Farmland abuts Shenzhen, China

The Shenzhen River separates the high-rises of Shenzhen, China, from farmland in Hong Kong. China has come under criticism for the amount of agricultural land it has paved over in its push for economic development. (Brent Lewin / Bloomberg / December 19, 2013)

BEIJING — When Ma Wenfeng was a boy, his father earned so little money growing wheat and corn that the family mainly ate mantou, a steamed bread that is a staple of the poor. The last thing he would have dreamed of was becoming a farmer.

Now it is his greatest ambition to start a farm, but not in China, a country where the very word for "farmer," nongmin, is synonymous with "peasant." Many Chinese farmers are long past retirement age but still tilling tiny, inefficient plots of land.

Motivated by the search for big expanses of land with abundant supplies of clean water, Chinese are looking far afield — to the United States, Chile, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Australia.

"We're the world's fastest-growing economy, with a huge demand for agricultural products," said Ma, who works as an analyst for a Beijing-based trade association, CnAgri. "When we look overseas, we see large tracts of land where you can operate a farm that makes sense economically."

From an economic standpoint, Chinese investment in farmland has impeccable logic. One oft-cited statistic is that China has 20% of the world's population and just 9% of its arable land.

"Throughout Chinese history, our land was never enough," said Tian Zhihong, a professor of international agriculture at China Agricultural University.

China suffers from chronic drought and desertification, and has compounded its problems in recent decades by polluting the land or paving it over in a headlong rush toward economic development. The Ministry of Land and Resources in December revealed the results of a five-year study (previously kept secret): 8 million acres of farmland, or roughly 2% of the country's arable land, is too polluted for farming.

From exploding watermelons to cadmium-tainted rice, both the result of excessive fertilization, domestic food scandals have made foreign-grown foods more popular in China.

"We want to bring American sunshine, land and water back to China," said Zhang Renwu, a businessman who owns two farms in Utah growing alfalfa to feed dairy cows.

Chinese companies are acquiring farmland where they can — many countries ban the sale of land to foreigners — or forming partnerships with farming enterprises overseas.

When China's largest pork producer, Shuanghui International Holdings, last year paid $4.7 billon for its U.S. counterpart, Smithfield Foods Inc., it also acquired more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Missouri, Texas and North Carolina. (Virginia-based Smithfield didn't disclose how much farmland was covered by the purchase, but just one subsidiary had reported it owned more than 100,000 acres in the three states.)

In Australia, a Chinese-led consortium acquired a sprawling 200,000-acre cotton plantation known as Cubbie Station, complete with what is said to be the largest irrigation system in the Southern Hemisphere.

Legend Holdings, the parent company of computer maker Lenovo Group, formed a subsidiary called Joyvio in 2012 to grow fruit abroad. Joyvio has invested in operations in Chile growing blueberries, kiwis and grapes and is scouting for new investments.

These investments are contentious both at home and abroad. The Chinese government is sensitive to criticism that it has allowed too much farmland to be paved over for apartments and shopping malls and that it has dragged its feet on long-overdue changes to modernize agribusiness.

Communist Party doctrine maintains that the country should provide itself with 95% of its own grain, and Mao Tse-tung preferred to let people starve in the 1960s rather than import food. Although President Xi Jinping has backed away somewhat from quotas for grain self-sufficiency, the underpinning ideology remains.

"The historic notion of food security and self-sufficiency is an incredible source of legitimacy for the Communist Party. This is, after all, a party of peasants that came to power during times of famine," said Jim Harkness, former president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

In a paper published in 2012, the Canada-based International Institute for Sustainable Development confirmed the existence of 54 Chinese projects overseas covering almost 12 million acres. (Land Matrix, an activist group that compiles information on the sale of farmland, found nearly double the amount of overseas land being farmed by the Chinese.)

China's farmland investments take many forms. Large state-owned enterprises are investing in plantations in Tanzania, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Zambia, among other countries, to grow corn, rice, cassava and sesame. Some products are sold locally and some are exported to China.

Smaller Chinese entrepreneurs have leased farms across the border in Russia as part of a deal with Moscow. Unlike in Africa, where the employees are local, Chinese have crossed the border into Russia as well. At least 30,000 Chinese farmers were reported to be working last year in Birobidzhan, the Siberian region carved out in the 1930s by Josef Stalin as a Jewish Autonomous Region, according to figures released during a trade fair last year in the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang.

Liu Jianping, an entrepreneur from Heilongjiang, who is farming on 40,000 acres in the Russian Far East, said Russia has large tracts of arable land without enough farmers.