ConsumerismFood Shortages

Can the World Feed China?

by Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute

Slim, healthy, happy bovines promote a ‘hip’ new McDonald’s meat based diet
to Chinese consumers from billboards across the country

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 Excel 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.

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?

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  1. Dont forget that the Chinese are also buying up farms in Australia- when big business and governments start owning parts of other countries after they’ve ruined their own it cannot be a good thing

  2. Already more than half the population of China lives in cities and the apartments where they live don’t have room for gardening although it is interesting how they will grow vegetables in unusual places to maximise production.
    But grain makes bread and bread is the “staff of life”. Most countries in the world would rely on bread as the basis of their diet and so we see grain, such as wheat, moved around the world in giant shiploads.
    Permaculture is great for small scale production of fruit and vegetables but what about large scale grain production. Does permaculture have any ideas on sustainable production of grain on current scales?

    1. My thoughts on grain and permaculture is that grain is essentially ‘out of scale’. It would be much better to grow smaller amounts, without artificial inputs, and as part of a mixed system with animals cycling the nutrients for fertility. Just as it was pre- green revolution.
      We shouldn’t really aspire to produce grain on the current scale, that is what has caused so many problems, deforestation and soil degradation all to grow grain to feed to livestock that don’t require it.
      Society might think of grain production leading to bread, but really it is fed to cows, pig and chickens. So our ‘Industrial’ meat system has a huge grain burden.
      In a post peak oil scenario there really is no hope for grain at its current standing. We won’t be using all that fuel to plow, spray, harvest, ship, process, and ship again.
      I don’t think Permaculture Design should be looked on help prop up a system as fundamentally flawed as grain production, but used to design a totally different food paradigm.
      Having said that though there are many Permaculture people working to assist broad acre farmers to re-pattern their systems, I am one of them.

  3. Permaculture solves almost all the problems associated with abuse of the land. Grain can be grown with less or no inputs when a farm is properly established on proper water saving and composting principals. Also, the problems of grain can be solved by the world swapping its food preferences from grain to nuts. Chestnuts for instance provide enough carbohydrates and walnuts and pecans provide enough good fats and proteins to provide our bulk calorie needs. In fact I read walnuts produce up to 6,000 pounds per acre. If that is true 1 acre of walnuts could feed over 20 adults per year. Chestnuts could be grown in between the Walnuts to increase the calories per acre yield. So the problem isn’t the population growth but our food choices. Grains are not sustainable in the amounts we consume them. We should reduce our consumption of meat and grain and swap for nuts. We get the benefit of a sustainable yearly no input crop plus high yields. Nuts are the perfect food.

  4. Interesting article, thank you.

    For me, the elephant in the room is the fact that all these millions of cows, pigs and chickens are being fed an unnatural and unsustainable diet of grain in the first place.

    Let them graze on grass or forage or consume human food scraps. Get the chickens to process green waste into compost. There are so many better alternatives….

  5. Some interesting facts on cattle farming in Australia follow. The Australian cattle herd is about 28.5 million head. About 2%, say 600,000 of these are in feedlots where they are fed grain. The grain they get is usually substandard and not suitable for human consumption. Presumably the rest eat grass. Consumption of beef in Australia is losing ground to chicken meat which is probably the most consumed meat. Presumably the chicken would mostly not eat grass.
    It is also interesting that the largest beef exporter in the world is India.

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