Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. Pushing Beyond the Earth’s Limits: Growth: The China Factor

China—the largest country in the world—is now beginning to experience the Japan syndrome. Perhaps the most alarming recent world agricultural event is the precipitous fall in China’s grain production since 1998. After an impressive climb from 90 million tons in 1950 to a peak of 392 million tons in 1998, China’s grain harvest fell in four of the next five years, dropping to 322 million tons in 2003. For perspective, this decline of 70 million tons exceeds the entire grain harvest of Canada. 33 

Behind this harvest shrinkage of 18 percent from 1998 to 2003 is a decline in grain harvested area of 16 percent. The conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses, the shift of grainland to higher-value fruits and vegetables, and, in some of the more prosperous regions, a loss of the rural labor needed for multiple cropping are all shrinking China’s grainland—just as they did Japan’s. 34

In addition, China is also losing grainland to the expansion of deserts and the loss of irrigation water, due to both aquifer depletion and diversion of water to cities. (See Chapter 8 for further discussion of these pressures.) Unfortunately for China, none of the forces that are shrinking the grainland area are easily countered.

Between 1998 and 2003, five consecutive harvest shortfalls dropped China’s once massive stocks of grain to their lowest level in 30 years. With stocks now largely depleted, China’s leaders—all of them survivors of the great famine of 1959–61, when 30 million people starved to death—are worried. For them, food security is not a trivial issue. 35

Not surprisingly, China desperately wants to reverse the recent fall in grain production. In March 2004, Beijing announced an emergency supplemental appropriation, expanding the 2004 agricultural budget by one fifth ($3.6 billion) in an effort to encourage farmers to grow more grain. The support price for the early rice crop in 2004 was raised by 21 percent. While these two emergency measures did reverse the grain harvest decline temporarily, whether they can reverse the trend over the longer term is doubtful. 36

When China turns to the outside world for commodities, it can overwhelm world markets. For example, 10 years ago China was self-sufficient in soybeans. In 2004, it imported 22 million tons—quickly eclipsing Japan, the previous leading importer with 5 million tons. 37

When wheat prices within China started climbing in the fall of 2003, the government dispatched wheat-buying delegations to Australia, Canada, and the United States. They purchased 8 million tons, and overnight China became the world’s largest wheat importer. 38

China is a fascinating case study because of its sheer size and extraordinary pace of industrial development. It has been the world’s fastest-growing economy since 1980. The economic effects of this massive expansion can be seen in the rest of the world, but China is also putting enormous pressure on its own natural resource base. In the deteriorating relationship between the global economy and the earth’s ecosystem, China is unfortunately on the cutting edge. 39

With water, the northern half of China is literally drying out. Water tables are falling, rivers are going dry, and lakes are disappearing. In a 748-page assessment of China’s water situation, the World Bank sounds the alarm. It foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” if water use and supply cannot quickly be brought back into balance. More immediately, if China cannot quickly restore a balance between the consumption of water and the sustainable yield of its aquifers and rivers, its grain imports will likely soar in the years ahead. 40

For people not living in China, it is difficult to visualize how fast deserts are expanding. It can be likened to a war, yet it is not invading armies that are claiming the territory, but expanding deserts. Old deserts are advancing and new ones are forming, like guerrilla forces striking unexpectedly, forcing Beijing to fight on several fronts. Throughout northern and western China, some 24,000 villages have either been abandoned or partly depopulated as drifting sand has made farming untenable. 41

On the food front, the issue within China is not hunger and starvation, as the nation now has a substantial cushion between consumption levels and minimal nutrition needs. Rather, the concern is rising food prices and the effect that this could have on political stability. China’s leaders are striving for a delicate balance between food prices that will encourage production in the countryside but maintain stability in the cities. 42

As noted earlier, smaller countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan can import 70 percent or more of their grain, but if China turns to the outside world to meet even 20 percent of its grain needs, which would be close to 80 million tons, it will provide a huge challenge for grain exporters. The resulting rise in world grain prices could destabilize governments in low-income, grain-importing countries. The entire world thus has a stake in China’s efforts to stabilize its agricultural resource base. 43


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