Can the World Feed China?

rising demand for meat in china may impact the country's food security

By Lester R. Brown

Overnight, China has become a leading world grain importer, set to buy a staggering 22 million tons in the 2013–14 trade year, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture projections. As recently as 2006—just eight years ago—China had a grain surplus and was exporting 10 million tons. What caused this dramatic shift?

It wasn’t until 20 years ago, after I wrote an article entitled “Who Will Feed China?” that I began to fully appreciate what a sensitive political issue food security was to the Chinese. The country’s leaders were all survivors of the Great Famine of 1959–61, when some 36 million people starved to death. Yet while the Chinese government was publicly critical of my questioning the country’s ability to feed itself, it began quietly reforming its agriculture. Among other things, Beijing adopted a policy of grain self-sufficiency, an initiative that is now faltering.

Since 2006, China’s grain use has been climbing by 17 million tons per year. (See data.) For perspective, this compares with Australia’s annual wheat harvest of 24 million tons. With population growth slowing, this rise in grain use is largely the result of China’s huge population moving up the food chain and consuming more grain-based meat, milk, and eggs.

Net Imports of Grain by China, 1960-2013

In 2013, the world consumed an estimated 107 million tons of pork—half of which was eaten in China. China’s 1.4 billion people now consume six times as much pork as the United States does. Even with its recent surge in pork, however, China’s overall meat intake per person still totals only 120 pounds per year, scarcely half the 235 pounds in the United States. But, the Chinese, like so many others around the globe, aspire to an American lifestyle. To consume meat like Americans do, China would need to roughly double its annual meat supply from 80 million tons to 160 million tons. Using the rule of thumb of three to four pounds of grain to produce one pound of pork, an additional 80 million tons of pork would require at least 240 million tons of feedgrain.

Where will this grain come from? Farmers in China are losing irrigation water as aquifers are depleted. The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast, by over 10 feet per year in some areas. Meanwhile, water supplies are being diverted to nonfarm uses and cropland is being lost to urban and industrial construction. With China’s grain yield already among the highest in the world, the potential for China to increase production within its own borders is limited.

The 2013 purchase by a Chinese conglomerate of the American firm Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pig-growing and pork-processing company, was really a pork security move. So, too, is China’s deal with Ukraine to provide $3 billion in loans in exchange for corn, as well as negotiations with Ukrainian companies for access to land. Such moves by China exemplify the new geopolitics of food scarcity that affects us all.

China is not alone in the scramble for food. An estimated 2 billion people in other countries are also moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. The combination of population growth, rising affluence, and the conversion of one third of the U.S. grain harvest into ethanol to fuel cars is expanding the world demand for grain by a record 43 million tons per year, double the annual growth of a decade ago.

The world’s farmers are struggling to keep pace. When grain supplies tightened in times past, prices rose and farmers responded by producing more. Now the situation is far more complex. Water shortages, soil erosion, plateauing crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and climate change pose mounting threats to production.

As China imports increasing quantities of grain, it is competing directly with scores of other grain-importing countries, such as Japan, Mexico, and Egypt. The result will be a worldwide rise in food prices. Those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder—people who are already struggling just to survive—will find it even more difficult to get by. Low-income families trapped by food price inflation will be unable to afford enough food to eat every day.

The world is transitioning from an era of abundance to one dominated by scarcity. China’s turn to the outside world for massive quantities of grain is forcing us to recognize that we are in trouble on the food front. Can we reverse the trends that are tightening food supplies, or is the world moving toward a future of rising food prices and political unrest?

Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Breaking New Ground: A Personal History (W.W. Norton, 2013) and Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. Check out our supporting slideshow for additional data. More resources are available at www.earth-policy.org.

Image credit: Evgeni Zotov via photopin cc

  1. Vivi

    “China’s overall meat intake per person still totals only 120 pounds per year, scarcely half the 235 pounds in the United States.”

    Where do you get those numbers? In various articles, such as about the new “Meat Atlas” published by the German Heinrich Boell Foundation (which is promoting sustainability) and Friends of the Earth, they always quote figures much lower than that. I.e. about 38 kg for China, 60 kg for Germany, and 75 kg (165 lbs) for the US.

    Also, while I generally agree with the gist of this article, I find it odd that US citizens always seem to think it self-evident that everyone aspires to the US way of life and level of consumption. I mean isn’t that partly culturally based and also dependent on the size and climate of the country? The Western European countries have a considerably lower energy use per capita than the US, largely probably because of shorter supply lines / commutes and less need for air conditioning, while still enjoying more or less the same level of comfort and a similar diet. And while I personally am not a vegetarian, I eat at most 35 kg meat per year – not particularly in an attempt to lower my consumption, but because that’s how my physical appetite and the recipes in my family work. It’s “sunday roast”, not “everyday roast” – most days, it’s just a couple of thin slices of ham on a sandwich, or a sausage in a vegetable stew shared by three. Or nothing, because in the summer, with the heat and all the fresh produce available, my physical appetite for protein and fat goes down a lot. I frankly can’t imagine eating what has to be a pound of meat almost every day going by your numbers for the US. That sounds rather disgusting, really. And I’m someone who comes from a culture with a diet that is traditionally quite high in meat. Of course people will try to improve their diets with easily digestible protein, and meat eating is a status symbol. But beyond a basic level, do you really think they’ll throw out their entire traditional food culture?

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