Chinese attack environmental scenario

August 11, 1995|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Beijing, China -- IN THIS country of cosmic conundrums, one of the smaller mysteries is why the communist government here has become so obsessed with Lester Brown, the prominent American environmentalist.

In the week I was in Beijing alone, for instance, I saw not one but three articles in the official English-language newspapers attacking Mr. Brown and his Worldwatch Institute. One, in the China Daily, identified as written by D. Gale Johnson, a University of Chicago professor, spoke derisively of Mr. Brown's recent writings on grain shortages in China as "breathtaking conclusions . . . based on analogy . . . rash interpretations."

There was the sense in all the attacks that Mr. Brown is a kind of modern barbarian, trading not in 19th century opium this time around but attempting to snatch the very food out of the Chinese people's mouths.

One could only think that Mr. Brown, founder and president of Worldwatch and a longtime personal friend of mine, had somehow deeply insulted and profoundly wounded the psyche and the reputation of the ever-supersensitive Chinese. But that was not true. In fact, Mr. Brown had actually complimented the Chinese on their development.

To back up:

In a groundbreaking article published last fall, "Who Will Feed China?" Mr. Brown carefully laid out an environmental scenario. Essentially, he noticed that, in April 1994, grain prices in China's 35 major cities had shot up by 41 percent.

From this, he extrapolated that with China's population growing by 14 million a year, and with increasing prosperity, the Chinese were consuming immensely larger amounts of grain -- with every glass of beer or piece of pork.

"This potential grain deficit is raising one of the most difficult questions world leaders have ever had to face: Who will feed China?" he wrote. He concluded with the compelling argument that "It will not be in the devastation of poverty-stricken Somalia or Haiti, but in the booming economy of China, that we will see the inevitable collision between expanding human demand for food and the limits of some of the Earth's most basic natural systems."

The odd thing about the attacks on Mr. Brown -- who says that these problems are new ones of prosperity -- is that his findings are essentially backed up by China's finest scientists.

"Our population is growing and now people tend to consume more," said Zhou Gwangzhou, the respected president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "We need to increase grain production by 20 percent next year -- but that is not very easy to do."

When I asked him about the Worldwatch prediction, he said: "It has some truth in it. But it is on the pessimistic side."

Additional facts and predictions do indeed indicate strongly that not only bellwether China but perhaps the whole world is facing a grain crisis. Since last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed that world grain carry-over stocks for 1996 will drop to the lowest level on record. The International Wheat Council of London confirms this.

And even Chinese President Jiang Zemin held an emergency conference on food in February, trying to deal not only with the grain deficit but with the disappearance of the country's arable land as cities are built everywhere and peasants (85 percent of the population) abandon their farms to move to those cities. (China has lost 10.6 million acres of arable land since 1978, the equivalent to all the land under cultivation in the large agricultural province of Sichuan!)

And the Chinese themselves can barely forget the last time Chinese agriculture fell apart. During the Great Leap Forward of 1958, Mao Tse-tung deliberately pulled peasants off the land to make steel in backyard furnaces, and 30 million died in three Armageddon years of hunger.

But what about the distinctly strange case of Lester Brown?

The Chinese, given their neuralgic historical response to any outside criticism (or anything that even smacks to them of criticism) are reacting to the Brown thesis because it suggests that they may not be self-sufficient in the future. It dares to raise the possibility that China might one day depend on the outside world for much of its food.

Even if this is the reason for their curious behavior, it is essential that these figures and arguments be brought out now. For across Asia today, with burgeoning populations alongside burgeoning GNPs, these environmental questions are rapidly becoming "the" questions of a future that is almost upon us. If not addressed now, they will become questions not only of food, but also of war or peace in the next century.

Georgie Anne Geyer writes a syndicated column on foreign affairs.

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