China changes its mind on food

CATEGORY: FarmingIn something of a Big Deal, it has emerged that China no longer will pursue the goal of being self-sufficient in food. According to the South China Morning Post, Chen Xiwen, who is the director of the rural affairs policy-making committee of the Communist Party, and who therefore presumably knows a thing or two, the policy of self-sufficiency laid out with great fanfare in 1978 won’t work anymore. Xiwen is quoted as saying the following: “During the process of urbanization, we must pay attention to modern agricultural development and to farm product supplies, but of course, we certainly cannot pursue self-sufficiency.” I imagine agricultural commodities traders worldwide creamed their jeans when they heard this—because China is now going to have to decide what to import and what to keep growing. But the traders probably already knew this—in fact, most of us knew this, long before the Communist Chinese government could actually admit that this was going to be the case.

Rice is probably fine. But as the Chinese middle class grows and wants to eat more like the west, farmland is coming under pressure, so crops like corn are coming under more pressure as well. The corn, of course, is used for meat production, which is also growing rapidly. Then there’s the ongoing and very rapid urbanization that’s taking place over the past several decades, which has seen an estimated 260 million farmers leave the field (so to speak) according to the SCMP article, and the rural population decline by about 80 million since the early 1980s. The urban population, already pretty large, continues to grow, which is more or less the problem—or a significant part of it. All this is compounded by China’s increasingly serious water issues. As a result, China’s hunger for farmland outside of China has become significant enough that it has roiled local property markets in any number of regions.

I still remember the hoo-hah that accompanied Lester Brown’s book Who Will Feed China when it appeared in 1995. Brown’s central point was that there simply weren’t the global resources—to say nothing of indigenous resources within China—to feed the population of China to the standard of Western Europe or the US. At that time, the Chinese government pushed back strongly on this, and did so for many years, suggesting that Brown was full of crap. Hmmm, not so much now. But there was a corollary point as well, which was the pressure that Chinese demand would put on global food supplies. As the SCMP article cited above indicates, food imports are growing rapidly in China, and represent an increasing share of what’s available to Chinese consumers. And, of course Chinese food imports are actually food exports from somewhere else.

Everywhere we look we’re bumping into resource constraints, but we continue to deny this. Carbon in the atmosphere is just the most glaring example, but there are plenty of others—the imminent (but probably preventable) collapse of global fisheries being perhaps the best example. This year, 2013, we’re likely to see further strains on agricultural commodities as droughts persist, but demand continues to increase. Even with additional acreage being planted in North America in 2012, the crop was well short of targets. It would be nice to think we had political systems that could deal with this sagely—but we don’t. We do have an economic system that sort of knows how to deal with this—but we don’t know yet how successfully it will deal with food scarcity on a global level when the capacity to actually grow food is compromised. Pity.

3 replies »

  1. Excellent post, and as an old dabbler in this realm (I led studies for World Bank, Aus Wheat Board and Meat Council, and the Queensland Sugar Board) I find the idea that food will finally be subject to the laws of supply and demand mind-boggling. Right now of course, the distortions by subsidies are so egregious that the countries that should be growing food (Aus, Canada, Arg, developing nations) find it hard to compete with the countries that want to grow food (U.S., France, Japan.) There are many implications of course, from leveling rain forests in S. America to relieving the burden on the U.S. budget, but one of the most sobering is that we finally may hit the Malthusian wall and see food shortages.

  2. It is a pretty spooky prospect, isn’t it? I’m not sure if we’re being relaxed about this because, well, we’ve always figured it out in the past, or if we really believe the hype from the seed companies about the great things coming along. Me, I’m planning on living near my food supply, which is what I do now.