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Is There Enough Chinese Food?

Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet

by Lester R. Brown
Norton, 163 pp., $8.95 (paper)


Many Americans think they know something about Chinese food. But very few know anything about food in China, about the ways in which it is grown, stored, distributed, eaten, and wasted, about its effects on the country’s politics, and about its importance to the rest of the world.

Even those with more than an incidental interest in China are justifiably confused about the topic. Their understanding has been shaped by writers whose widely publicized works give oddly different versions of Chinese peasant life. Some may remember Franklin King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, a book that praised the virtues of China’s traditional organic agriculture. Then at least two generations of Americans became acquainted with the hardships of a prototypical peasant family in Pearl Buck’s best seller The Good Earth, which is filled with descriptions of backbreaking labor and rough, garlic-flavored gruels.

In the early 1970s, after two decades of suspended Sino-American ties, the first wave of American visitors to China brought back uplifting reports of plentiful harvests, with photographs of well-nourished, rosy-cheeked children gathered in communal kindergartens under the obligatory portraits of the Great Helmsman. These travelers did not suspect that beyond the rehearsed dances in show communes was a countryside the size of a continent in which tens of millions of peasants were almost starving. Nor did they suspect that only a dozen years before their visit, Mao’s lunatic Great Leap had plunged China into the greatest famine in human history. Some thirty million people died in three years.

The blindness of those reports, and the falsity of countless official statements about an ever better state of farming in China, were exposed by Deng Xiaoping’s radical rural reforms. His efforts to abolish communal farms began gingerly in 1979 and gained momentum rapidly during the early 1980s. There would not have been any need to abandon the practice of communal farming had it been as rewarding as portrayed by Communist Party communiqués and by underinformed Western visitors.

In fact, even with strict food rationing, a quarter century of collective farming resulted in a system that could produce barely enough food to provide China’s people with no more than a subsistence-level diet, based on low-quality rice and other staples. And for at least 100 million peasants, it did not provide even the necessary minimum.

Under the privatization program that began in 1980, the land still belonged to the state, but the peasants were free to plant crops and to breed animals more or less as they wished. Within five years China’s per capita supply of calories amounted to nearly 90 percent of that of Japan. Moreover, this rise was accompanied by impressive gains in quality. Rice became whiter, which is much preferred in China; traditionally rare delicacies ranging from fat ducks to fragrant ginger became commonplace; pork was no longer eaten only on a few festive days; and newly dug ponds began filling with carp.

When food rationing was eventually abolished, the Chinese press repeated the boast long made by (commonly rotund) officials at meetings abroad: China feeds one fifth of the world’s population from just one fifteenth of the world’s arable land. Indeed, 1984 was the largest grain harvest in Chinese history; the next year the country actually became a net exporter of grain.

During the 1980s unprecedented numbers of Americans visited the country, but only those who strayed from the usual rounds of the big cities and famous sights saw the misery and continuing malnutrition in the deforested and heavily eroded hills of Gansu and Ningxia in the arid northwest, or in the decrepit villages clinging to steep, eroded hillsides in the subtropical valleys in Guangxi in the south and Yunnan in the southwest.

It could easily be argued that such inequities must be expected in any country of China’s size and stage of economic development. After all, even in the United States, as a Harvard study concluded, hunger—which is defined as a chronic shortage of nutrients needed for growth and good health—affected about twelve million children and eight million adults, or about a twelfth of the country’s population, during the late 1980s.1

Although grain harvests in China did not grow in size for several years after the record 1984 crop, the average per capita food supply continued to increase slightly in quantity and appreciably in quality. Consumption of once-scarce plant oils—mostly from rapeseed, sunflowers, peanuts, and soybeans—more than doubled during the 1980s. (During the 1970s they were rationed at as little as half a liter a month per family, or about one tablespoon per day: try to stir-fry two meals for four people with that.) Retail sales of pork and poultry more than doubled, and the output of fish nearly quintupled.

A good harvest in 1990 surpassed the 1984 yield by almost 10 percent, and yet another record was set in 1993. Even a casual observer had to be impressed by the quantity and variety of food piled up in markets and displayed in the many newly opened stores. A more careful observer could not fail to notice a great deal of waste of food in China’s largest cities, particularly in the mess halls of China’s workplaces.

But in the summer of 1994 Lester Brown, president of Washington’s Worldwatch Institute, published an article arguing that China was rapidly losing the capacity to feed itself. According to Brown’s analysis of the record, China’s grain output had reached its peak and would drop by at least 20 percent by the year 2030.2 China’s increasing prosperity would move the country toward consuming more expensive foods—much as has happened in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan since World War II—as consumers demanded more and more meat, plant oils, and sugar.

Since China’s population, which is currently just over 1.2 billion, will almost certainly surpass 1.5 billion by the year 2025, Brown wrote, the country will find it impossible to satisfy its huge demand for food with its domestic production alone. China’s food deficit will put an unbearable strain on the global food market because its growing imports, which could potentially be much larger than today’s entire global grain export capacity, will push up prices of grains, oils, and meat worldwide.

In Who Will Feed China?, a short book subtitled Wake-up Call for a Small Planet, Brown offers an expanded but fundamentally unchanged version of his 1994 conclusions. His analysis of China’s food prospects rests on a series of assumptions about what, to him, appear to be irrevocable trends: China’s consumers are “moving up the food chain,” the country is losing arable land, running out of water, and exhausting its opportunities for further major increases in yields.

Moving up the food chain—that is, eating less grain such as rice or wheat but consuming more meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, plant oils, fruits, and vegetables—is a pattern found in all modernizing countries that have rising personal incomes. China is no exception. Since 1980, major increases in per capita consumption in all of these categories have brought the Chinese dietary pattern closer to that of East Asia’s richest economies.

Because China has only a limited amount of grazing land, it does not have North America’s option of producing large amounts of range-fed beef. Because most of the world’s major fishing grounds are already heavily overexploited, China cannot follow the Japanese path of securing a large share of high-quality animal protein from the sea. Consequently, China’s meat, whether from farm animals of farmed fish, will have to come overwhelmingly from the use of feed grain. Rising consumption of beer and liquor will further increase the demand for grain, above all for barley, sorghum, and rice.

The amount of farmland is decreasing throughout the world, but the decrease in China has been particularly sharp. Rapid modernization after 1980 greatly increased the annual rate of loss through a combination of new rural and urban housing construction, unprecedented growth of manufactures for export, and highway expansion. New peasant housing is rarely built on previously built-up sites; new factories usually take over highly productive land around cities and towns, and government policies promote the American rather than the Japanese approach to intercity transport. Instead of building bullet trains, the Chinese are constructing concrete freeways.

Because Brown believes that China’s losses of farmland will follow established East Asian patterns of decline, his conclusions are extremely bleak. Since World War II the three rich East Asian nations have lost almost half of their farmland, with average declines of 1.2 percent a year. Should China follow the pattern, its farmland will be reduced by half by the year 2030.

Moreover, Brown notes, in the countries that were densely populated before intensive industrialization began, extensive losses of farmland have been accompanied by widespread abandonment of small marginal plots, and by the declining use of crop rotation, which is vital to keeping soil fertile and yields high. Grain lands are being converted to the more lucrative cultivation of vegetables and fruits. Official statistics show that the practice of reaping several harvests from the same field has been growing in China during the early 1990s, but Brown believes that it is just about to begin a relentless decline. Two other trends are already evident: vegetable acreage is now about 2.5 times what it was in 1980, and reports of abandoned marginal farmland have been increasingly common as peasants leave in search of better economic opportunities in towns and cities.

Even if China could slow the rate of growth by which it is losing farmland—a virtual impossibility in Brown’s view—its future harvests will be limited by water shortages and by the difficulty of raising average crop yields. He predicts a worsening of the water shortages already so evident throughout northern China as growing cities and industries compete with agriculture for water. Even an increase in the region’s supply through a huge transfer of water from the Yangtze river to the northern regions will not, he concludes, relieve the north of severe shortages of water. And while he allows that future crop yields may rise, he believes that this will happen so slowly that year-to-year changes will be hardly perceptible.

Because Brown considers all these trends to be virtually unstoppable, his conclusion is that China is heading toward catastrophe. As incomes rise, China’s demand for feed grain to produce meat and fish will keep growing—from less than a quarter of the country’s grain output in 1994 to half, or even more, the proportion typical for industrialized countries. Since there will be no conceivable way to satisfy this demand through domestic grain production (which will be actually declining), the only recourse will be vast, and increasing, imports of grain. This will lead not only to a global increase in food prices but—because Brown does not see any possibility for a major expansion of export supplies—also to world shortages of staple cereals.

  1. 1

    J.L. Brown, “Hunger in the US,” Scientific American (February 1987), pp. 37-41.

  2. 2

    Lester R. Brown, “Feeding China,” World Watch (September-October 1994), p. 10.

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