Revolutionary changes in diet challenge China

February 21, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

GUIJIN VILLAGE, China -- The unprecedented bounty on Chinese dinner tables these days soon could have economic, political and environmental effects stretching around the globe.

The source of the potential problems is that the Chinese -- one-fifth of the world's people -- have quickly shifted from primarily eating grain to devouring more meat, eggs, milk and farm-raised fish.

For China, this is both good news and potentially troublesome. For foreign feed-grain suppliers, particularly U.S. corn farmers, it bodes a massive opportunity. For the world's growing population, it means vital resources could be stretched much tighter.

China's diet change is rooted in a transition that's been taking place in agriculture for more than a decade: diversification from grain-growing to higher value crops and animal products.

In this Hunan Province village, as in much of the Chinese countryside, the transition makes a lot of sense.

Rice farmers for centuries, Guijin peasants now have turned many of their paddies into ponds to raise fish for sale in the nearby markets of Changsha, the provincial capital. On the same plot of land, fish bring about twice as much profit as rice.

As a result, Guijin is dotted with large new concrete houses. Liu Zhi Chen, 39, built his with the proceeds from managing many of the village's fish ponds. His profits last year were $1,150, about 10 times China's average rural income.

Mr. Liu has made enough from fish that he's now got something else to show off: 24 piglets in a smelly sty. "They'll grow big fast," he says, confiding plans to eventually build a second new home -- this one funded by pork sales.

Such largess is in stark contrast to the centuries of recurring famines and shortages in China. For the first time in modern history, China largely has achieved food self-sufficiency.

In step with their rising incomes, Chinese now consume 2 1/2 times more meat, eggs and milk than in 1982; fish consumption also has more than doubled. M "China's agricultural gains amount to a human development miracle that has gone largely unnoticed in the West," said Robert S. McNamara,former president of the World Bank, in awarding the prestigious World Food Prize last fall to He Kang, who led Chinese farmers back to private plots as China's agriculture minister in the early 1980s.

Exploding demand

But at the core of this success is a perhaps even more difficult problem: The exploding demand for animal protein here can't be met without a big increase in the supply of feed grain, such as corn. For example, it takes five or six pounds of feed grain to produce a pound of pork.

But China can't easily increase grain production. Grain yields here are fairly high already. Grain acreage is falling 1 percent a year due to industrialization, environmental degradation and the continuing shift to crops with higher cash returns.

Grain farming is so unprofitable that there are reports of abandoned grain fields. "Farmers plant for nothing, government subsidizes for nothing, grain enterprises work for nothing," goes a popular saying about China's grain trade.

Western and Chinese experts say Beijing faces a hard choice:

It can struggle to maintain a high degree of self-sufficiency. But to achieve this, government subsidies to grain farming would have to be dramatically increased, thereby diverting resources from industry and slowing China's industrial growth.

Or, China can buy increasing amounts of grain from the world market. This would mean giving up the political ideal of self-sufficiency, leaving China potentially vulnerable to foreign suppliers. It also would sop up a big share of China's future export earnings, badly needed to purchase technology.

Chinese and Western analysts say it's more cost-effective for China to use revenue from labor-intensive export industries to buy grain from more efficient producers, such as the United States and Australia.

"Self-sufficiency would have a very high cost in terms of slowing economic growth," says Lin Yifu, a leading researcher at China's Development Research Center in Beijing.

Adds Ross Garnaut, a China grain expert at the Australian National University: "They can do it, but they won't have as high a standard of living in the end. It's far better for China to sell shirts to buy grain."

National security

But even though China has been a net grain importer on a relatively small scale in most years since 1961, self-sufficiency remains a national security issue.

"We must be aware that if our country, with a population of 1.1 billion, runs into difficulties regarding agriculture and grain production, no country in the world can really help us," the Communist Party's People's Daily warned last fall.

Says a Western economist here: "The problem is that China's current leadership still remembers the last famine years here in the early 1960s. So there's going to have to be a generational change before they'll be willing to give up self-sufficiency."

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