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Page added on February 25, 2014

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Can the World Feed China?

Consumption

Overnight, China has become a leading world grain importer, set to buy a staggering 22 million tons in the 2013–14 trade year, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture projections. As recently as 2006—just eight years ago—China had a grain surplus and was exporting 10 million tons. What caused this dramatic shift?

It wasn’t until 20 years ago, after I wrote an article entitled “Who Will Feed China?”, that I began to fully appreciate what a sensitive political issue food security was to the Chinese. The country’s leaders were all survivors of the Great Famine of 1959–61, when some 36 million people starved to death. Yet while the Chinese government was publicly critical of my questioning the country’s ability to feed itself, it began quietly reforming its agriculture. Among other things, Beijing adopted a policy of grain self-sufficiency, an initiative that is now faltering.

Since 2006, China’s grain use has been climbing by 17 million tons per year. (See data.) For perspective, this compares with Australia’s annual wheat harvest of 24 million tons. With population growth slowing, this rise in grain use is largely the result of China’s huge population moving up the food chain and consuming more grain-based meat, milk, and eggs.

Graph on Net Imports of Grain by China, 1960-2013

In 2013, the world consumed an estimated 107 million tons of pork—half of which was eaten in China. China’s 1.4 billion people now consume six times as much pork as the United States does. Even with its recent surge in pork, however, China’s overall meat intake per person still totals only 120 pounds per year, scarcely half the 235 pounds in the United States. But, the Chinese, like so many others around the globe, aspire to an American lifestyle. To consume meat like Americans do, China would need to roughly double its annual meat supply from 80 million tons to 160 million tons. Using the rule of thumb of three to four pounds of grain to produce one pound of pork, an additional 80 million tons of pork would require at least 240 million tons of feedgrain.

Where will this grain come from? Farmers in China are losing irrigation water as aquifers are depleted. The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast, by over 10 feet per year in some areas. Meanwhile, water supplies are being diverted to nonfarm uses and cropland is being lost to urban and industrial construction. With China’s grain yield already among the highest in the world, the potential for China to increase production within its own borders is limited.

The 2013 purchase by a Chinese conglomerate of the American firm Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pig-growing and pork-processing company, was really a pork security move. So, too, is China’s deal with Ukraine to provide $3 billion in loans in exchange for corn, as well as negotiations with Ukrainian companies for access to land. Such moves by China exemplify the new geopolitics of food scarcity that affects us all.

China is not alone in the scramble for food. An estimated 2 billion people in other countries are also moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. The combination of population growth, rising affluence, and the conversion of one third of the U.S. grain harvest into ethanol to fuel cars is expanding the world demand for grain by a record 43 million tons per year, double the annual growth of a decade ago.

The world’s farmers are struggling to keep pace. When grain supplies tightened in times past, prices rose and farmers responded by producing more. Now the situation is far more complex. Water shortages, soil erosion, plateauing crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and climate change pose mounting threats to production.

As China imports increasing quantities of grain, it is competing directly with scores of other grain-importing countries, such as Japan, Mexico, and Egypt. The result will be a worldwide rise in food prices. Those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder—people who are already struggling just to survive—will find it even more difficult to get by. Low-income families trapped by food price inflation will be unable to afford enough food to eat every day.

The world is transitioning from an era of abundance to one dominated by scarcity. China’s turn to the outside world for massive quantities of grain is forcing us to recognize that we are in trouble on the food front. Can we reverse the trends that are tightening food supplies, or is the world moving toward a future of rising food prices and political unrest?

Lester Brown – Earth Policy



17 Comments on "Can the World Feed China?"

  1. deedl on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 5:14 pm 

    The important Question is here: Can China feed China. Recent food price spikes show that countries are quick in stopping food exports when shortages are feared. Every country that depends on food imports and therefore a fragile trading system has to ask itself if it can feed its population.

  2. andya on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 5:42 pm 

    Consumption rising faster then production is good news for producers.
    A serious question, as the Chinese were starving to death, did they invade the countryside as zombie hordes providing cannon fodder for doomsday preppers?

  3. Northwest Resident on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 5:43 pm 

    “Can we reverse the trends that are tightening food supplies, or is the world moving toward a future of rising food prices and political unrest?”

    Answer: No, we cannot reverse the trends that are tightening food supplies. In that regard, we are on a highway to hell, and there is no jumping off that highway. And yes, the world IS moving toward a future of rising food prices and political unrest. Just wait until we begin seeing oil shortfalls and increasingly dire consequences of climate change, most notably water shortages/drought. The “fun” has just begun. We have a long way to go before we hit bottom. But like that one mile drop off a cliff — it may seem like a long ways before the bottom abruptly is reached, but time-wise, that distance is traversed very rapidly. The same could and most likely end up being true in the case of global food consumption, once the proverbial edge of the cliff is finally reached. Shouldn’t be long now…

  4. ghung on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 5:47 pm 

    From the article: “…China’s deal with Ukraine to provide $3 billion in loans in exchange for corn, as well as negotiations with Ukrainian companies for access to land…”

    I think we all can guess the currently tentative nature of that deal. But wait, there’s more:

    “China Buys More Brazilian Corn – Farm Futures”:

    Nov 21, 2013 – “It’s really too early to talk about Brazil’s second-crop corn, what with soybean planting only now coming to an end there. Even the two agencies that project the size of Brazil’s crops won’t go near making an estimate yet.

    For one thing, planting won’t start until at least mid-February, and local corn prices in Brazil right now are hardly promising. They were $3.11 in Paraná state last I checked. And the statewide average cash price up in Mato Grosso last week averaged only around $2 per bushel last week.

    But China just inked a deal to buy more corn from Brazil over the coming years in a strategic effort to reduce its dependence on U.S. corn.”
    h ttp://farmfutures.com/blogs-china-buys-more-brazilian-corn-7879

    That was then…

    “Corn Rises to 4-Month High as Brazil’s Dry Weather May Hurt Crop”

    Feb 18, 2014 – “Corn rose to the highest level since September and soybeans gained amid concern that dry weather will hurt crops in Brazil.

    A heat wave in Brazil and the country’s driest rainy season in decades prompted researcher AgRural to reduce its soybean harvest estimate yesterday, following cuts last week by Agroconsult and Celeres. Parts of Mato Grosso and Parana, Brazil’s biggest producers of corn and soybeans, received less than 60 percent of normal rainfall in the past 90 days, data from World Ag Weather show.

    “The dry conditions that hurt soybeans are also impacting corn,” Vanessa Tan, an investment analyst at Phillip Futures Pte, said by phone from Singapore today.”
    h ttp://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-18/soybeans-climb-as-brazil-s-dry-weather-reduces-crop-estimates.html

    Brazil and Ukraine are the world’s 2nd and 3rd largest corn exporters. Meanwhile, China’s “strategic effort to reduce its dependence on U.S. corn” seems really to be a strategy of buying US food companies so they can import their corn in the form of pork, etc., Anyway, expect to pay more for pork chops, traditionally the poor man’s T-Bone (along with everything else).

    Got a garden? Maybe some chickens or rabbits? Oh, wait… they gotta eat too.

  5. Kenz300 on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 5:48 pm 

    The world adds 80 million more people to feed every year……………. that is unsustainable………..

    Access to family planning services needs to be available to all that want it.

  6. dsula on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 5:50 pm 

    NWR >>> just wait until we begin seeing oil shortfalls and ….

    Yes, I’m waiting and waiting and waiting. I’ve been waiting since 1970. How much longer do I have to wait?

  7. Northwest Resident on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 6:09 pm 

    ghung — “Got a garden? Maybe some chickens or rabbits? Oh, wait… they gotta eat too.” A big part of that garden better be grains, hay and root plants for feeding the chicken and rabbits, because we may not have the luxury of going to the local feed store and buying chicken/rabbit feed in the near future.

    dsula — “I’ve been waiting since 1970. How much longer do I have to wait?” — Not much longer, don’t you think dsula? Have you read Gail Tverberg’s latest article? Looks like the gig is just about up. 2015 is when it all falls apart, that’s my prediction. And don’t expect a smooth ride up to the big finale either. Your waiting is almost over.

  8. ghung on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 6:12 pm 

    @Kenz: You skipped the part where it is ‘improved’ standard’s of living and eating habits that are driving much of China’s growing need for grain. Indeed, their grain consumption has increased much faster than population. From the article:

    “With population growth slowing, this rise in grain use is largely the result of China’s huge population moving up the food chain and consuming more grain-based meat, milk, and eggs.”

    That’s why I always say that population control alone won’t assure declining consumption. Indeed, it will be the other way around; resource availability will limit/reduce population.

  9. PrestonSturges on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 6:20 pm 

    Plus the glaciers that feed Asia’s rivers are melting.

    Yes the Chinese have enjoyed a rising standard of living, but that is the luxury that allows the development of revolution and discontent. Snatch it back away and just see what happens! Especially when the masses are now in the cities. It’s a very volatile mix.

    Of course there will be the folks predicting that China will literally conquer the world, but China’s house is built on sand.

  10. Poordogabone on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 7:12 pm 

    ghung wrote: “China’s “strategic effort to reduce its dependence on U.S. corn” seems really to be a strategy of buying US food companies so they can import their corn in the form of pork, etc”

    They get the meat and we get the pollution and waste from producing pork. Wasn’t it once that we outsource the pollution to them? On the upside we could turn that pig waste into methane and if enough chinese take to pork we could soon be energy independent.

  11. PrestonSturges on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 7:17 pm 

    It will be interesting to see if the Chinese adopt the American idea of lean pork. Often Chinese “pork” is stuff that would be sent to the rendering plant in the US.

  12. gordianus on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 9:15 pm 

    I think China is well aware of this, which is why they have been buying vast amounts of land in Africa:

    http://www.economist.com/node/13697274

    … and now Ukraine:
    http://www.channel4.com/news/china-ukraine-farmland-food-security-investment-overseas

  13. Makati1 on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 11:22 pm 

    And then there is California…

  14. bobinget on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 1:18 am 

    California may get rain this week but one percip round
    at this stage won’t change sever drought status.
    However w/o strong Mexicans to work. That land
    even with adequate water would be worth a great deal less.

    There are in fact parts of the planet where rain is more abundant then ever. This is farmland China, Saudi Arabia, Japan feels it’s worth going after. I’ve seen this
    work havoc in places like Haiti where food is grown for export and farm workers are paid pittance.

    Here in normally arid Southern Oregon our drought situation could be helped by just one major snow fall.
    The last snow we had was in early December, nada since.

  15. FriedrichKling on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 1:53 am 

    ” I’ve seen this
    work havoc in places like Haiti where food is grown for export and farm workers are paid pittance.”

    bobinget- I suppose you have not visited Haiti recently. I have. The country is an environmental wasteland. EVERYTHING including water has to be imported. ALL their forests are GONE. The land is sick from poor agricultural practices. The soil washes into the ocean, which in turn has destroyed their coral reefs, etc, etc, etc.

  16. GregT on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:07 am 

    bobinget,

    “The last snow we had was in early December, nada since.”

    Same here in BC, until 9 days ago. We’ve had over 10 feet since then. 🙂

  17. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 1:24 pm 

    The effects of china’s food needs will be most felt in the 3rd world. This will cause another round of instability from food supply issues in various countries. We already have instability for a variety of reason. It probably was a significant factor in the Arab spring. I personally feel we are near a tipping point with food supplies in relation to global economic stability. A few more droughts, floods, and financial issues and the food supply will not be adequate. The biggest clear and present danger to social stability is food supply safety.

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