Who will feed China?

September 07, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- ON AUG. 29, Chinese officials in Beijing took an unprecedented step. More in anger than in sorrow, they called a press conference -- not to denounce American human rights policies and not to threaten Tibet.

No, they were attacking Lester Brown, the respected American agronomist and environmentalist, for saying in World Watch Magazine: "Suddenly, China is losing the capacity to feed itself. And when that happens, the food supply of the world will be affected, casting the shadow of global scarcity on human history for the first time."

Deputy Agriculture Minister Wan Baorui huffed to reporters last Monday that, not only would his enormous country of 1.2 billion people reach self-sufficiency by the year 2000 but also that China's grain harvest would reach 500 million tons by the year 2000 and 750 million tons by 2025.

In place of such ideologically driven predictions of bountiful harvests from China's very limited arable land mass, Mr. Brown predicts instead that between 1990 and 2030 China's crucial grain production would instead fall by at least 20 percent. By 2030, he says, China will need 490 million tons of grain to feed its population, but would be able to harvest only 263 million tons.

Mr. Brown then adds: "When China turns to world markets on an on going basis, its food scarcity will become the world's scarcity. I've not heard of any country moving down the food chain voluntarily."

He further emphasizes that much of the problem is due to the reality of new demands by Chinese consumers. When China's economic reforms were launched in 1978, only 7 percent of grain was being used for animal feed; by 1990, that share had risen to 20 percent, most of it to produce pork. Now, a nation of 1.2 billion (and growing) is demanding even higher levels of food intake -- and where will the grain to produce that come from?

Mr. Brown's answer: "No one! Since 1980, annual world grain exports have averaged roughly 200 million tons, close to half of that from the United States. But the United States also faces losses of cropland and irrigation water to nonfarm uses. And, given the projected addition of 95 million Americans over the next four decades, most of the future growth in U.S. output will be needed at home . . . .

"In these circumstances, the vast deficit projected for China will set up a fierce competition for limited exportable supplies, driving world grain prices far above familiar levels."

I believe that painstaking original research such as this, with room for honorable people to disagree, is what the debate at the U.N.'s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, should be about. Instead, we have black-and-white ideological/religious debates: the Vatican and oppressive Muslim regimes such as Iran's vs. the more liberal and "progressive" forces of development, feminism and equal rights.

It may seem arcane to some, but the real long-range questions behind Cairo's population conference are those presented in Mr. Brown's provocative paper, "Who Will Feed China?" To address those questions is not immoral or amoral but profoundly moral.

"Perhaps," the Chinese deputy agriculture minister also said that day, "in international circles, they use different criteria [in estimating what a nation produces]." That can be true; but, unfortunately, even the question of criteria, or of basic standards, or of international norms, is one that must be addressed here. For China's statistics have often been horrifying. In the late 1950s, American diplomats and political witch-hunters suffered over the unanswerable question, "Who Lost China?" Today, a far more realistic corollary -- "Who Will Feed China?" -- has been posed.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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