This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Will China Feed Itself?

More than fifteen years ago, Lester Brown--then President of the Worldwatch Institute--published a widely cited book on "Who Will Feed China?" His concern was that China's rapid industrialization in the context of its huge and still growing population would mean that China would inevitably have to import food, and that could disrupt the global food supply. Lester Brown is now President of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, DC, and recently raised the issue again in a podcast "Can the United States Feed China?" This has prompted a response in the latest issue of Nature from a Chinese agricultural specialist who divides his time between the US and China:

I thank Lester for his warning on food security in China, but I believe it is not a matter of whether China can feed itself. It is a matter of whether the Chinese people will choose to do so.
First, some history. China's grain production quadrupled from 1950 to 2010, and last year saw the largest ever harvest. Much of the grain that China imported last year was not for consumption, but for storage in case of crises. In fact, for the past 60 years, China has, with just 7–8% of the globe's agricultural land, fed about 22% of the world's population.
The challenges he lists are enormous, from the issue of cities gobbling up good farmland, to the loss of agricultural knowledge as older farmers die, but their children have migrated to cities, to the fact that China's population is likely to grow to nearly 1.5 billion before it stops, to the issue of where water will come from. On this latter score, he hits an interesting point--the potential benefit of global climate change to China:
Glaciers in western China are likely to melt faster over the next few decades, and could water new farmland in that region. Then there is indoor, hydroponic cultivation, which has already entered China on a household scale for growing vegetables.
An important part of the picture relates to consumption patterns:
Yes, the growing middle class wants to eat more meat, which requires more grain, but older people tend to eat less meat, so the demand could be balanced as the population ages. The country does not have to follow the Western model of development based on overconsumption. Thrift is deeply ingrained in the philosophy and culture of the people.
So, in the end, it comes down to this: can dietary discipline be maintained? If so, China may be able to feed itself. 

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