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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Who Will Feed China?

Air Date: Week of

In his recent book, Who Will Feed China? global thinker Lester Brown explores the impacts of a Chinese economic boon on worldwide food production. China is earning more money and eating more meat protein like Westerners while growing far fewer crops. Brown ponders the ramifications for the world's food supply and U.S.food prices, while raising broader questions on future economics and political issues. Brown is the President of the WorldWatch Institute in Washington, D.C.


CURWOOD: The Russian government is reporting that its fall grain harvest will be the worst in 30 years, thanks to drought and mismanagement. At this point, the Russians say they won't have to import grain to meet the shortfall, even though this year's Russian crop failure is worse than those in the early 1970s that led to massive grain imports and a doubling of the price of wheat. One reason Russians don't want to buy grain on the world market is that they might well have to bid against China. China's giant economy and population have been growing while its grain production has been falling. This means that unlike the financially squeezed Russians, Chinese demand for grain is up, and they can afford to pay top prices to get it. In his new book, Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call For a Small Planet, Lester Brown, president of the World Watch Institute in Washington, D.C., predicts grain shortages and rising food prices worldwide. It is an accident of history, he says, that China's new affluence will tip the scales.

BROWN: We have 1.2 billion people moving up the food chain, moving away from almost total dependence on a starchy staple like rice toward consuming more livestock products. And in China that means more pork, poultry, eggs, beef, and also drinking more beer. All of these require grain. And the extraordinary rate of industrialization that's making this possible is chewing up cropland. The bottom line is a growing grain deficit. Over the last year, China has gone from being a net grain exporter of 8 million tons to a net grain importer of 16 million tons, and the great risk is that the demand for grain is simply going to outrun the capacity of export countries to supply it.

CURWOOD: It's an important problem for China that it's got a grain shortage. But why should we in the United States be concerned about China beyond humanitarian reasons?

BROWN: What's happening in China is going to affect consumers throughout the world, and it's going to manifest itself in rising food prices. We're already seeing that in this country just beginning. General Mills, for example, has announced a rise in prices of some 5%. But we'll be seeing a lot more of that in the months ahead.

CURWOOD: What's down the road for us as food consumers here in the United States?

BROWN: Well, China is economically very strong. Their trade surplus with us last year was just under $30 billion. That's enough to buy all the grain we exported to more than 100 countries last year 2 times over. So they have the purchasing power to import grain. And instead of living in a world of surpluses, which has been the case throughout our lifetimes, we'll be living in a world of scarcity where the competition among countries for available exportable grain supplies will intensify, driving food prices up. Grain prices have risen about a third since the early part of this year.

CURWOOD: Lester Brown, who is going to really feel this squeeze in food, if China can afford to buy more? If prices are going to go up in the United States?

BROWN: Everyone will feel it. But for many of us, it'll simply mean moving down the food chain a bit and we may be healthier as a result. But for those people in the world who are now spending almost all their income on food just to survive, a dramatic rise in food prices could become life threatening. The risk is political instability that would interrupt progress and the development process as we know it today.

CURWOOD: In your book you talk about the scale of China and why this makes such a difference. Can you give me some examples?

BROWN: The official goal in China is to increase egg consumption per person from 100 eggs in 1990 to 200 eggs in the year 2000. This means a demand for eggs in the year 2000 of 260 billion. That's an enormous poultry industry. But more importantly, getting from 100 eggs per person to 200 eggs per person takes more grain than Australia produces. Or consider seafood consumption. In Japan, as population pressure built up on the land historically, the Japanese turned to the oceans for their animal protein. Last year, 120 million Japanese consumed 10 million tons of seafood. If China's 1.2 billion were to consume at the same rate, they would need 100 million tons of seafood, which is the world fish catch.

CURWOOD: Now, other development professionals will say "Lester Brown, you're crying wolf. We can deal with these problems with some more prod uctive plant varieties, and get some fowl land in back into production. Technology and unused land will help us." Are they right?

BROWN: Twenty years ago we had all sorts of options that we could employ to expand world food production. But a lot of those options no longer exist in the same way. For example, in the 1970s, when world grain prices doubled after the Soviets cornered the wheat market, farmers invested in a lot of irrigation wells around the world. But if they were to do that today, it would simply accelerate the depletion of aquifers. Farmers put on a lot more fertilizer in the late 70s and dramatically boosted world grain production. Today, in most countries, putting on more fertilizer has very little effect on production because we're already putting on as much fertilizer as existing crop varieties can effectively use.

CURWOOD: In other words, there's nothing really to be done.

BROWN: No, I wouldn't say there's not anything to be done. We need to do everything we can do, even if it's a rather small contribution to expanding the world food supply. But the bottom line is that we're going to have to pay much more attention to slowing population growth and stabilizing it, sooner rather than later. The growth in population is simply overwhelming food production systems in many parts of the world. And when you combine a dense population with rapid rises in income as is happening in China now, you can begin to see the kinds of problems that lie ahead as people throughout the world aspire to a better diet.

CURWOOD: It's not a very optimistic picture.

BROWN: It's interesting because environmentalist and many scientists have been saying for some time that the trends of the last few decades cannot continue. But no one has said exactly why these trends wouldn't continue and what the consequence would be. My sense is that it may be food scarcity and rising world food prices that will be the first economic indicator to signal serious trouble and to provide a wake-up call telling national political leaders everywhere that we're going to have to change course if we want to have an environmentally sustainable future, and an adequate food supply.

CURWOOD: Lester Brown is President of the World Watch Institute in Washington. His new book is called Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call For a Small Planet. Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you, Steve.



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