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

June 23, 1995

Air Date: June 23, 1995


China at the Agricultural Crossroads / Lucie McNeill

China's farmland is being increasingly developed for housing, factories and roads. In addition, fewer people want to stay in rural areas and work the land. The situation is becoming so acute that some experts predict China will soon be unable to feed its own people. If they become a major grain importer, experts fear world food prices could skyrocket. Lucie McNeill reports. (11:09)

Policy and Effect in China

In recent years, China has loosened much of the control it held over it's population. No longer are people required to stay in certain parts of the country or work certain jobs. Those changes have boosted China's economy but also may have worsened environmental problems. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Prof. William Alford, head of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard University. (05:07)

Living on Earth Profile Series #9: Lester Brown: Keeping Watch on the World / Alex Van Oss

The WorldWatch Institute tracks global environmental trends. Their publications are translated into two dozen languages and have influenced environmentalists and policymakers around the world. Reporter Alex Van Oss profiled Lester Brown, a farmer turned statistician, who founded and now directs the Institute. (05:03)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Dan Karpenchuk, Lucie McNeill, Alex Van Oss
GUEST: William Alford

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

As China's population climbs and its economy grows, its crop land is disappearing under cities and factories. The central government worries what that will mean for the food supply and blames local bureaucrats.

YUCHUAN: Some officials only think about their own short term interests and making money. But in the future, what if people in their district don't have enough to eat? Their names will be cursed.

CURWOOD: One US analyst worries that China might buy a lot of food from abroad and push up prices just when the world's oceans, crop land, and water supplies are all reaching their limits.

BROWN: It's the first time that a series of collisions is going to affect the entire world, because rising food prices will affect everyone.

CURWOOD: Food and China on Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Residents of the California town of Casmalia are up in arms at apparently conflicting reports by the US EPA about a toxic waste dump in their town. An internal EPA memo recently warned that as many as 7 million drums of toxic waste are in danger of leaking and could lead to uncontrolled chemical reactions, fire, and explosions. But an earlier newsletter sent by EPA to Casmalia's 200 residents claimed the dump posed no threat to public safety. Mike Feeley of EPA's San Francisco office says the internal memo was meant as a warning of what would happen if more funds for cleaning up the dump aren't found. Feeley said the dump is currently safe because its hazardous materials are contained. The Casmalia site holds nearly a half billion gallons of toxic chemicals ranging from cyanide to pesticides to PCBs. Local activists are outraged that they hadn't been told of the risks and are calling for an immediate evacuation of the town and a buyout of all its property.

Ukrainian leaders have denied that $2 billion pledged to them by President Clinton and leaders of the other "Group of 7" industrialized nations must be spent to close the Chernobyl nuclear complex. Victor Los, Counselor on Science and Technology at the Ukraine Embassy, says as far as his government is concerned, the money is meant to promote economic reform and has nothing to do with shutting down the site of the world's worst nuclear power accident. Ukrainian government officials say they need $4 billion to close the remaining reactors and replace them with gas-fired units. Ukraine had threatened to reverse plans to close Chernobyl if the G-7 failed to offer sufficient funding.

All aspects of a lawsuit alleging environmental crimes at a top secret military base in the Nevada desert are being classified. US District Judge Philip Proe ruled that all hearings, briefs, and even previously public Air Force documents must be kept under wraps for national security reasons. An attorney for 6 former workers claims his clients were poisoned by the illegal burning of hazardous waste at Area 51, an Air Force installation 120 miles north of Las Vegas. The suit claims 2 of the workers later died from exposure to the fumes. The plaintiffs' attorney says the Air Force is hiding behind national security claims to cover up its environmental crimes.

Greenpeace is claiming a major victory after the Shell Oil Company decision not to sink a North Sea oil rig, but British government scientists say disposing of the rig on dry land is also fraught with environmental hazards. From Cologne, Dan Karpenchuk reports.

KARPENCHUK: The debate has erupted again over the safety of dumping oil rigs at sea. Oceanographers and many scientists say they're dismayed at Shell's about-turn, adding that Greenpeace was wrong about its assessment of the deep sea sinking. But Greenpeace maintains that a dangerous precedent would have been set and the ocean would have become a graveyard for disused oil rigs. Germany has offered to help dispose of the rig and officials are looking into having it dismantled here. The fight that changed Shell's decision began in Germany with a country-wide boycott of Shell products and service stations. Some filling stations were hit by as much as a 50% drop in business. And on several occasions the environmentally conscious Germans turned militant, firebombing at least 3 Shell stations. But from Germany the protest and the boycott spread across western Europe until Shell reversed its decision. Some European governments, encouraged by Shell's reversal, have now called for a total ban on all dumping of rigs at sea. Greenpeace has also offered to help, and for many members of the environmental group, they say the campaign isn't over. In some ways it's just beginning. For Living on Earth, I'm Dan Karpenchuk in Cologne.

NUNLEY: Walt Disney says its newest theme park in the Orlando area will promote the cause of endangered species and their habitats. The 500-acre Wild Animal Kingdom, set to open in 1998, will be the largest Disney attraction in the world. The park will feature the usual thrill rides and theme lands, featuring dinosaurs, mythological creatures, and an African safari, but it will also host a conservation program with research, captive breeding, and educational facilities. As part of a deal to streamline environmental permitting for all of its planned Florida developments, Disney donated 8,500 acres to The Nature Conservancy for a wilderness preserve. But the local Sierra Club chapter is opposing the new park because it requires clearing native habitat to import exotic species.

An influx of red-hot Texas cougars is beefing up the dwindling population of Florida panthers. Scientists imported the Lone Star felines into the Everglades to get them to mate with their Florida cousins, and earlier this month researchers found 2 kittens, a male and a female, with their cougar mother. There are currently fewer than 50 Florida panthers. Scientists think pollution in the area may be linked to reproductive deficiencies in the panthers, and inbreeding has caused other health problems, including heart defects. Biologist Kenneth Johnson of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission says the cougars may restore some of the lost genetic diversity in the panther gene pool.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

China at the Agricultural Crossroads

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. From the lush rice paddies of the south to the grain belt of the northeast, farmers in China are busy once again growing the crops to feed the world's most populous nation. But this year, the clouds on the horizon are darker than usual. Factories and highways are sprouting where food used to grow, and farmers are less and less interested in growing rice because it just doesn't pay. Last year, as China's population rose, its crop production went down. Some experts are warning that soon China will have to import massive amounts of food for that growing population, and that could send world grain prices soaring. Even the country's normally upbeat leaders are admitting that agriculture is in trouble. As part of our series this month on challenges to the world's food supply, Lucie McNeill prepared this report.

(Chopping sounds)

McNEILL: For generations, Gan Huan's family has grown rice in the fertile Pearl River Delta of south China. They've hung on through war, revolution, floods and famine. But this is the last time Gan Huan works this small plot.

(Woman speaks in a Chinese dialect)

McNEILL: We have to move out, she says. The city of Gonjo is putting a subway line through here so we're losing our land. They tell us we'll get compensation and another plot elsewhere, but I'm not happy about it. Frantic development is one of the reasons why China is producing less grain these days. Just about every city is expanding. Brand new towns appear overnight in the middle of nowhere. Bulldozers strip off topsoil to make way for factories, apartment buildings, and highways. Farmland is losing out, especially in the heavily populated areas of east and south China, where soil is the most fertile.

(Chopping sounds. Woman speaks in a Chinese dialect)

McNEILL: Jesse Long knows about this first hand. Long is originally from Minnesota. For the past 7 years, he and his Shanghai-born wife have been growing Western varieties of vegetables in Shanghai's Bu Don area. Business is great, but twice already Long has had to move his farm. In a few months, he'll have to move again to make way for a cement plant.

(Chopping sounds)

LONG: It's like sitting in the middle of Central Park and watching New York City all around from each side of you. When we first came out here there was only one of these buildings that was built. Now this whole set of apartment buildings, the high rises have come in on one side and it's also on the other side, coming in. The construction to the back, that's the people's armed police academy. And we've got a chemical plant on the other side. And slowly but surely, we're getting eaten away.

(Locomotive whistle, train rolling on tracks)

McNEILL: Last year, China lost nearly 2 million acres of farm land to development, the worst in 5 years. Zou Yuchuan is head of China's State Land Administration Bureau. It's his job to protect arable land. He says Beijing has all sorts of laws and regulations on the books to do just that. But he admits local bureaucrats often can't say no to the short-term benefits of development.

YUCHUAN: (Speaks in Chinese dialect)
TRANSLATOR: In the past couple of years, some mayors and local Communist officials have been warned. Some have been disciplined and some have been demoted because they failed to preserve farm land. We have to be far-sighted and think of the coming generations. The purpose of the Communist party is to serve the people. Some officials only think about their own short-term interests and making money. But in the future what if people in their district don't have enough to eat? Their names will be cursed. Land cannot be evaluated only in economic terms because it's essential for our livelihood.

McNEILL: So far, despite the laws, the lectures, the penalties, and the demotions, the central government has been unable to stop the trend. Since the late 50s, China has lost one-fifth of its farmland. But protecting farm land alone won't ensure China's food supply. Farmers have to be willing to produce and sell the grain. And nowadays, fewer are willing. In 1978, peasants were told they could grow whatever they wanted, so long as they delivered a certain amount of grain to the state. Production went way up. Now it's leveled off; in fact, grain hasn't kept up at all with population growth. Farmers are turning away from grain production, and with 14 million new mouths to feed every year, that's an unsettling trend.

(Goats bleating)

This tract along the highway near Beijing used to be planted with corn and wheat as far as the eye can see. Now, most of it is leased to vegetable and livestock farmers. People like Xiao the Shepherd.

XIAO: (Speaks in Chinese dialect)
TRANSLATOR: It pays way better to graze sheep than grow crops. I can earn over 10,000 wan a year for my sheep. But if I work in the fields, I'd only make half of that.

McNEILL: But if everybody does like you, then who's going to grow grain? How will China feed itself?

TRANSLATOR: Oh, I don't worry about it. Now we have money. We can do whatever we like. I can go down to the store and buy as much grain as I want.

McNEILL: Development has brought higher standards of living for many in China. They have more money and they're buying meat and beer, rare treats in the past. But it takes grain to produce meat and brew beer, and that puts even more pressure on the grain crop. For the past 2 years China has had to import corn and barley from the United States. That's why some analysts are sounding the alarm. They look at the growing population that's eating a richer diet, the shrinking farm land, and the farmers who are getting out of grain production, and they say these trends add up to one thing: China cannot feed itself. As the country develops it will buy more and more grain on the world market, just like Japan did years ago. While the world grain market can easily supply Japan's import needs, these analysts say that China is a different story. If it were to start importing a lot more, that could drain world stocks and send prices into the stratosphere, something that would affect consumers all around the world. But many economists disagree. They say there's a lot of slack in the capacity of China and the world to produce grain. That research is coming up with higher-yielding varieties. And that it would only take an increase in price to pump up production.

(Telephone rings. Woman: "Good afternoon, World Bank." Speaks in Chinese dialect.)

McNEILL: Pieter Bottelier heads the World Bank mission in China. He says the country doesn't really need to feed itself.

BOTTELIER: China is short of land. It has large amounts of labor. Grain products tend to be labor extensive and capital, or land intensive. So in the longer term, it might be more advantageous for China to export textiles and shoes, and import grains. That would be the result of natural, international comparative advantages. But it would be quite wrong to assume that any development of this kind could develop in a relatively short period. If it happens it will happen very slowly and gradually, and international production and prices will adjust to it.

McNEILL: But privately, other farm experts here say this transition will be a lot more difficult. Backward conditions could cause real supply problems for many years to come. Peasants have little access to better farming techniques or improved seeds. Storage, transportation, and grain marketing are all very primitive. And water scarcity could prove a real limiting factor.

(Keyboarding sounds)

McNEILL: But by far the most serious threat to agriculture in China is politics. Anger against the government has led to peasant riots. Nick Menzies coordinates agriculture projects in China for the Ford Foundation.

MENZIES: There is unrest, though, and there's a lot of dissatisfaction, a lot of unhappiness. There's also the visible evidence of all the migrants coming into the cities. And you put all that together and it's clear that there's something wrong in rural areas. The problem is, not very many people have looked very carefully into what the problems are in agriculture, and that unrest component is probably more significant than the production line because the unrest component tells a lot about questions such as land use, land allocation, fines, fees, extortion, taxes, price structures. It tells a lot about that, and those are some of the factors that have caused the production line to flatten out, rather than just that issue of how much land is available.

McNEILL: The Chinese government has responded to supply problems with a plan to combine many small farms into larger tracts, so they can mechanize and boost productivity. Essentially, they want to recollectivize much of rural China. But that could prompt even more unrest. China has come too far on the road from Communism to private enterprise, and from a rural society to a more urban and industrial one. In this village just north of Beijing, farmer Yang Liuqi says times have changed.

(Children laughing and playing)

LIUQI: (Speaks in Chinese dialect)
TRANSLATOR: We can't go back to the old ways, the communes. It was just too rigid. Anyway, within the next 5 years this village won't exist anymore. This will be the city. The only people working the fields nowadays are women who are over 40 and stay around home. Young people aren't willing to grow grain any more; they want city jobs.

McNEILL: Mao Zedong dreamed that China could be completely self-sufficient in food. There would be no need to depend on world markets. But these children live in a country that's more open to the world, a trading nation. As they grow up, China will be exporting manufactured goods and importing more food. If they're lucky, China will overcome its farm problems, the weather will cooperate, and the nightmare scenario of massive crop failures, sky-high food prices, and starvation won't come true. If they're lucky. For Living on Earth, I'm Lucy McNeill in Beijing.

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Policy and Effect in China

CURWOOD: China's environmental problems aren't limited to farmlands. Cities and towns have been hit hard by air and water pollution, and other problems linked to its huge population and red-hot economic growth. In fact, according to William Alford, Director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard University, by loosening central control and letting millions flock to overcrowded cities, the Chinese government may have worsened environmental problems.

ALFORD: Chinese cities are terribly congested and typically filled with enormous environmental problems. For example, some scholars have estimated that the rate of particulates and of SO2 in the air in major Chinese cities is 10 to 20 times what it is in major American cities. The problems of water pollution in virtually all of China's major cities are enormous. Problems of overpopulation and the environmental difficulties ensue from that are great.

CURWOOD: Does China have an overall environmental plan? Do they worry about this kind of thing?

ALFORD: Yes, China does have a plan. China took part in the Rio Conference; it's developed its agenda for the next decade in the environmental area. There is a raft of environmental legislation. But there's great difficulty in implementing that, in part because it's attention at the center level with China's great desire to develop economically, rapidly.

CURWOOD: So is it possible to have this kind of development and take care of the environment with China's system of government and organization?

ALFORD: Well, they're trying to do it. Officials at the very highest levels of the Chinese government often have both mandates. For example, a man named Sung Chen, who is a state counselor in charge of environmental issues, the highest official in China with an environmental mandate, also is in charge of what's called the State Science and Technology Commission, which has as its purpose advancing China's science so that China will be able materially to move ahead rapidly. So he embodies the tension, that one individual. Whether they can do it is a different question. I frankly am very skeptical. I think the government is not structured adequately in terms of democratic participation in particular to allow for meaningful protection of the environment.

CURWOOD: Is there a chance that the Chinese people themselves are going to force the government to respond to environmental problems?

ALFORD: Well, I think that's already beginning to happen. China's environmental problems at the local level are legion. Problems of air quality, water quality, of hazardous waste and so forth. And what's beginning to happen, what you read in the Chinese newspapers, groups of citizens out in the countryside, exasperated at their inability to affect change in a constructive fashion, at times taking the law into their own hands: beating up cadres, breaking into and closing down factories.

CURWOOD: Now, in Eastern Europe we saw people organizing around environmental concerns and this ultimately led to the Velvet Revolution, to the change of government. Is something in the works like this in China?

ALFORD: Well, China now has some of its very first non-governmental organizations addressed to issues of environmental quality. But they're very modest and starting very slowly. The Chinese government, to some degree, is aware at fairly high levels of the process that you've just described that occurred in Eastern Europe and of a comparable process that occurred much closer to home in Taiwan, where initially citizens organized around issues concerning the environment, discovered that the organs of state were not responsive to their legitimate complaints, and then broadened their demands from just the environment to transforming political (persons?) more generally.

CURWOOD: And if history is any guide, this means then that some kind of change in how China governs itself is on the way?

ALFORD: Well, I think eventually that will happen, and I think will be necessary at some level before environmental issues are dealt with in a really systematic fashion.

CURWOOD: What should the United States be doing to help China? It seems we have a lot of environmental technology that we'd like to export. I mean, they've got money and problems, we've got the solutions. What's standing in the way?

ALFORD: Well, I think our government needs to be much more imaginative and proactive than it has been in facilitating the export of American goods and technology in the environmental area. We need to be willing to spend some money, or offer incentives whereby they can acquire this technology at lower prices in return for, again, making efforts to be stricter in the enforcement of their environmental laws or do other things that we think constructive. It does seem to me this could be structured much more than has been as a win-win situation. But that will require leadership on our country's part.

CURWOOD: William Alford is director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard University and a professor of law. Thank you, sir.

ALFORD: Thank you very much, Steve, it's a pleasure to be here.

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(Music up and under)

Living on Earth Profile Series #9: Lester Brown: Keeping Watch on the World

CURWOOD: When Lester Brown speaks, people listen. For years the publications of this quietly charismatic man and his think tank, the World Watch Institute, have been some of the world's most widely quoted analyses of environmental and resource issues. Lester Brown has studied how humans use the Earth for more than 2 decades, and his findings have pleased some and vexed others. He leads a simple lifestyle, and in the morning, while most D.C. commuters battle traffic, Lester Brown puts on comfortable shoes and walks to work. We sent reporter Alex Van Oss to join him recently, as part of our series of profiles of 25 leading environmental figures.

(Birdsong and footfalls)

VAN OSS: Lester Brown was born during the 1930s, the Great Depression years. He grew up on a farm. And that, he said, was good training for a future of analyzing and predicting global trends.

BROWN: I think one of the things that farmers sort of automatically become is interdisciplinary, (Under his breath: "Look at this mockingbird!"). They have to worry about economics obviously. They're meteorologists, they're agronomists for sure. They have to be managers.

VAN OSS: Lester Brown was the first member of his family to graduate from elementary school. He was a tomato-picking champion as a teenager, and for a while it looked like farming tomatoes would be his career. But instead, Brown went to live in India, and then returned to the States to work for a decade at the Department of Agriculture. That's where his field experience and farmer's eye began to lead Brown into a kind of social activism on a global scale.

BROWN: In 1965, India experienced a monsoon failure. I happened to have picked up the fact that they were going to have an extraordinarily short harvest, and that estimate became the basis for launching the largest food relief effort ever undertaken. In 1965 we shipped a fifth of our wheat crop to India.

(Keys unlocking a gate)

VAN OSS: So you're the first in at the office?

BROWN: Not always.

VAN OSS: I'm told you work your employees hard; is that true?

BROWN: That's what they say. (Laughs.)

VAN OSS: At the office, Brown scans a half dozen newspapers each morning, noting price indexes and weather reports - all potential fodder for the World Watch Institute's magazines and books on social and environmental trends. Lester Brown is proud of his complete collection of World Watch's annual State of the World reports, now published in more than 2 dozen languages.

BROWN: Japanese, Finnish, Indonesian, Turkish, Basque...

VAN OSS: Right now. Lester Brown is writing a book about China. He's worried that China will soon have to import so much grain that it's going to absorb foreign surpluses. And that, he says, will drive up international grain and food prices as never seen before. Brown says China's population is so huge that even to provide every Chinese with a single extra bottle of beer would require an additional 370,000 tons of grain.

BROWN: Interestingly I was in Norway, and I used that example. And one of the reporters at the press conference was sort of scribbling on his pad, and he raised his hand and he said, "Three bottles of beer in China is the Norwegian grain harvest."

VAN OSS: World Watch's environmental studies have almost unparalleled reach. Ted Turner alone buys hundreds of copies of the State of the World report every year to give away to state governors, members of Congress, and heads of all the Fortune 500 companies. And the organization is consulted by universities, private groups, and governments around the world. Many of their predictions have been on the mark. For instance, they accurately foresaw the decline of most of the world's fisheries, which has recently prompted a series of international conflicts. But Brown and World Watch were off the mark when they predicted large increases in world oil prices, which never happened. World Watch has many devotees, but also detractors who say its forecasts are unnecessarily negative or just plain wrong. Lester Brown acknowledges the criticism, but isn't bothered by it.

BROWN: I mean, we make mistakes. We don't always make the right calls when we're doing projections. But no one does.

VAN OSS: For all the gloomy things in store for the globe, World Watch also finds room to outline positive scenarios, a vision of a world with sustainable resources, solar power, hydrogen fuels. With population growth under control and a steady food supply. But that world isn't here yet, and until it is, Lester Brown keeps his weather eye to the worrisome and continues to warn.

BROWN: The world is beginning to run into natural limits on the food front - the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries, the availability of fresh water from underground aquifers, the ability of crop varieties to effectively respond to the addition of still more fertilizer. It's the first time that this series of collisions is going to affect the entire world, because rising food prices will affect everyone in some way.

VAN OSS: Could you be wrong?

BROWN: I doubt it! (Laughs.)

VAN OSS: For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss in Washington.

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CURWOOD: Our listener comment line is 1-800-218-9988. Living on Earth is directed by Deborah Stavro. Our staff includes Peter Thomson, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We also had help from Liz Lempert, David Dunlap, Jessika Bella Mura, Bob Emroe, and Alex Garcia-Rangel. Our WBUR engineers are Keith Shields and Mark Navin. Special thanks to Jane Pipik and Larry Bouthillier. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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