Who Will Feed China:
Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet
by Lester R. Brown



Within a span of two years, China has gone from being a net grain exporter of 8 million tons to being a net importer of 16 million tons. China's overnight emergence as a leading importer of grain, second only to Japan, is driving up world grain prices, promising to raise food prices everywhere, the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research institute, said in a study released today.

The new book, "Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet," by Lester R. Brown, shows that despite this 24-million- ton shift in its trade balance and the release of grain from government stocks the supply failed to keep up with the soaring demand for grain. As a result, grain prices climbed nearly 60 percent in 1994.

"There is no precedent by which to assess the extraordinary growth in the demand for food that is occurring in China today," says Brown. "Over the last four years, the economy has grown at double-digit rates--13 percent in 1992, 13 percent in 1993, 11 percent in 1994, and an estimated 10 percent in 1995." During this period, the economy has expanded by 56 percent. Allowing for population growth of 1.1 percent per year, this means that incomes for 1.2 billion people have gone up by half in four years!

This study, funded by the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation, says that as incomes rise, the Chinese people are quickly diversifying their diet, shifting from heavy dependence on a starchy staple, such as rice, to one that contains more livestock products. Consumption of pork has climbed from 7 million tons in 1978, the year economic reforms were launched, to 30 million tons in 1994, making China the world's leading consumer of red meat.

Consumption of poultry, including chicken and duck, has climbed from 3.2 million tons in 1990 to 6.6 million tons in 1994, more than doubling in 4 years. Poultry's popularity derives in part from its low cost, since producing a ton of poultry takes only two tons of grain compared with four for pork.

Egg consumption is also climbing. The official goal is to boost egg consumption per person from 100 eggs in 1990 to 200 eggs in the year 2000. By then there will be 1.3 billion Chinese, which means that if the goal is met, China will consume 260 billion eggs in the year 2000. "Assuming 200 eggs per hen, this would require a flock of 1.3 billion hens. More importantly," says the author, "getting from 100 to 200 eggs per person will take more grain than Australia produces."

Seafood consumption is also rising. In Japan, as population pressure built up over time, people turned to the oceans for animal protein, evolving a fish-and-rice diet. Last year the Japanese consumed some 10 million tons of seafood. If China, with 1.2 billion people instead of Japan's 120 million people, were to consume seafood at the same rate, it would need 100 million tons, the current world catch. Alternatively, producing this amount of fish in fish farms would take 200 million tons of grain, more grain than India produces each year.

By 1994, the Chinese were drinking 13 billion liters of beer, second only to the United States. Within four years, this consumption is projected to double. "To raise beer consumption for each adult by just 1 bottle per year takes an additional 370,000 tons of grain. Three additional bottles per person," says Brown, "would take the equivalent of Norway's annual grain harvest."

While most of the growth in demand for food is coming from rising affluence, China's population is expanding by 13 million per year. Between 1990 and 2030, it is projected to expand by 495 million.

The combination of soaring incomes and population growth is expanding the demand for food on a scale never seen before. Meanwhile, the industrialization that is raising incomes is simultaneously undermining food production with its claims on cropland.

In the southern coastal provinces, where industrialization is most rapid, land that was until recently producing two or three crops of rice a year, is now occupied by industrial parks. This is not only some of China's most productive land, but some of the world's as well.

In recent years, an estimated 100 million Chinese workers have left the countryside to seek jobs in the cities. Since each factory in the private sector employs just over 100 workers, creating the 100 million jobs needed to absorb this flow of migrants will require roughly 1 million factories.

Brown says that building a million factories, and the associated warehouses and access roads, will take a vast area of land, much of it cropland. "The factories have to be sited where the people are," says Brown, "and most of China's 1.2 billion people are concentrated in a 1,000-mile strip along the eastern and southern coasts, where the cropland is."

In addition, leaders in Beijing have recently decided that automobile manufacturing is one of the four industries to be emphasized in the future, along with computers, telecommunications, and petrochemicals. Annual sales of cars, vans, trucks, and buses, which totalled 1.2 million in 1992, are expected to approach 3 million by decade's end. By 2010, the fleet of automobiles is projected to reach 22 million, taking millions of hectares of land for roads, highways, service stations, and parking lots.

Water may be even more scarce than land. With the demand for water in China increasing six fold since 1949, the northern half of the country has become a water-deficit region. Throughout much of this region, the deficit is being filled by pumping down aquifers. The water table under Beijing has fallen from 15 feet below the surface to 100 feet below since 1950. Eventually these aquifers will be depleted. At that point, pumping necessarily will be reduced to the rate of aquifer recharge, reducing irrigated area accordingly.

In addition to these coming cutbacks in irrigation, farmers are losing water to the cities, some 300 of which face acute water shortages. "In early 1994," the author says, "farmers in the agricultural regions surrounding Beijing, one of the 300 cities, were banned from water reservoirs." Brown says all the water is now needed for residential and industrial uses in Beijing, thus forcing farmers to return to less productive rainfed farming.

As urban populations swell and as millions of urban Chinese get indoor plumbing, replete with flush toilets, urban water demands are climbing. In the competition for water between the countryside and cities, the cities invariably win.

Farmers also often lose in the competition for land. During the five years since 1990, the diversion of cropland to nonfarm uses has offset gains in land productivity, preventing any growth in the grain harvest. When Japan went through the stage of development that China is now entering, cropland losses overrode gains in land productivity, leading to a 32 percent decline in the grain harvest between 1960 and 1994.

"If China is to avoid a similar decline in grain production, it must either do a better job than Japan has done of protecting its cropland," says Brown, "or it must raise land productivity much faster than Japan did. Both will be difficult."

If China is able to somehow outperform Japan and hold the decline in production to, say, only one fifth by 2030, then, assuming no further improvements in diet, population growth alone would push grain imports up to 200 million tons in 2030, an amount roughly equal to this year's world grain exports.

If China continues moving up the food chain, raising its total grain use from just under 300 kilograms per person at present to 400 kilograms in the year 2030, roughly the same as that of Taiwan, or half the 800 kilograms consumed in the United States, it will need to import some 369 million tons of grain in 2030.

Can China afford to import massive quantities of grain?, the author asks. The answer is, "Yes." China's trade surplus with the United States alone of nearly $30 billion in 1994 was sufficient to buy all grain exported by all exporting countries last year.

Brown says the more difficult question is, "Who can supply grain on this scale?" The answer is, "No one." If China's rapid industrialization continues, its import demand will soon overwhelm the export capacity of the United States and other grain-exporting countries. In addition to China, more than 100 countries depend on the United States for grain, including many others whose needs are also rising rapidly.

"With its grain imports climbing, China's rising grain prices are now becoming the world's rising grain prices. As the slack goes out of the world food economy, China's land scarcity will become everyone's land scarcity," says Brown. "As irrigation water losses force it to import more grain, its water scarcity will become the world's water scarcity."

China's leaders strongly resist the idea that they may one day be heavily dependent on the outside world for grain, as evidenced in their fierce criticism of an earlier version of this thesis that was published in the September/October 1994 issue of World Watch magazine.

Brown says there are two reasons for this acute sensitivity. One is that all of those in leadership positions in Beijing today are survivors of the Great Famine of 1959-61, which claimed 30 million lives. The second is that becoming heavily dependent on grain imports means becoming heavily dependent on the United States, since it dominates world grain exports.

The author offers many steps that China can take to moderate the projected growth in imports, but says four stand out. (1) Stabilize population well below the 1.66 billion now projected by continuing to press hard for the one-child family. (2) Sharply boost investment in the agricultural infrastructure, including research that focuses on specific national needs. (3) Formulate a national strategy to protect cropland, including a shift in emphasis from the automobile-centered transport system to one that emphasizes a state-of-the-art rail passenger system coupled with bicycles. (4) Embark on a national program to boost the efficiency of water use. While these suggestions are directed at China, they also apply to the rest of the world and for the same reasons.

"By an accident of history," says Brown, "China's need for massive grain imports is coming just when world demand for seafood is colliding with the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries, when the demand for water is outrunning the sustainable yield of aquifers in major food-producing regions, and when farmers are running up against the limits of existing crop varieties to effectively use more fertilizer. It is a wake-up call," concludes the author, "telling leaders everywhere that the world is on an economic and demographic path that is not environmentally sustainable."


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