China is still a nation of farmers. According to census numbers, nearly 70% of the population lives in rural communities that depend on agriculture. The burden of feeding one fifth of the world's population on 10% of its arable land makes agriculture acutely important.
That is why a decision to lift restrictions on foreign investment in China's fertilizer industry in December is more momentous than many realize.
China is already the world's largest consumer of fertilizer and usage is growing at roughly 6% per year. The country produced 48.97 million tons of fertilizer in 2005, but demand outstrips production and nearly 15% of China's fertilizer is imported.
Despite its importance, the domestic fertilizer industry is weak. Fake or defective fertilizer is common while the genuine article costs 40% more electricity to produce than the foreign equivalent.
Even the number of fertilizer plants is unknown, with estimates ranging from 13,000 to 25,000.
Foreign investors have long called for more access to China's fertilizer industry.
Speaking before the US congress in 2000, Robert Liuzzi, CEO of CF Industries, the largest fertilizer firm in the country, said: "Because of the importance of China's market to our industry? we must ensure that effective market access for fertilizer is among the commitments that China makes as part of its WTO accession package."
Openness would seem to be a welcome development for both sides. Beijing gets to modernize another of its dinosaur industries while foreign firms gain access to an enormous market.
But Western fertilizer firms may be treading on ground more dangerous than they believe.
"China guards its fertilizer very closely," said Kathy Mathers, vice president of the Fertilizer Institute. "When WTO accession was being negotiated, opening the fertilizer market was the last thing they agreed to ? for them it's a national security issue."
Beijing has been made to feel the sting of rural discontent in recent years, often by farmers left behind by rising urban prosperity.
The commitment to a "new socialist countryside" requires that farmers not be squeezed by rising costs. As an essential part of the agricultural supply chain, fertilizer belongs to a select group of commodities that get extra protection.
The beleaguered Chinese farmer would certainly benefit from more efficient and reliable fertilizers but the government is unlikely to allow prices to go up at the cost of social unrest.
If Western firms believe a confluence of interests means smooth sailing, they should reconsider.
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