It’s Time for U.S. Agriculture Leaders to Challenge China in Africa

It’s Time for U.S. Agriculture Leaders to Challenge China in Africa

Washington needs to present a better vision for Africa’s future than China—one in which the continent’s vast agricultural potential is used to develop self-sufficiency, environmental stability, and economic prosperity.


Sub-Saharan Africa is emerging as a pivot point in the global struggle between China and the United States. Unrecognized in the West, China treats agriculture as a key industry in that contest. The people of Africa need stronger, steadier American engagement, with U.S. farmers, policymakers, and technology leaders—including and especially Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack—making their voices heard on agricultural issues throughout the region.

The snares of China’s infamous Belt and Road Initiative have repeatedly made global headlines. But African nations have also rushed into Beijing-designed land deals—deals that, when the fine print is examined, do more to guarantee China’s influence over global food security than to build a strong, prosperous, independent future for the host countries. In addition to land grabs, typical China-fomented schemes involve “shared” ownership proposals in large-scale commodity production and processing initiatives. These often replace local African workers with Chinese immigrants whose competition for local food and housing increases costs and pushes indigenous families away from their homelands. Further, the neocolonial schemes redirect flows of raw goods away from African markets and back to China. Far from supporting national independence, Beijing makes Africans more dependent on imports of Chinese-controlled end products. Such aggressive policies have in places triggered protests.


Boosting agricultural output is a matter of life and death for the entire continent. Currently, in the Horn of Africa alone, over 10 million children suffer from malnutrition brought on by natural and manmade disasters, including a constantly changing climate. Yet leaders in Beijing have shown little concern for the welfare of those children, or Africans in general.

Ever since its maturing economy stopped producing the explosive GDP growth numbers that dazzled the world, China has been on the hunt for more agricultural land. Beijing sees Africa as having the potential for big returns on investment. It has sold its presence to local governments and people with slogans like “win-win” and “hand-in-hand,” even as its terms of cooperation have been decidedly one-sided.

Most African nations have signed on with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Many now owe billions. The Republic of Djibouti, strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea, has accumulated total indebtedness to China totaling 45 percent of its GDP. With massive debt goes massive leverage. Is it any wonder Djibouti agreed to host China’s first overseas military base? Meanwhile, China may be considering a naval base in Sub-Saharan Equatorial Guinea, giving the Chinese navy access to the Atlantic. Equatorial Guinea owes half of its GDP to China. Tanzania on the Indian Ocean and Nambia on the South Atlantic are also reportedly on Beijing’s shortlist.

These debt spirals and their unanticipated consequences are commonplace across the continent. It would be one thing if the new facilities were built using an African workforce trained in the advanced skills needed to complete such projects. Instead, Beijing has dispatched over a million Chinese workers to the region, population movements that more closely resemble organized invasions than spontaneous migrations.

That said, infrastructure projects are secondary to what appears to be Beijing’s principal objective—to exploit Africa’s fertile plains in order to feed China’s massive population. Africa is home to 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated land. Yet despite its abundance of land, Sub-Saharan Africa must import food to feed its population.

Westerners typically discount the strategic role of agriculture, but China cannot afford to do so. Beijing has over 1.4 billion mouths to feed. If China can take control of Africa’s land resources and eliminate its own dependence on Western imports to feed its own population, it will have greater freedom in its military moves. Food is power, and Africa’s arable land is a resource more valuable to China than any rare earth metal.

To compete, the United States needs to present a better vision for Africa’s future than China—one in which the continent’s vast agricultural potential is used to develop self-sufficiency, environmental stability, and economic prosperity. U.S. agricultural policy leaders should urge African governments to abandon their embrace of production-constraining policies like Europe’s Farm-to-Fork Initiative. Instead, Washington should bring American innovation to African farmers, helping them to improve the volume and quality of their output. It is time to step up our diplomatic efforts on the continent, placing a particular emphasis on supporting U.S. private sector innovations in agriculture.

Promoting cutting-edge farming technology will play to our strengths. Technology is why an Iowa farm, for example, grows 201 bushels of corn per acre compared to the 92 bushels per acre average on a Chinese farm. Our technology allows high-yielding crops to grow in harsh conditions.

Many of the United States’ competitors and adversaries have exported myths to Africa about our agricultural technology. The propagandists include China, but also Russia, anti-American elements in the European Union, and various food ideologues here at home. Their fantasies have encouraged African leaders and farmers to stick with low-yielding, labor-intensive, and environmentally damaging growing techniques.

But times are changing. A decade ago, Levy Mwanawasa, the then-president of Zambia, stated that GMOs were poison. Only in the past two years have the country’s leaders realized the magnitude of their error and begun to roll back the resulting technology ban.

Now is the time for Secretary Vilsack and other U.S. government and private sector leaders to address the African people directly, carrying the message that our technologies can improve the volume and quality of the food they produce, improving the lives of their families, communities, and countries. China’s land grab and usurious loans can not.

An eighth-generation Indiana farmer, Kip E. Tom served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and the United States Ambassador to the Rome-based United Nations agencies from 2019–2021. Currently, Ambassador Tom is the Managing Member of Tom Farms LLC and an international consultant on farm production. He has traveled to over sixty-two countries advising on food security and other agriculture, trade, and production matters.

Image: Shutterstock.