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Is There Enough Chinese Food?

1.

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.

Brown predicts that China’s purchases will lead to such a tight market for grain that major exporters in North America, Australia, and Europe could be forced to put limits on foreign sales in order to prevent domestic prices from skyrocketing. On the other hand, if China is not able to rely on the global market during the coming generation, where will it get its grain once it loses half its farmland and at least a fifth of its harvests?

2.

How valid is the reasoning behind these apocalyptic predictions? Lester Brown is, of course, a professional catastrophist, a persistent doomsayer who has been turning out forecasts of dire food shortages, crippling energy crises, and planetary environmental collapse since the early 1970s. Only Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich can rival him in his long record of prophesying doom. Brown notes with satisfaction in the foreword to Who Will Feed China? that his latest doomsday scenario has brought him more attention than anything he has published. No small achievement.

To Lester Brown, problems, setbacks, and complications are not merely normal facts of managing—or often just muddling through—an unruly and ever-changing reality. Rather, they tend to be harbingers of an immense global trauma. In the short run this gets him attention—but in the long run he has, much like his confrere Paul Ehrlich, repeatedly been shown to be wrong.

A single example will illustrate this point. In 1974, when OPEC’s oil price increases were for a while dramatically misinterpreted by energy “experts” as unmistakable signs of the world’s running out of fossil fuels, The Futurist magazine noted that Brown “refuses to own an automobile and uses public transportation, so that more energy can go into food production.” Brown’s fear of oil “running out” was so great that he urged us to conserve precious energy for only the most essential of all uses, growing food.

Even readers completely uninterested in energy matters know what in fact happened. A generation after Brown’s sacrifice, the world’s crude oil ratio of reserves to production is at a record high level of nearly fifty years (i.e., even if we didn’t drill a single new exploratory well and invested in no new oil-field development, there is enough crude oil to last us nearly half a century at the 1995 rate of consumption). Adjusted for inflation, oil prices are barely higher than they were before OPEC’s first extortionary hike.

* * *

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Brown’s China predictions as just another scare. Concerns about China’s long-term food production capacity are valid, and many knowledgeable people, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, are far from optimistic in their long-term assessment of it. What is so exasperating about Brown’s treatment of this topic is his masterful use of highly selective evidence. Who Will Feed China? displays a skill he has been perfecting for more than two decades.

For example, he effusively acknowledges the help provided him by China experts at the US Department of Agriculture, and he cites their surveys of China’s agricultural progress; but he cannot spare a single short paragraph simply to summarize the careful reply to his dark predictions by Frederick Crook, a leading Department of Agriculture analyst. Brown approvingly quotes my analysis of China’s water shortages; but he fails to mention that I demonstrate at some length that China has much more farmland than the government officially acknowledges, a vital point that is also made very clearly in recent USDA publications.

Brown concludes that China’s large and still growing trade surpluses with the US will allow the country, if its leadership so decides, to buy up all of America’s future food exports. What he does not tell his readers is that China’s overall foreign trade has been mostly in the red during the past fifteen years of economic reforms. The country has already accumulated sizable deficits in both its trade and budget balances, and it can continue to modernize only if it constantly increases its growing imports of costly high-tech products. This is hardly a basis for the unlimited purchase of foreign grains whose prices, according to Brown, are to rise steeply in the tightening global food and feed market.

* * *

Brown’s book, to use Chinese imagery, badly needs an infusion of yang, light and possibility, to contrast with his unmitigated yin of darkness and decline, especially since he ignores or hardly mentions factors that undermine his views. Most important, there are no fundamental biophysical reasons why China’s crop yields should not be rising much faster than at Brown’s “scarcely perceptible” rate. To begin with, virtually all China’s official statistics on crop yields seriously underestimate the total amount of land under cultivation. This is partly because the government relies on reports from peasants who underestimate the size of their property in order to pay lower taxes. And, in addition, the government likes to keep its estimates of arable land low so that food production per acre will seem high. It claims only about 95 million hectares are being farmed, or a mere 0.08 hectare per capita. Among poor and populous countries (those with more than 100 million people), only Bangladesh’s mean is as low; the official Indian average is about 0.2 hectares. But in reality, as revealed by satellite monitoring carried out by the Chinese Academy of Sciences as well as by detailed sample surveys throughout the country, China’s cropland amounts to at least 120 million hectares, and most likely 130—140 million hectares, or 25 to 45 percent more than the officially admitted total.

This does not mean that all official crop reports are underestimated by about one third. The government’s estimates are in fact fairly reliable for rice from the central and eastern provinces; but they may be up to 50 percent too low for crops in hilly interior regions, where the reports of the amount of land being cultivated have been notoriously unreliable. China’s current average staple grain yields are still below the average for Korea or Japan; the country’s potential to raise its crop productivity is therefore higher than the official figures would lead one to believe.

* * *

This conclusion is underscored when we see that many of China’s inefficient agricultural practices could be improved by a more realistic pricing system that would favor better management and would reward technical innovations. Agricultural efficiency in China (and not only there) can usefully be compared to the efficiency with which energy was being used throughout the world during the early 1970s. Fuel and electricity prices were so low that they discouraged any serious steps to make energy consumption less wasteful.

Gradually, China should realize enormous benefits from the use of irrigation and nitrogen-based fertilizers, the two most expensive tools in modern farming. About two thirds of China’s irrigation water is wasted, mostly because it is not realistically priced: peasants get it as cheaply (often at less than a tenth of the real cost) as do the heavily subsidized farmers of California, who are also notorious wasters of water.

Much water could also be saved without high capital investment if crops were more appropriately matched to terrain and climate and if the amount of the water used for irrigation were diminished by using low-cost sensors to limit excessive flows. (Inexpensive electrical resistance meters can do the trick.) Better-lined canals could prevent seepage. Raising the average irrigation efficiency from today’s 35 percent to about 50 percent a generation from now (a level still far below the rates achievable through today’s best irrigation techniques) would expand China’s agricultural water supply by 40 percent without tapping any new sources.

Improvements in the efficiency of fertilizers should come first of all by gradually shutting down the thousands of small fertilizer factories making ammonium bicarbonate. This compound—still about a third of China’s total output of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers—is highly volatile; even before it is applied to fields, a large fraction of it is lost because of shoddy packaging and careless distribution and storage. As a result the actual use of nitrogen is substantially lower than official statistics imply—and so the potential to raise yields by using more fertilizer is consequently higher.

* * *

Many other measures could be taken. Much attention is paid to increasing food supply, but too little is said about opportunities for reducing waste once the crops are grown. China’s performance has been particularly poor in this respect. A recent five-year survey by Chinese agricultural economists of grain losses in the leading cereal-producing provinces found that about 15 percent of the crop is lost annually during harvesting, threshing, drying, storage, transport, and processing.

Moreover, if we take account of the waste in hundreds of thousands of labor-unit mess halls, and the losses from inefficient animal feeding and from wasteful fermenting of alcohol, we can almost double the figure for crop loss; we can therefore estimate that the equivalent of fifty million tons of staple grain is being wasted. Reducing this waste by just one third would boost annual grain availability by almost twenty million tons, more than the annual total of recent grain imports.

Producing pork more efficiently would have to be central to any such effort. Most of China’s pigs are still not fed a well-balanced diet but live on various kinds of locally available plants, which are usually deficient in protein. Not surprisingly, Chinese pigs take at least twice as long to reach slaughter weight as American pigs (twelve versus six months) and even then their carcasses are, on the average, 40 percent lighter. And the hundreds of millions of chickens roaming China’s farmyards take three times as long to reach a slaughter weight lower than that of American broilers. The use of mixed feeds and better breeding would lower China’s current ratio of feed to meat from more than four to just over three for pigs, and from much above three to just over two for chickens.

Finally, there is the possibility of more intelligent nutritional choices. Per capita meat consumption in Taiwan, a country whose average purchasing power is at least five times China’s mean, has leveled off at about sixty kilograms a year, with pork accounting for about half of the total. At more than twenty kilograms a year per capita, China’s recent pork consumption has been almost as high as Taiwan’s. A great deal of feed could be saved if most of the additional demand for meat were to be met, as in Taiwan, by broilers rather than by pork. More high-quality animal protein could come from fish, whose intensive farming will also require good mixed feeds. Cold-blooded carp are much better at converting feed to meat than warm-blooded domestic animals.

Milk is, of course, the best animal source of high-quality protein. Each kilogram of concentrated feed can produce one kilogram of milk—twice as much food energy as if the same food were given to the most efficiently grown broilers. It is true that the Chinese, like most other East Asians, have a very high incidence of lactose intolerance, so that they have difficulty digesting large quantities of fresh milk. But this should not be a barrier to a shift in diet. People can still beneficially drink significant amounts of whole milk, and, in any case, fermented dairy products are not difficult to digest. (Yogurt has less lactose than raw milk, and ripe, hard cheeses contain only traces of it.) Japan’s experience shows that neither widespread intolerance of lactose nor the traditional absence of milk from a nation’s food culture are obstacles to healthy consumption of dairy foods. Japan’s per capita consumption of dairy foods rose from none at all in 1945 to well over fifty kilograms a year now. (China’s mean is two kilograms.)

* * *

What should be clear is that, contrary to Lester Brown’s alarming analysis, a number of gradual improvements could potentially result in impressive gains. The most important are more efficient use of water and fertilizers; reduction of the vast amount of post-harvest waste; improved production of pork; reliance on broilers to supply most of the additional demand for meat; expanded output of farmed fish; and increased consumption of dairy products. This combination can go far to meet the country’s future nutrition needs without requiring enormous imports of foreign grain, as Brown predicts. All these improvements will require extensive reforms, but none seems beyond the capacities of the Chinese.

Though the facts Brown presents are largely correct, he dwells almost exclusively on only half of the central issue, China’s weakening capacity to feed itself. By largely neglecting the other half—the steps China can take to resolve its problems—he distorts a very complex reality. The facts he leaves out suggest that China—and the rest of the world—has at least a plausible hope for a well-fed future.


  1. J.L. Brown, “Hunger in the US,” Scientific American (February 1987), pp. 37-41.
  2. Lester R. Brown, “Feeding China,” World Watch (September-October 1994), p. 10.
Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. He...
Reviewed in This Article

Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet
by Lester R. Brown
Norton, 163 pp.

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This article was first published in the February 1, 1996 issue of the New York Review of Books.