops to both address the fall armyworm and introduce GM crop technology into the region.

US corporate interests have long influenced USAID to promote agricultural biotechnology, especially the use of GM crops. Since Bt-corn was first developed and commercialized by Monsanto (now Bayer) and others in the mid-1990s, USAID has pushed hard for countries to adopt policies allowing for the commercialization of GM crops. In response to fall armyworm, US government support to countries consistently has had a strong component of promoting national policies and laws allowing the use of GM crops. Sub-Saharan Africa, now the focus of emerging responses to the fall armyworm, has become a flashpoint for this pressure as most countries in the subregion do not permit the use of GM crops or are taking a slow and careful approach to approving the technologies.

Until now, the FAO has not jumped on board the US-led campaign for GM corn as the answer to fall armyworm, reasoning that because 98% of corn farmers in Africa are smallholders, typically growing less than two acres of corn, they are unlikely to need GM seed. Corn typically is not a commercial crop in Sub-Saharan Africa, although South Africa is an exception. Farmers grow the crop largely for household consumption, and if they sell some excess, it is typically to local markets or intermediaries that offer a low price. Smallholder farmers have little access to crop insurance or government subsidies, and their economic circumstances and risk aversion generally preclude the use of inputs (including fertilizer) for their corn crops.

US corporations used the pest as a pretext to push governments to allow the use of GM crops to both address the fall armyworm and introduce GM crop technology into the region.

Rather than promoting GM corn, the FAO fall armyworm program worked productively with smallholder farmers and associated organizations to help quantify the real amount (versus perceived or promoted narratives) of crop loss and identify locally available, low-cost, and effective management methods. Most of these methods are based on an understanding of the local context, including agroecology of the fall armyworm in corn. Smallholder farmers around the world have observed an array of natural enemies that help control fall armyworms, including parasites, predators, and insect pathogens. They have also seen how some companion plants emit chemical signals that keep fall armyworm moths away from the corn plants. FAO promoted the collaboration of scientists with farmers to further elucidate the ecological principles underpinning smallholder fall armyworm management and publish their findings in scientific journals. Unfortunately, this smallholder farmer-centered, agroecological approach to fall armyworm management ran diametrically opposed to the interests that promote GM corn and that now are so forcefully influencing FAO’s policy priorities.

The United States repeatedly expressed its frustration over FAO’s refusal to adopt a pro-GM corn narrative for solving Sub-Saharan Africa’s fall armyworm problem. In a February 2020 speech (posted but no longer available on the USDA website) given at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Virginia, Tom criticized FAO’s Fall Armyworm Program and bemoaned FAO’s broader support for agroecology, which he attributed in part to the influence of European delegations and civil society organizations.

In that February speech, Tom—who is co-owner of Tom Farms in Leesburg, Indiana, a large producer of GM corn seed for Bayer—also mentioned that the United States had met with FAO’s new Director-General and was convinced that he supported the US agenda of promoting GM crops and other technologies as the answer to Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural woes. He summed up: “So, we look forward to working together with Director Qu during his time at FAO.”

The arrival of fall armyworm in China could well be the tipping point in China’s decision about the commercial use of GM corn, as signaled by several recent scientific publications by Chinese researchers and the submission of the biotechnology to the Biosafety Committee in China. In addition to the global agricultural biotechnology leader Syngenta, now under Chinese ownership, other Chinese biotechnology companies are rapidly moving ahead in developing GM products. The GM corn that China is testing is from Chinese companies, and China is already testing their GM corn in other parts of the world. So while the United States has worked hard to change the laws and policies of African countries to permit GM corn, and vigorously promoted its use, the Chinese organizations joining the efforts most recently might be the ones to benefit most from the new markets.

A new partnership

A shared interest in promoting GM crops has been one reason for the United States’ open support of the FAO’s Chinese director-general. But this marriage of convenience has had its casualties. Swiss national Hans Dreyer, director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division, was ousted at the end of 2019, apparently as part of the US-China agreement. An enormously respected scientist and leader at FAO, Dreyer was dedicated to helping farmers find solutions tailored specifically to their situations. He frequently was tasked with finding a narrow path forward in the often-contentious discussions around the use of GM crops and agroecology and was lauded for satisfying the FAO membership through such turmoil for several years. Ethiopian national Berhe G. Tekola, director of the Animal Production and Animal Health Division, was also terminated, though he was allowed to stay on for six months longer, until July 2020. Educated in veterinary medicine in Cuba, Tekola had never been viewed as an ally by the United States.

The arrival of fall armyworm in China could well be the tipping point in China’s decision about the commercial use of GM corn.

Another expression of the shared US-China agenda to promote conventional pesticides and GM crops was manifested in a 2020 agreement between FAO and CropLife, an international trade association representing the chemical and GM crop protection industry. Through FAO’s work on eliminating obsolete pesticides and implementing the International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (treaties designed to reduce human health and environmental contamination risks), FAO and CropLife have tangled with each other over pesticide use for decades. While the two parties have sometimes been able to work together, the relationship has been tense, as the industry constantly pushes its agenda of promoting pesticide sales and use, especially in developing countries such as those now affected by the fall armyworm; FAO has pushed back to enforce international treaties and agreements.

But under Director-General Qu, CropLife and FAO have developed a first-ever strategic partnership, signed virtually on October 2, 2020, by Qu and CropLife International’s President and CEO Giulia Di Tommaso. FAO’s announcement of the new agreement was effusive, stating that the agreement “renews and strengthens our collaboration and demonstrates the determination of the plant science sector to not only mobilize resources but also to work constructively in a partnership where we share common goals.” The chair of CropLife International, Liam Condon, welcomed the new partnership as “the start of a new and exciting journey for both organizations.”

The FAO Director-General vigorously defended the new agreement after it came under criticism from groups of scientists, researchers, civil societies, and Indigenous people’s organizations. The agreement has also been criticized by former senior officials of FAO. The critiques all centered around the language used in the announcement, which observers viewed as portending a greater CropLife influence at FAO to push their commercial interests. CropLife’s influence at FAO would be a departure from FAO’s role as a neutral forum for discussions regarding the public good, sustainability, and global development goals, and as a trusted implementer of international pesticide conventions such as the Rotterdam Convention.

The United States and China make for strange bedfellows at FAO. The Biden administration has an opportunity to carefully examine and recalibrate the current US-China agreement and to redefine more broadly the US position within the organization. Tom resigned from his post and returned to his farm in Indiana in January 2021. The Biden administration will now have to decide not only who will replace him but also how the United States, more broadly, will engage at FAO on essential issues. These issues include how to best address the challenges posed by the fall armyworm and, more generally, how to promote US leadership of global development under USAID. The new administration will have to grapple with the legacy of powerful corporate interests in agricultural pesticides and GM crops at FAO and USAID, and navigate a way forward to rebuild partnerships that sincerely focus on helping to achieve a variety of agricultural, environmental, and economic goals.

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Cite this Article

Hruska, Allan. “What the Global Battle Against the Fall Armyworm Reveals About How the US and China See the Future of Global Food Production.” Issues in Science and Technology (May 6, 2021).