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How hungry is China for the world's food?

China's recent slowdown has raised widespread concerns that any weakening demand there for goods and raw materials from the rest of the world could weigh on the entire global economy.

But, so far, the slowdown doesn't seem to have dampened China's appetite for imported food.

Though its economy has cooled markedly from once red-hot, double-digit growth, China's transformation from an agrarian economy remains a work in progress. Slowing factory output, a recent stock market crash and the emergence of regional housing bubbles haven't diminished the No. 1 task facing Beijing's leaders: how to feed 1.4 billion people.

Begun more than 30 years ago, China's historic economic transformation has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, reshaped the global economy and given rise to a new power on the global stage.

It's a monumentally ambitious plan. The goal is to keep the economy growing, spread wealth from the industrial coastal cities to inland provinces and rural areas, encourage more domestic spending, spur innovation and deliver expanded social services to sparsely populated areas that lack them.

China's economy, which lay in ruins in the late 1970s after the failed Cultural Revolution, has developed faster than any in history. So far, the grand experiment with "state-sponsored" capitalism has transformed China's coastal cities and brought a marked increase in the standard of living of urban residents, including an appetite for imported food once unaffordable to most Chinese households.

Now, with growth slowing, Chinese leaders need to maintain that economic growth to satisfy consumer demand, maintain social order and preserve their political power. And in many ways, China's continued transformation over the next 30 years presents even greater challenges than the first phase of former leader Deng Xiaoping's "opening up" policy begun in 1978.

Today, many of China's rural households, especially in inland and western regions, are still waiting for the benefits of economic reforms to reach them. Outside of urban areas, the savings alone set aside by the top 20 percent...