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Food Can Bring Us Together

Mar 17, 2021
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

Seeking ways to bring the U.S. and China together around common interests benefits the people of both countries, as well as all nations of the world. But a big wedge has been driven between China and the United States, and criticism has been harsh coming from both sides of the Pacific. Farmers, the agricultural industry, and the American heartland may be the next frontier of U.S.-China cooperation.

Instigated by former U.S. President Donald Trump, the U.S.-China trade war has cost American consumers, taxpayers, farmers and manufacturers a heavy price — for which they received little in return. Trump claimed China was paying for the trade war yet, in reality the U.S. taxpayers doled out $28 billion to farmers in an attempt to help minimize the economic losses brought about by this half-baked policy.

The U.S. and China have had long stretches of healthy relations, but in the 21st century, the U.S. has come to see China as the single most important challenge it faces in the world. Although our economies today are as entwined as a bowl of noodles, pundits talk incessantly about decoupling from China. Decoupling may be possible, but it will be messy for all. Finding ways to work together as we draw red lines in the sand around our respective national interests is the only rational way forward.

Yet, there are key issues that can bind us together, where we can set aside the saber-rattling and hawkishness to find ways to communicate, collaborate, coordinate, and cooperate and bring about positive benefits for both nations.

These are issues that are not a zero-sum game but those where we find a shared vision and common agenda – what are championed in China as “win-win” issues.

Such issues can and should include: the global economic recovery, addressing the global pandemic, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and something that is oft-overlooked, agriculture.

Agriculture is big business in the U.S. and China. How our two nations partner on feeding our own people and the people of the world with issues as daunting as climate change and population growth impacts both countries.

Food and food insecurity/scarcity have been hot topics of late in both nations. Feeding China’s 1.4 billion people is a challenge on a good day, and the global pandemic has clearly reduced the number of “good days” globally this past year.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. farm exports will catapult to a near-record $152 billion this year. China was forecasted to import a record $27 billion in fiscal 2021, ending the agricultural estrangement of the trade war.

American farmers need and want to export to China as it generates a significant portion of their income. Half of American wheat and soybeans, 85% of cotton, two-thirds of rice, and one-fourth of pork produced on U.S. farms is exported, with China often being the top customer. In the last 4 months of 2020 alone, U.S. corn exports to China hit a record high.


‘Nǐ chīle ma’: Have You Eaten?

It’s possible then, that food will bring us together.

For anyone who has partaken of a Chinese banquet where it turns into a gluttonous feast of dish after dish appearing on the merry go-round/Lazy Susan you know how seriously embedded food is to the Chinese culture.

It might come to be that agriculture becomes the 21st century equivalent of ping-pong diplomacy. Like table tennis, food might become an unlikely tool in the international relationship. Prior to 1971’s “ping-pong diplomacy”, the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the U.S. was clouded by Cold War propaganda, trade embargos, and diplomatic silence. By 1971, however, both nations were looking to open a dialogue with one another— table tennis was the opening for a new beginning.

Food, The Heart of the Matter

The heartland of America is the place similar to what Pearl S. Buck wrote in her book, The Good Earth. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her rich and truly epic descriptions of farm and peasant life in China. The repetitive theme of The Good Earth is the wholesome power, the nourishment of the land, the innocence and hard work that goes into farm life..

There is value to getting back to our roots. The United States Heartland China Association (USHCA) is sponsoring an agricultural seminar with thought leaders on both sides of the Pacific to talk about agriculture, food insecurity and scarcity. USHCA has been quietly building bridges with China since 2003. Originally the Midwest U.S.-China Foundation, USHCA was founded by U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson (IL); John Rodgers, Lawyer and Professor, and Governor Bob Holden (MO), former Chairman of the Midwest Governors Association, who stated: “The USHCA strongly believes that agriculture can help accelerate a climate-wise recovery for America as well as act as a stabilizing bedrock for the important US-China bilateral relationship.”

The USHCA covers 20 states that stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. 430 Fortune 1000 companies are headquartered in 84 of the cities within the Heartland region. The Heartland mayors lead 37 of the 100 largest cities in the United States.

The mission of the USHCA is to foster and support a positive, productive, and mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and China by creating more channels of collaboration and opportunities for economic growth in the American Heartland Region. Nothing could be more needed and necessary today.

USHCA is bringing leaders from China and the U.S. to the headland, virtually, for a U.S./China agriculture roundtable beginning on March 23. Their theme is on point: “shared challenges to shared future - finding the way forward.”

The event is inspired by Nobel Prize winner, Norman Borlaug, Yuan Longping, the father of hybrid rice and George Washington Carver, one of the most prominent Black scientists of the early 20th century.

Henry Ford – a man fascinated with innovation, agriculture and the environment – said it best: “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."

The world needs China and the U.S. to come together and produce progress and success for the people of the world. There is no better way to restart this most important bilateral relationship in the world today than meeting around food in the heartland of America.

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