Unyielding land of the dragon

Who Will Feed China
March 1, 1996

This small book is subtitled, Wake-up Call for a Small Planet. Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, who has long been among the alarmists regarding earth's capacity to support growing populations, here predicts that an imbalance between China's demand for food and its ability to feed itself will soon trigger the expected crisis: "For the first time in history, the environmental collision between expanding human demand for food and some of the earth's natural limits will have an economic effect that will be felt around the world."

China feeds one-fifth of the world from one-fifteenth of its arable land, and has been doing so for almost five decades, with the conspicuous exception of a major famine in 1959-61. Why should it stop being able to do so now? Brown cites several developments he believes have fundamentally altered the situation. First, cultivated land has been disappearing at an alarming rate before urban sprawl, new housing, rural industrialisation and road construction; while large portions of the remaining land have been shifted from grain production to more lucrative uses. This is in keeping with the histories of such regions as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, which lost almost half their grain-producing land in the course of economic development. Brown predicts that the practice of multiple-cropping will also follow the pattern of those areas and decline as wages rise, even though China's multiple-cropping index had increased up to the mid-1990s. These trends are dictated by population pressure on the available land and by economic development; they will be impossible to reverse, Brown argues, and difficult even to retard.

If farmland is bound to continue disappearing, can yields rise sufficiently to offset the loss? From 1977 to 1984, China increased its grain production by a phenomenal 54 per cent (official figures, which include potatoes and soya beans, show a 44 per cent rise), while grain acreage was falling. This was an unprecedented increase of yields for a major grain producing nation, as Brown observes. However, the rate has declined since then (as indeed, it had to), and Brown believes that yields will not be able to increase very much in the future. Wheat and rice yields are already approaching their biological maxima, given existing technology, he argues, and severe shortages of water especially in north China must hinder even the full application of Green Revolution technology, which is heavily dependent on irrigation.

The final piece of the argument concerns demand. Rapid growth over the past two decades has greatly raised incomes, and people have begun demanding better quality and variety in their diets. Brown calls this "moving up the food chain". It means demanding more meat, fish, dairy products and alcoholic beverages. These cost much more grain per calorie than when grain is consumed directly. And so the mushrooming of demand for grain for indirect uses is occurring just when the potential for increasing its production is disappearing.

The result, Brown argues, will inevitably be dependence on the world market to provide a large percentage of China's grain needs. Importing grain is nothing new for China, but up to now total imports have furnished only a small percentage of the total demand of its huge population. With that demand now approaching 500 million tonnes, any significant departure from basic foodgrain self-sufficiency could have drastic effects on world food prices, leading to a general shortage of grain and a "loss of food security [which] promises to become the defining focus of the global environmental threat".

Brown's book is very much in the Malthusian tradition, not only in its penchant for apocalyptic predictions, but also in its treatment of population growth as the principal cause of the impending food crisis: "In the new era, by far the most urgent need is to stabilize world population as soon as possible". This is of course an injunction to the developing countries, since Brown argues that the European Union presents a model of sustainability with regard to the food-population balance, with zero population growth and stable per capita grain consumption at a level below regional carrying capacity. But he does not draw a prime lesson from Europe's experience, namely, that appropriate economic and social development will motivate people to have fewer children. The "most urgent need" is really to encourage that kind of development, which would alleviate much human misery as well as creating the environment in which stabilisation of population becomes possible. As Amartya Sen has suggested, China's own remarkable record in reducing population growth may have as much to do with China's long record of providing health care, educational and employment opportunities for women, and rapid economic growth as with the coercive elements in its population policies.

Brown fails to focus on the gross inequalities in per capita grain consumption between the developed and developing worlds, although he points out in passing that rationing of livestock products in the rich countries would release large quantities of grain. Indeed, the long-run "sustainability" of an agriculture heavily dependent on fossil energy, as it is in China as well as in Europe and America, is a question he also avoids.

The poor past record of warnings of impending calamity is not sufficient reason to dismiss the one made by Brown, especially when it is based on a fairly accurate account of recent trends. There is indeed no room for smugness about China's food situation. The real question is whether means exist by which the balance between food production and consumption can be maintained and even improved in the future, or whether it is bound to deteriorate to the point of forcing a crisis on the world.

Unfortunately, Who Will Feed China gives a scant few paragraphs to this question, answering it by default in the negative. The last chapter contains some good advice about policies that might be undertaken at the international level, such as conservation of land and water, combating erosion, assessing national carrying capacities, promoting family planning, reducing waste of food in processing and transportation and so on. However, there is no comparable consideration of effective policies that might be undertaken in China, the putative "trigger" of the coming world crisis.

Quite a few such policies were discussed in a recent review article by Vaclav Smil. These included measures to reduce the waste of grain, a variety of ways of conserving China's scarce fresh water supplies, steps that would greatly improve the efficiency of fertiliser application, and even changes in the structure of consumption to favour more land-efficient and grain-efficient foods. Smil also points out that China's arable land resources are significantly undercounted in official statistics, which implies that the potential for further improvements in yield are greater than thought. All of this suggests that considerable room does exist for rational human action to deal with the problems affecting Chinese agriculture, even without taking into consideration the social developmental policies - improvements in health, education and income-earning opportunities, especially for women - that would greatly strengthen people's predilection voluntarily to choose smaller families.

Thus, the salient issue is not whether China must ineluctably bring about a world crisis in food provision, but whether in fact it will be able to undertake the many policies that could protect its food security. Rural education has suffered in recent years, especially in poorer areas, from local fiscal stringency. Old forms of social security have disintegrated and new ones have yet to be put in place, which has strengthened the single most potent motive in the countryside for having more (especially male) children, namely, to provide security in old age. To reverse this situation will be difficult when government's share of gross domestic product has fallen sharply to only about 11 per cent, well below levels in the industrialised capitalist world. To stem the loss of arable land will require restraining powerful local interests whose economic development plans involve further urban sprawl. Conserving water would mean controlling waste by the burgeoning sector of township and village enterprises and by the enfeebled state industrial sector; as well as imposing higher user charges on a population already angered by inflation and accustomed to having free or low-cost water.

China's political situation is in many respects delicate, as the country awaits the passing of the older generation of leaders, and especially of Deng Xiaoping, in the context of another difficult transition - from central planning to market economy. Many forces have been loosed by the latter transition that are proving impossible to control. Despite record rates of economic growth, unemployment has been increasing and income inequalities widening rapidly. Tens of millions of migrants have flocked to the cities in search of employment. Millions more state sector workers are in the process of losing the job and income security they have enjoyed since the early 1950s. There is much popular resentment about widespread official corruption, income polarisation, and rises in prices of basic necessities.

In this rather precarious environment, social stability has become the number one concern of the government. Therefore, it is an open question whether it has the capacity to address the many thorny issues that demand attention if conservation of land and water is to be improved, consumption structure shaped, and a more sustainable food system constructed. It is not promising, for instance, that rather than opting for a Japanese system of efficient rail transportation, China seems intent on promoting a major motor vehicles industry that will inevitably gobble up large amounts of arable land and further pollute the air. The government, concerned as it is with social stability, is well aware of the potential food problem, as is illustrated by the prominence given to agriculture in the new Ninth Five Year Plan. But is there full knowledge of all the relevant factors and the capacity to act on them? In this respect, China needs to have access to international cooperation on the broadest scale in guiding its development onto a path that conforms with the requirements of long-run food security.

Who Will Feed China? draws attention to some trends that evoke genuine concern, but it does not adequately consider the available means of altering them, especially in a broad social development context. In China as elsewhere, the climb from poverty towards higher living standards must be seen not only as a cause of food insecurity but also as central to its elimination.

Carl Riskin is professor of economics, Queens College, City University, New York, and senior research scholar, East Asian Institute, Columbia University.

Who Will Feed China: Wake-up Call for a Small Planet

Author - Lester R. Brown
ISBN - 1 85383 316 9
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £9.95
Pages - 141

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