Self sufficiency debate continues

Food cost | Growing exports to China may jeopardize security for some, says Lester Brown

Lester Brown is once again provoking the Chinese government by questioning the country’s ability to feed itself.

However, this time the response is far more muted.

The president of the Earth Policy Institute said in a news release this winter that China’s grain self-sufficiency initiative was faltering.

Brown wrote that China was set to import 22 million tonnes of grain in 2013-14 compared to eight years ago when the country was exporting 10 million tonnes.

He said China’s growing reliance on imported grain — wheat, rice and corn — will lead to global food price inflation, making it difficult for poor people to afford to feed themselves.

The news release was written in February, before it was known that China had produced a big crop and didn’t require anywhere near that amount of imported grain.

The Chinese government responded to Brown’s comments in May, saying China was 97 percent self-sufficient in grain last year. It imported 14 million tonnes of cereal crops, accounting for 2.6 percent of the country’s cereal production. The self-sufficiency policy does not extend to oilseeds.

“China poses no threat to world food security but will contribute quite a lot instead,” Bi Meijia, chief economist for China’s agriculture department, said in a Bloomberg article.

“We can carry our rice bowls quite safely.”

For years, western analysts have thought big Chinese imports of corn were simply a matter of time, but they are still modest at 4.5 million this year and three million expected in 2014-15.

This isn’t the first time Brown has stirred the pot in China. In 1994, he wrote an article in World Watch magazine entitled “Who Will Feed China?” that was later expanded into a book of the same title.

The article was reprinted in the Sunday edition of the Washington Post under the title, “How China Could Starve the World.”

“On Monday morning in Beijing, the ministry of agriculture held a press conference responding to that and saying Mr. Brown is all wrong, we have always fed ourselves and we always will,” recalled Brown.

“That became their sort of mantra.”

The U.S. Grains Council said Brown’s article triggered China’s grain self-sufficiency policy, which has been impeding U.S. corn exports to the country for decades.

Brown was stunned by the fierce backlash from the Chinese government. For years he couldn’t give a lecture on food security without a Chinese government official jumping up in the audience to challenge him.

“It was interesting because I had never been exposed to a global full court press by a national government,” he said.

“I was sort of flattered that a major government was paying that much attention to what I was doing.”

Brown came to understand that the political sensitivity on the food issue stemmed from the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-61, which by some estimates killed 36 million people. Many of the Chinese leaders were old enough to remember the famine.

“There is this political sensitivity on food security and food self-sufficiency that remains very strong in China,” he said.

“The idea of being dependent on the outside world is kind of a scary prospect to them.”

Brown’s public persona in China has “changed unbelievably” in the decades following the publication of his article and book. Many years later he met Wen Jiaboa, the former premier of China.

“The first thing he said to me was, our book was very helpful to us,’ ” said Brown.

Many Chinese now credit him with helping the government realize that agriculture couldn’t be ignored on its path to industrialization.

The book was a wake-up call to invest in agriculture and establish the goal to be 95 percent self sufficient in wheat, rice and corn.

Soybeans are a different story. China imported 87 percent of the 80 million tonnes of soybeans it used in 2013-14.

“They sacrificed the soybean in order to remain self-sufficient in food,” he said.

Brown still firmly believes that China won’t be able to maintain its self-sufficiency and will become more reliant on imported grain.

He believes that mainly because the country is depleting the deep aquifers underneath the North China Plain through excessive irrigation. The region produces half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn.

The deep aquifers were once filled with water from eons ago that doesn’t recharge. In some places the water table is falling by over three metres per year.

Brown also worries that Chinese rice yields are starting to plateau like they have in Japan.

China’s growing appetite for meat will inevitably lead to more corn imports. Per capita consumption of meat is still about half of what it is in the U.S.

Brown believes the Chinese will eventually consume as much meat as Americans, doubling the country’s annual meat production to 160 million tonnes.

It would require an additional 240 million tonnes of feed grain, or twice China’s current coarse grain production.

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