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Editorial: Who will feed China?

Perhaps Chinese politicians, like ours, are prone to using jargon, or maybe it’s the fault of whomever translated the speech from the original Mandarin. Either way, we got a chuckle out of this introduction to a Reuters story last week.

“China’s agriculture sector needs to undertake supply-side reform, especially in corn production, given bumper harvests and surplus grain stockpiles, Agriculture Minister Han Changfu said on Monday.”

“Supply-side reform” means Chinese farmers need to cut production in order to get rid of some of the government-held stockpiles, currently estimated at 250 million tonnes.

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This made us think back to a Canadian Farm Writers Federation annual conference in Winnipeg in 1996. The theme was whether farmers could grow enough grain to feed the world, and organizers landed one of the hot conference speakers of the time, Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. Brown had just published Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, still available for $8.95 on the institute’s website. Here’s the first paragraph of the promotional blurb:

To feed its 1.2 billion people, China may soon have to import so much grain that this action could trigger unprecedented rises in world food prices… Lester Brown shows that even as water becomes scarce in a land where 80 per cent of the grain crop is irrigated, as per-acre yield gains are erased by the loss of cropland to industrialization, and as food production stagnates, China still increases its population by the equivalent of a new Beijing each year.

It turns out that China’s population has increased since 1996, but by about half that amount. There has certainly been increased industrialization, and the conventional wisdom is that equals more prosperity and therefore more demand for meat.

That may come as a surprise to Chinese electronic factory employees working 12 hours a day and living 12 to a room in a dormitory. And China’s per capita calorie requirements have decreased because so many former farm workers doing hard physical labour have migrated to more sedentary factory jobs. Obesity rates of 20 per cent are being reported in some Chinese cities, partly because consumption of meat, especially pork, has already increased to a relatively high level.

That has indeed meant more feed grain demand, but China seems able to grow much of its own corn and South America is quite happy to supply the soybeans. As for wheat, Chinese imports are quite low, and much lower than they were in the ’80s.

As for “supply-side reform,” the Chinese government reportedly plans to do that by lowering the corn price by 22 per cent — to US$6.25 per bushel — that’s C$8.36. Keep that in mind next time you’re asked to increase production to feed a growing world population.

So who will feed China?

China.

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