Lester R. Brown is president of the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit institute that raises awareness about global environmental problems. In the following viewpoint, excerpted from his book Who Will Feed China?: Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, Brown contends that as China’s population grows, valuable cropland will be lost to industrialization. The country will have to import increasing amounts of grain to feed its people, which will lead in turn to worldwide increases in the price of food. China’s food shortages will become the world’s food shortages, Brown argues, thus sending a “wake-up call” to the rest of the world about the serious global problem of overpopulation.
As you read, consider the following questions:
1. In Brown’s view, how will industrialization in China result in less land that is available for raising food crops?
2. In the author’s opinion, what is the immediate challenge facing China?
We often hear that the entire world cannot reasonably aspire to the U.S. standard of living or that we cannot keep adding 90 million people a year indefinitely. Most people accept these propositions. Intuitively, they realize that there are constraints, that expanding human demand will eventually collide with the earth’s natural limits. Yet, little is said about what will actually limit the growth in human demands. Increasingly, it looks as though our ability to expand food production fast enough will be one of the earlier constraints to emerge. This is most immediately evident with oceanic fisheries, nearly all of which are being pushed to the limit and beyond by human demand. Water scarcity is now holding back growth in food production on every continent. Agronomic limits on the capacity of available crop varieties to use additional fertilizer effectively are also slowing growth in food production.
A Worldwide Increase in Food Prices
Against this backdrop, China may soon emerge as an importer of massive quantities of grain—quantities so large that they could trigger unprecedented rises in world food prices. If it does, everyone will feel the effect, whether at supermarket checkout counters or in village markets. Price rises, already under way for seafood, will spread to rice, where production is constrained by the scarcity of water as well as land, and then to wheat and other food staples. For the first time in history, the environmental collision between expanding human demand for food and some of the earth’s natural limits will have an economic effect that will be felt around the world.
It will be tempting to blame China for the likely rise in food prices, because its demand for food is exceeding the carrying capacity of its land and water resources, putting excessive demand on exportable supplies from countries that are living within their carrying capacities. But China is only one of scores of countries in this situation. It just happens to be the largest and, by an accident of history, the one that tips the world balance from surplus to scarcity.
Analysts of the world food supply/demand balance have recognized that the demand for food in China would climb dramatically as industrialization accelerated and incomes rose. They have also assumed that rapid growth in food production in China would continue indefinitely. But on this latter front, a closer look at what happens when a country is already densely populated before it industrializes leads to a very different conclusion. In this situation, rapid industrialization inevitably leads to a heavy loss of cropland, which can override any rises in land productivity and lead to an absolute decline in food production.
Lessons from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan
Historically, there appear to be only three other countries that were densely populated in agronomic terms before industrializing— Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The common experience of these three gives a sense of what to expect as industrialization proceeds in China. For instance, the conversion of grainland to other uses, combined with a decline in multiple cropping in these countries over the last few decades, has cost Japan 52 percent of its grain harvested area, South Korea 46 percent, and Taiwan 42 percent.
As cropland losses accelerated, they soon exceeded rises in land productivity, leading to steady declines in output. In Japan, grain production has fallen 32 percent from its peak in 1960. For both South Korea and Taiwan, output has dropped 24 percent since 1977, the year when, by coincidence, production peaked in both countries. If China’s rapid industrialization continues, it can expect a similar decline.
While production was falling, rising affluence was driving up the overall demand for grain. As a result, by 1994, the three countries were collectively importing 71 percent of their grain.
Exactly the same forces are at work in China as its transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society progresses at a breakneck pace. Its 1990 area of grainland per person of 0.08 hectares is the same as that of Japan in 1950, making China one of the world’s most densely populated countries in agronomic terms. If China is to avoid the decline in production that occurred in Japan, it must either be more effective in protecting its cropland (which will not be easy, given Japan’s outstanding record) or it must raise grain yield per hectare faster during the next few decades than Japan has in the last few—an equally daunting task, considering the Japanese performance and the fact that China’s current yields are already quite high by international standards.
Loss of Cropland and Irrigation Water
Building the thousands of factories,...