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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

China Food Round Table

Air Date: Week of March 8, 1996

Lester Brown, President of the WorldWatch Institute, and Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College debate their opposing views and forecasts on the future of China's water supply and food imports. Steve Curwood moderates.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As China's economy booms, its appetite for food is growing. With more money to spend, Chinese are eating more pork, as much already as an average American. And all that meat takes plenty of grain for fattening up. Last year, for the first time in decades, China had to import large amounts of grain, helping to drive some world grain prices up by as much as 60%. Grain imports are a touchy issue in a country where a series of famines this century has made food self sufficiency a hot button politically. Until recently, China's leadership was unwilling to admit that domestic grain production was falling behind demand. What changed their tune was the release of a book last year by World Watch President Lester Brown. In Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, Les Brown projected a widening grain gap for China and problems for the rest of us as China uses its newfound wealth to buy what it can't grow. But others say the gap will be smaller, and the global consequences less dire than Mr. Brown projects. They include Robert Paarlberg, Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, who joined us for a chat with Lester Brown. Mr. Brown says his gloomy forecast is based in part on a rapid development that's paving over some of China's best cropland, and on water scarcity.

BROWN: Two things are happening. One, water tables are falling. And when the aquifers are depleted there will be a cutback in the amount of irrigation water, simply because the pumping at that point cannot exceed the recharge. The second thing that's happening is, as water becomes more scarce, is that the cities are pulling irrigation water away from farmers. We saw this most dramatically in the Spring of '94, when the government banned farmers from all the reservoirs in the agricultural region surrounding Beijing. When China runs into water scarcity, when the cities begin pulling water away from farmers, then they have to import grain. When China imports a ton of wheat, it's basically importing a thousand tons of water. This is how countries begin to balance their water books.

CURWOOD: Professor Paarlberg, I have a paper here that you've written about this situation, and you've called Lester Brown a "productivity pessimist," I think, in this, when it comes to the food situation in China. You're not so pessimistic. Why not?

PAARLBERG: I prefer to label myself a realist. Grain yields in China have plenty of room to improve before they reach even the levels found elsewhere in East Asia. So the technology is there even with current knowledge to increase grain yields in China substantially. I don't think there's any good reason to forecast a 20% decline in grain production in China. And I think Lester really is an outlyer here. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization forecasts not a 20% decline but a 70% increase in China's grain production over the next 30 or 40 years. The International Food Policy Research Institute forecasts a 60% to 90% increase. So if I'm an optimist, I at least have a lot of respectable company.

CURWOOD: But what about the water scarcity question that Lester Brown addresses?

PAARLBERG: Lester is right. Water will be an increasingly scarce resource in China. As the population continues to grow, per capita water availability in China between now and the middle of the next century will decline by about 30%. But I think China can manage that for its agricultural sector, if it does something about wasteful water use in urban areas, in residential and industrial use. Now, urban and industrial users aren't metered. They don't pay a price for water, and so they waste water, and that's why they're sucking it away from agriculture.

CURWOOD: Lester, do you want to respond?

BROWN: I just wanted to say that other countries, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, to be precise, have also raised their yields rather substantially over the last few decades. But they've not been able to do it fast enough to offset the loss of crop land, and that's the key in the analysis. And what's happened in each of those countries is they've lost so much crop land that the production of grain in all 3 has declined by roughly one third. And this at a time when their demand for grain has been climbing as incomes have risen, has led all 3 now to import about 70% of their grain.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about your projections for a moment. Just how much grain do you think China will have to import in the future? And then can you tell us why you feel this is a problem? They can afford it, can't they?

BROWN: There's going to be an enormous gap developing between the soaring demand and the slowly declining supply. This could lead to imports of somewhere between roughly 200 and 360 million tons of grain by the year 2030. I said imports; I should say import needs, because though China can probably afford to import that much grain, which is nearly twice world grain trade at present, the grain is not likely going to be there on that scale, and what I think we're going to see is much higher grain prices. Now, rising grain prices is good if you happen to be a grain exporter like the United States. But if you're a grain importing country, like most of the low income countries in Africa, if the price of grain doubles, then these countries, many of them, will be facing life threatening situations.

CURWOOD: Rob Paarlberg, you think this threat of massive imports is a false one; am I correct?

PAARLBERG: Yes, you're correct. I expect that China will become a substantial importer of grain into the next century, probably 40 or 50 million tons by the year 2020 or 2030, but I think it will be doing that for a very good reason. It will be converting grain land into the production of higher value crops like fruits and vegetables, and it will be importing grain, especially feed grain, from places like Iowa and Illinois that don't face water shortages or land shortages. It makes environmental sense. So I don't think it's a worrisome trend for China to import. I think they should and I think they will. But I don't think there's any likelihood that they're going to import 200 or 300 million tons of grain. We've heard predictions of scarcity in the past, and they haven't come true in the past.

CURWOOD: But recent corn prices are up by 60%.

PAARLBERG: Grain prices that are 30% or 40% higher than they were a year and a half ago is not the problem; that's the solution. Because of higher grain prices, the United States is now going to take land that the government was paying farmers to keep idle and bring it back into production. And we're going to rebuild the stock levels that were drawn down too low.

BROWN: Let me just say that the situation today, I think, is different, than from any other time in history, in the sense that even though grain prices are rising and may well double shortly, the production response will not be the same. For one thing, back in the 70s when food prices went up, fishermen invested heavily in more fishing trawlers. But if they do that today they're simply going to hasten the collapse of fisheries. And similarly with the use of fertilizer. Farmers poured on a lot more fertilizer in the 1970s when grain prices doubled, but now in many parts of the world more fertilizer simply doesn't have much effect on production.

CURWOOD: What should the rest of the world be doing to protect against the potential of grain price shocks? Lester Brown?

BROWN: It seems to me that we need to be doing several things. One, we may want to rethink population policy. The other thing we need to do is to look at how we tap the one reserve we have left now that world grain stocks are at the lowest level on record, and that is the grain fed to livestock. Do we do that with a tax on consumption of livestock products? Do we do it with rationing as some countries have done historically? But that's an issue I think we need to deal with. And then finally, I think we need to realize that the real security threat in the future now is probably going to be food security, if my analysis is at all close to the mark. And to deal with that we have to think about investing a lot more in agriculture; in agricultural research as Rob has noted; in irrigation efficiency, an area of great under-investment; and also in protecting crop land and protecting topsoil from erosion. These are going to be the real security issue in the years ahead.

PAARLBERG: Well here's where I agree with Lester. More investment is needed, especially by governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America -- that includes the Chinese government -- in agricultural research. In Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, where 30% or 50% or 60% of the people live in the countryside, governments still invest only about 6% of their budget in agriculture. That's much too low. One of the benefits of high prices on the world market, and one of the benefits of Lester's book, is to wake up governments that are under-investing in agriculture, and get them to spend a little more.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for taking this time with us. Lester Brown is President of World Watch and author of Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet. Robert Paarlberg is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and a faculty associate at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs. Thank you gentlemen both for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you, Steve.

PAARLBERG: Thank you, Steve.

BROWN: Enjoyed it, Rob.

PAARLBERG: Okay, see you Les.



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