Brown Lester R. - Who Will Feed China ?

Author : Brown Lester R.
Title : Who Will Feed China ? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet
Year : 1995

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My concern with China's long-term food prospect first arose in 1988 while I was reading the World Grain Database prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This remarkably useful resource contains the area, yield, and production of each grain in every country from 1950 forward. I may have been one of the few readers to notice that if countries become densely populated before they industrialize, they inevitably suffer a heavy loss of cropland. If industrialization is rapid, the loss of cropland quickly overrides the rise in land productivity, leading to a decline in grain production. The same industrialization that shrinks the cropland area also raises income, and with it the consumption of livestock products and the demand for grain. Ironically, the faster industrialization proceeds, the more rapidly the gap widens between rising demand and falling production. Before China, only three countries-Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan-were densely populated before they industrialized. Within 30 years or so, each had gone from being largely self-sufficient in grain to importing most of their supplies. In 1994, Japan imported 72 percent of the grain it consumed, for South Korea the figure was 66 percent, and for Taiwan, 76 percent. In none of these countries was a heavy dependence on imports a conscious policy goal. Rather, it was the consequencethe inevitable consequence-of industrialization in a situation ofland scarcity. In Worldwatch Paper 85, The Changing World Food Prospect: The Nineties and Beyond, published in 1988, I looked at the food situation in these three countries, noting the trends common to each of them. Seeing the remarkable consistency in their experiences and recognizing what this meant for China, I sent a copy of the study to Lin Zi Xin, head of the Institute for Science and Technology Information for China and a personal friend, to alert the leaders there to the potential for enormous growth in dependence on imported grain. It was not until 1994, when working with my colleague Hal Kane on Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Population Canying Capacity, that I turned again to China's food situation. Since the pace of industrialization there had accelerated, fueled by one of the world's highest savings rates and record foreign investment, I felt it useful to oudine again what this would mean to China's food balance. To do this, I wrote an article for World Watch, the Institute's magazine, looking at what rapid industrialization would mean for China's food balance and for the world if China followed the path of its three smaller neighbors, eventually importing most of its grain. Entitled "Who Will Feed China?" the article attracted more attention than anything I have ever written. In addition to appearing in the five language editions of our magazine- Japanese, Chinese, German, Italian, and English- it also appeared in many of the world's major newspapers, such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and International Herald Tribune. It was syndicated internationally by both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Among the major news organizations covering the analysis were the Associated Press, Reuters, and the Wall Street Journal, including the Asian edition. We released the article at a briefing in Washington, D.C., for the international press corps on Wednesday, August 24, 1994. The following Monday, the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing held a press conference in which Deputy Minister Wan Baorui announced the Ministry'S official disagreement with the analysis. He said that by 2025 they would nearly double their grain production, and thus would have no trouble satisfying their growing food needs. In fact, he said, the only grain they might import would be in the form of new seeds. Almost immediately, reporters were back to me asking for a reaction to the statement in Beijing. Following my response, things quieted down un.til early in November when I was in Tokyo to receive the Blue Planet Prize, an annual award given by the Asahi Glass Foundation of Japan for environmental leadership. I was interviewed there by Reuters correspondent Eiichiro Tokumoto, who wanted me to elaborate on the China analysis. His story, carried on the Reuters world wire, was picked up in China. Shortly thereafter an article appeared in the China Daily written by Hu An'gang, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Dismissing my analysis as unbelievable and unscientific, he likened it to a prediction by Secretary of State Dean Acheson some 45 years ago, who said that China would have great trouble feeding its 500 million people. Hu then pointed quite proudly, and correctly, to the dramatic gains made in grain production since the birth of modem China in 1949. He accepted my projection of the growth in grain demand in the decades ahead as incomes climbed, but rejected those for grain production. His main point was that China had an enormous remaining potential for expanding its food production that I was underestimating. In early February 1995, I was in Oslo, Norway, to address an international conference of environment ministers hosted by Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The theme of the conference was sustainable development. In my presentation, I sketched out a framework for sustainable development and illustrated some of the global dilemmas that lay ahead on the food front by outlining China's food prospect. I described China's likely emergence as a massive importer of food as "a wake-up call" that would force governments everywhere to address long-neglected issues, such as the need to stabilize population, to invest much more heavily in agriculture, and to redefine security in terms of food scarcity rather than military aggression. Following the presentation, which was well received, I had to leave after the coffee break for the airport. Later I learned that when the session reconvened, the Chinese ambassador to Norway, Xie Zhenhua, asked for the floor even though he was not a scheduled speaker. He claimed that my analysis was off-base and misleading. According to the Times of India, one of the papers covering my presentation and the ambassador's response, he said: "We are giving priority to agricultural productivity. Our family planning program has been very successful. Science and technology and economic growth will see us through. " In concluding, he repeated my question "Who will feed China?" and solemnly replied that "the Chinese people will feed themselves." The following day, Ambassador Xie held a news conference, pointing out "unequivocally that China does not want to rely on others to feed its people and that it relies on itself to solve its own problems." Although I was aware that the Chinese were sensitive to the notion that they might need to import large amounts of grain, I had not realized just how sensitive the issue is. All the leaders of China today are survivors of the massive famine that occurred in 1959-61 in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward-a famine that claimed a staggering 30 million lives. If this many died, then as many as a couple hundred million more people could have been on the edge of starvation. The national psyche of China clearly has been affected by this devastating famine. The prospect of depending on the outside world for a substantial share of the food supply is both psychologically difficult to accept and politically anathema. Those who are in leadership positions today are obviously reluctant to accept the notion that they are on a path heading toward heavy dependence on food from abroad. It is easy to sympathize with their concern. Ironically, during the time when my indirect dialogue with Chinese officialdom was taking place, the food situation was tightening within China. A 60-percent rise in grain prices during 1994 led the government to buy from abroad a record 6 million tons of grain during one month at the end of that year, mostly from the United States, as it tried to check the price rise. In late February and March of 1995, the tone of reports coming out of China began to change. On February 28, a Reuters story referred to the "sounding of alarm bells" by Communist Party chief and President Jiang Zemin and by Premier Li Peng about the state of China's agriculture. Premier Li talked about 1995 being "significant for the increase of grain and cotton output, and the task is a very hard one." President Jiang "warned that lagging agricultural growth could spawn problems that would threaten inflation, stability, and national economic development." He indicated that some developed coastal areas where industrialization was particularly rapid had suffered a precipitous drop in the amount of acreage under cultivation, saying that this is "a trend which must be reversed ... this year." At the National People's Congress meeting in midMarch, officials acknowledged, "China is facing a looming grain crisis, with a hike in imports the only apparent solution to the demands of a growing popUlation on a shrinking farmland." Experts cited "a series of vicious circles that threatened to lock grain production into a downward spiral." Extensive consideration of the food issue at the Congress suggests that it is now becoming a matter of concern within official circles. In early May 1995, I was invited to a dinner in Washington with Cheng Xu, Director of Science and Technology in China's Ministry of Agriculture. He shared with me a folder containing a photocopy of my article in the English edition of World Watch and a stack of responses to it, mostly in Chinese. Cheng said that the principal contribution of my article had been to focus the attention of China's leaders on agriculture, a sector they had neglected in their breakneck effort to industrialize. Whether China's political leaders are now ready to discuss publicly the dimensions of their likely future dependence on the outside world for food remains to be seen. I wanted to write this book to document as carefully and clearly as possible what may lie ahead as this country of 1.2 billion people continues on its path of rapid industrialization. My aim is not to discourage China from moving in this direction, but rather to help us all to understand the consequences for China and the world of its doing so. The purpose of the book is not to blame China for the problems that are likely to arise from its projected emergence as a massive grain importer, but simply to recognize that this will force political leaders everywhere to recognize that the world is now on a demographic and economic path that is environmentally unsustainable. Lester R. Brown. ...

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