Outgrowing the Earth Part 10




EARTHSCAN          2005



Chapter 8: Reversing China’s Harvest Decline

The phenomenal rise in China’s grain production from 90 million tons in 1950 to 392 million tons in 1998 was one of the great economic success stories of the late 20th century. But in 1998 production peaked and turned downward, falling to 322 million tons in 2003. As noted in Chapter 1, this drop of 70 million tons exceeds the entire grain harvest of Canada. Thus any attempt to expand the world grain harvest enough to rebuild depleted world grain stocks starts with reversing the decline in China.

Virtually all of China’s production decline of nearly 18% from 1998 to 2003 is the result of a 16% shrinkage in grain area. Several forces are at work here, as described in Chapter 5. Cropland is being converted to nonfarm uses at a record rate, including industrial and residential construction and the paving of land for roads, highways and parking lots. With deserts expanding by 360,000 hectares (1,400 square miles) a year, drifting sands are covering cropland in the north and west, making agriculture impossible. The loss of irrigation water is also reducing the harvested area, particularly of wheat, which is grown in the northern, drier regions of the country.

Grainland shrinking

Chapter 1 described “the Japan syndrome”, a set of interacting trends that explain why grain production declines in countries that are already densely populated before they industrialize. Each of the three countries discussed – Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – had virtually identical experiences. In short, as industrialization gains momentum, grain consumption and grain production both rise, more or less together. In a relatively short time, however, grain planted area begins to shrink as farmland is converted to nonfarm uses, as grain is replaced by higher-value fruit and vegetables, and as migration of farm labor to the cities leads to double cropping. This shrinkage in grain area then leads to declining grain production.

China is facing precisely the same forces that within three decades cut grain harvests by one third to one half in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But China’s challenge is even greater because it is also losing grainland to expanding deserts and it is faced with spreading water shortages that are shrinking the grain harvest – problems the other three countries did not have.

China’s deserts are advancing as its 1.3 billion people and 404 million cattle, sheep, and goats put unsustainable pressure on the land. Indeed, desert expansion has accelerated with each successive decade since 1950. The Gobi is marching eastward and is now within 150 miles of Beijing. Some deserts have expanded to the point where they are starting to merge. Satellite images show the Bardanjiln in north-central China pushing southward toward the Tengry desert to form a single, larger desert, overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces. To the west in Xinjiang province, two much larger deserts – the Tallamakan and the Kumtag – are also heading for a merger.

  • On average 156,000 hectares were converted to desert each year from 1950 until 1975. From 1975 to 1987, this increased to 210,000 hectares a year. But in the 1990s, it jumped to 360,000 hectares annually, more than doubling in one generation.

The human toll is heavy, but rarely is it carefully measured. Wang Tao estimates that 24,000 villages “have been buried (by drifting sand), abandoned or endangered seriously by sandy desertification” affecting some 35 million people. In effect, Chinese civilization is retreating before the drifting sand that covers the land, forcing farmers and herders to leave. Most of this abandonment has come over the last two decades.

Overplowing and overgrazing are converging to create a dust bowl of historic proportions. With little vegetation remaining in parts of northern and western China, the strong winds of late winter and early spring can remove literally millions of tons of topsoil in a single day – soil that can take centuries to replace. For the outside world, it is dust storms like the ones described in the beginning of Chapter 5 that are drawing attention to the deserts forming in China.

  • The growing number of dust storms indicates how rapidly this is happening. After increasing from 5 in the 1950s to 14 in the 1980s, the number leapt to 23 in the 1990s.
  • The current decade began with more than 20 major dust storms in 2000 and 2001 alone.
  • While overplowing is now being partly remedied by paying farmers to plant trees, overgrazing continues largely unabated.

The US Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced some 2.5 million “Okies” and other refugees to leave the land, many of them heading to Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas to California. But the dust bowl forming in China is much larger, and during the 1930s the US population was only 150 million – compared with the 1.3 billion in China today. Whereas the US flow of Dust Bowl refugees was measured in the millions, China’s will be measured in the tens of millions.

While the deserts are expanding, so too are the cities. With the fastest growing economy of any country since 1980, the voracious land hunger in the residential, industrial, and transportation sectors is consuming vast areas of land – much of it cropland. The sheer size of China’s population is impressive, but even more impressive is the fact that 1,193 million of them live in 46% of the country. The five sprawling provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia, which account for 54% of the country’s area, have only 81 million people – just 6% of the national total. (See Figure 8-1.) Thus industrial and residential construction and the land paved for roads, highways, and parking lots will be concentrated in less than half of the country, where 94% of the people live. People are crowded into this region simply because this is where the arable land and water are.

  • The 2 million new cars sold in 2003 meant paving over 40,000 hectares of land – the equivalent of 100,000 football fields. If this was cropland, and most of it probably was, it could have produced 160,000 tons of grain – enough to feed half a million Chinese.

If China had Japan’s automobile ownership rate of one car for every two people, it would have a fleet of 640 million, a fortyfold increase from the 16 million cars of today. Such a fleet would require paving over almost 13 million hectares of land – again, most of it likely cropland. This figure is equal to nearly two thirds of China’s 21 million hectares of riceland – land that produces 120 million tons of rice, the country’s principal food staple. When farmers in southern China lose a hectare of double-cropped riceland to the automobile, rice production takes a double hit.

  • Farmers throughout China are also converting grainland to higher-value harvests. In a country where farms average 0.6 hectares (1.6 acres), the only readily available option for boosting income for many is to shift to higher-value crops.
  • In the more prosperous coastal provinces, the migration of farm workers to cities has made it more difficult to double crop land.

Reversing the fall in grain production will not be easy simply because growth in the activities that are claiming cropland is so relentless. Reversing any one of these trends – conversion to nonfarm uses, desert expansion, the decline in multiple cropping – will take an enormous effort. While higher grain prices may temporarily increase multiple cropping and boost production, China faces an uphill battle in sustaining growth in its grain harvest for the same reasons that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan did.

An aquacultural initiative

  • One of China’s responses to land and water shortages has been to vigorously expand aquacultural output, taking advantage of this grain-efficient form of animal protein.
  • China’s fast-growing aquacultural sector totally dominates world aquaculture. As of 2002, China produced 28 million tons out of the world aquacultural output of 40 million tons, accounting for more than two thirds of the global total.
  • As China’s aquacultural output has grown, it has spawned a huge aquafeed industry, totaling 16 million tons in 2003 – 11 million tons of grain and 5 million tons of soybean meal.


Water shortages spreading

Throughout the northern half of China water tables are falling, wells are going dry, and rivers are being drained dry before they reach the sea. The irrigation water prospect in the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn, is one of the keys to China’s long-term food security.

  • Farmers in this region rely on three rivers (the Hai, Huang (Yellow), and Huai) and two aquifers – one shallow and one deep – for irrigation water.

The Hai river basin, the northernmost of the three, includes two of China’s largest cities – Beijing and Tianjin – with 14 million and 11 million people, respectively. The whole basin, which contains 100 million people, is now in chronic deficit.

  • Water withdrawals of 55 billion tons in 2000 exceeded the sustainable supply of 34 billion tons by 21 billion tons. This deficit was made up by groundwater mining.
  • When the aquifer is depleted, the water supply in the basin will drop sharply.
  • When villagers migrate to cities, where they have indoor plumbing, water consumption typically multiplies fourfold.
  • With competition for water between farmers, cities, and industry intensifying, irrigated agriculture in the Hai River basin may largely disappear by 2010.
  • The North China Plain depends heavily on two aquifers – a shallow aquifer that is replenishable and a deep fossil aquifer, which is not replenishable.
  • With depletion of the deep aquifer, the region is losing its last water reserve – its only safety cushion.


Turning abroad for grain

  • Each of the grains that together account for 96% of China’s production – wheat, rice, and corn – is suffering a decline. When the country’s wheat stocks are depleted within the next year or so, the entire shortfall will have to be covered from imports.

China has been covering its grain shortfall in recent years by drawing down its stocks. After peaking at 326 million tons in 1999, China’s carryover stocks of grain plummeted to 102 million tons in 2004. (See Figure 8-4.) At this level, stocks amount to little more than pipeline supplies and cannot be drawn down much further. This means that within another year or two shortfalls will have to be covered entirely by importing grain.

  • The year-to-year rise of nearly 30% in grain prices between 2003 and 2004 forced the government to draw down its shrinking stocks of grain even faster in an effort to stabilize food prices.
  • Unless Beijing can quickly adopt policies to protect its cropland, continued shrinkage of the grain harvest and mounting dependence on imported grain may be inevitable.
  • A sense of how quickly China can turn to the world market can be seen with soybeans. As recently as 1997, the nation was essentially self-sufficient in soybeans (See Figure 8-5.) In 2004, it imported 22 million tons – dwarfing the 5 million tons imported by Japan, formerly the world’s leading soybean importer.
  • The Chinese economy is so large and so dynamic that its import needs can shake the entire world.
  • Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan today each import roughly 70% of their total grain supply. If China were to do the same, it would be importing 280 million tons a year.
  • This exceeds current world grain imports by all countries of just over 200 million tons.
  • What sort of economic stresses will develop in the world as China willingly or unwillingly is pushed in the same direction as the earlier Japan syndrome countries?
  • What sort of stresses will develop within China if the world cannot supply the vast imports it needs?


A new food strategy

  • If China is to avoid a long-term decline in its grain harvest, it will need radical new policies and a basic reordering of priorities in the national budget.
  • Future food security depends on policy shifts in land ownership, water pricing, desert reclamation, and transportation.

China is faced with an extraordinary challenge. Adopting the needed policies in agriculture, water, land ownership, desert reclamation, and transportation to ensure food security will be far more demanding than for countries that developed earlier, when land and water were more plentiful. Stated otherwise, if China is to restore and sustain a rise in grain production, it will have to adopt measures in land use planning, transportation, and water use that are responsive to its unique circumstances – measures that no government has ever adopted. The entire world has a stake in China’s success.

Data for figures and additional information can be found at www.earth-policy.org/Books/Out/index.htm

Chapter 9: The Brazilian Dilemma

Leave a Comment