Lester R. Brown on why the US might have to feed China

April 26, 2011

In an article in the Washington Post, published in March, the eminent environmentalist and food policy expert Lester Brown explains the looming food crisis in China and what the global political-economic implications of this are.

China is at war. It is not invading armies but expanding deserts that threaten its territory. As old deserts grow, as new ones form and as more and more irrigation wells go dry, Beijing is losing a long battle to feed its growing population on its own. Chinese agriculture is also losing irrigation water to cities and factories. Cropland is being sacrificed for residential and industrial construction, including highways and parking lots that accommodate China’s voracious demand for automobiles. And China’s food supply is already dwindling. In November, its food price index was up 12 percent from 2009. In these conditions, how do you feed more than 1 billion people? This question vexes China’s leaders, many of whom are survivors of the Great Famine, in which 30 million people starved to death between 1959 and 1961.

Enter the United States – by far the world’s largest grain exporter. The United States exports about 90 million tons of grain annually, though China requires 80 million tons of grain each year to meet just one-fifth of its needs. Just as China is America’s banker, America could become China’s farmer. Such a scenario – to be dependent on imported grain, much of it from the United States – is China’s worst nightmare and one that could create nightmares for U.S. consumers, as well. If China, which imported about 2 million tons of U.S. corn and wheat combined in 2010, charges into the U.S. grain market, American consumers will find themselves competing with nearly 1.4 billion foreign consumers for the U.S. grain harvest.

Of course, when selling food to China, the United States is dealing with both an economic competitor and a creditor holding $900 billion worth of U.S. Treasury securities. If China pushes U.S. food prices higher, tensions between the two countries may escalate. An even greater stress may develop between Washington and U.S. consumers, as Americans – who think cheap food is a birthright – are likely to press for restrictions on exports to China. Would this work today? The Obama administration – or any future administration – faces a choice. If we limit grain sales to China, might the Chinese limit their monthly purchases at Treasury securities auctions? What would happen to farmers who can’t sell to the world’s largest food market? Our huge deficits of the past 30 years restrict our bargaining power.

The United States has been the world’s breadbasket for more than half a century. Our country has never known food shortages or spiraling food prices. But, like it or not, we will probably have to share our harvest with the Chinese, no matter how much that raises our prices. Our world is about to change.

For the whole article see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/11/AR2011031106993.html

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