China’s appetite for foreign produce has grown in recent decades along with the wealth of its consumers. The amount of food the world’s second most populous nation imports has risen to over $200 billion a year—more than any other country—from about $15 billion two decades ago, according to the World Trade Organization.
Avocado farmers in Kenya, shrimp cultivators in India, soy producers in Russia and banana growers in Cambodia are all cashing in.
Demand for tropical fruit in China has remained high despite the country’s slowing economic growth last year, the Chinese noshed through more than 800,000 metric tons of imported durian fruit and nearly six million metric tons of imported meat—both world-leading totals. It bought 90 million metric tons of soybeans from overseas last year, accounting for roughly 60% of global trade.
Feeding China’s massive middle class presents a historic opportunity for countries seeking to boost the incomes of people in poor, rural areas. But it also poses a quandary: how to tap in to its huge market without becoming dependent on a trade partner that can be fickle. In recent years, China has restricted imports of Norwegian salmon, Taiwanese pineapples, Philippines bananas and Australian lobsters. It usually cites contamination, pests or issues with quality—but Beijing’s curbs have also often coincided with political disputes.