Mutual interests in agricultural collaboration focus of U.S. – China policy paper by Iowa State University economist

October 12th, 2021

AMES, Iowa — The relationship between the United States and China may be at its lowest point in recent history, but both countries continue to need each other to achieve strategic goals in agriculture, food production and food security.

This message reverberates through a new policy report, “Finding Firmer Ground: The role of Agricultural Cooperation in US.–China Relations” by Wendong Zhang, associate professor of economics at Iowa State University, and Dr. Minghao Li, assistant professor of economics, applied statistics and international business at New Mexico State University, previously with the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) at Iowa State. Their white paper was commissioned by the U.S. Heartland China Association (USHCA) and the Carter Center with additional support from the Ford Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Zhang is a member of the USHCA Agriculture Committee.

“Finding Firmer Ground” acknowledges threats to U.S.-China relations amidst growing mutual mistrust and an ongoing trade war. Yet, it emphasizes both countries’ strong interests in furthering mutual goals and the importance of maintaining channels through which their relationship can be rebuilt.

“We were thinking about what the agricultural sector can do to improve U.S. – China relations in the current situation and the path forward to cooperate despite the political rhetoric in both countries,” said Zhang, who was born in Shandong Province in China.

The paper outlines four areas of mutual dependence: improving global food security, meeting China’s demand for food quality, addressing climate change and pursuing technological advancement.

“States in the U.S. Heartland are crucial stakeholders in the U.S. China trade relationship,” Zhang said, “As such, agricultural states and entities such as the USHCA have an important mission to foster a positive, productive and beneficial relationship by creating channels for collaboration.”

Zhang and Li describe four channels as particular opportunities for shared economic growth:

  • Normalizing the trade relationship;
  • Reducing regulatory barriers and mutual suspicion;
  • Investing in infrastructure; and
  • Enhancing research collaboration.

The white paper was inspired by the inaugural U.S.-China Agriculture Roundtable held in March 2021, where Zhang moderated a session on agricultural education. The dialogue was attended by former U.S. Ambassador and World Food Prize President Emeritus Kenneth Quinn. 

Quinn, who contributed a foreword to the new white paper has long been involved in efforts to nurture agricultural cooperation between the United States and China. Among those experiences, he recounts a pivotal 1980 visit to Iowa State’s Seed Science Center by Governor Xi Zhongxun (father of Chinese President Xi Jinping). At the time, Quinn, an officer in the State Department, was escorting the first delegation of Chinese provincial governors to visit America following establishment of diplomatic relations.

“Since that time, I have been involved in a number of exchanges that have deepened relationships that started then,” Quinn said. “Agricultural cooperation has been at the heart of these events and many more that have elevated the level of exchange between our two countries.”

“I believe this impressive study by Drs. Zhang and Li adds a significant analytical element to the effort to continue Sino-American-Iowan agricultural cooperation, which has such a long and illustrious history.”

Wendong Zhang, originally from China’s Shandong Province, is a co-founder with economist Dermot Hayes of a new China Ag Center within CARD. Among the center’s projects is a new collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences to sponsor shared educational exchanges.

“We want to encourage students and faculty at here and at partnering institutions to try to learn more about each other and find potential areas to build goodwill and cooperation,” Zhang said. 

He notes that China and the U.S. have recently announced a virtual summit between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden will be held before year’s end. Zhang predicts some of the issues raised in the USHCA-Carter Center white paper will be topics addressed at the summit.  


Wendong Zhang, Department of Economics, 515-294-2536,
Minghao Li, Applied Statistics, and International Business Department, New Mexico State University,
Min Fan, US Heartland China Association, 970-219-0499,
Ann Robinson, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Communications, 515-294-3066,