Ag economist discusses role of U.S. in feeding world’s most populous country
April 6, 2011
Lester Brown has got the attention of a lot of folks, worldwide.
Brown is an agricultural economist, writer and president of the Earth Policy Institute. His most recent book is titled “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.”
That’s enough to get one’s attention, but then he issued a news release late last month with the headline: Can the United States feed China?
That’s the one that really got attention.
Many agricultural officials look at China as a booming new market for U.S. ag products. Just last week, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar, in Greeley for a meeting on a new program for storage of oil products on farms, talked about the increase in exports of U.S. and Colorado agricultural products. In the last two years, he said, U.S. ag exports have increased by 76 percent, while those from Colorado for the same period went up by 14 percent. One of the directives he has from Gov. John Hickenlooper is to increase the export of Colorado agricultural products by 10 percent per year for the next four years.
One of those markets is China, which Salazar said is moving 1 million people per year into the middle class.
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“That means they have more money and can buy more from the U.S.,” he said, noting that Americans spend only 6.9 percent of their disposable income for food.
Brown isn’t sure the U.S. can meet future demands China may present.
His concerns date back to 1994, when he wrote an article in World Watch magazine and posted the “Who Will Feed China?” question, which was later expanded into a book. While that got little or no attention domestically, Brown said his article, reprinted later in the year on the front of the Washington Post’s Outlook section, got China’s attention. The headline on the reprint was “How China Could Starve the World.”
The Chinese government at the time responded, in no uncertain terms, that it could feed themselves, then followed that with a series of articles disclaiming Brown’s research.
In short, it turns out that Brown may be right. Despite the best efforts of the Chinese government, it appears that country may not be able to feed itself.
Since 1994, Brown said, the Chinese made an all-out effort to maintain a sufficient amount of grain production, including increasing the grain support price it paid to farmers by 40 percent. It invested in developing higher yielding varieties of wheat, rice and corn, the country’s leading crops. At the same time, he said, China abandoned its self-sufficiency of soybeans.
Basically, all that failed. Using U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, Brown said the U.S., Brazil and Argentina now grow 80 percent of the world’s harvest of soybeans and nearly 90 percent of soybean exports. Nearly
60 percent of the world soybean exports go to China.
In 1995, he said, China produced and consumed 14 million pounds of soybeans. By 2010 it was still producing 14 million pounds but consumed almost 70 million pounds.
Brown said it’s not known how much grain China may need to import, but if it only needs 20 percent of what it consumes, that would be about 80 million tons. The U.S. exports about 90 million tons annually worldwide.
“To be dependent on imported grain, much of it from the United States, will be China’s worst nightmare come true,” Brown said in his news release.
That nightmare, he said, could also be true at home.
China’s requirements could easily result in domestic increases in food products made from grain, as well as for meat, milk and eggs, which require grain to produce. Adding to the problem, Brown points out, is that China has in excess of $900 million in U.S. Treasury securities, which in essence, makes China the banker for the U.S.
Not particularly a pretty picture if all comes true.
Bill Jackson has covered agriculture in northern Colorado for more than 30 years. If you have ideas for this column, call him at (970) 392-4442.