China’s food crisis will exacerbate global shortage

June 9th, 2008 - 10:22 am ICT by IANS  

Beijing, June 9 (DPA) China’s rising grain demand is poised to exacerbate the global food crisis over the next few years. Having only seven percent of the world’s total farmable land at its disposal, the country nevertheless has to feed about one-fifth of the earth’s population.

But the country still contributes only to a small part to the current worldwide food crisis.

Despite the government’s one-child policy, China’s population of 1.3 billion not only steadily increases, but with rising living standards they also consume more meat, and thus ever more grain is needed as livestock feed.

The country’s self-sufficiency policy had already reached its limitations long ago. Grain stocks that would previously last a whole year have now been reduced to hold only 30 to 40 per cent of annual production, and the prognosis for the future is dire.

Harvests are decreasing sharply in some parts of the country due to chronic lack of water for farmland irrigation. Global warming will have an additional effect and further diminish grain yields drastically.

“China may well move into the world market for large quantities of grain in the near future, just like it has done with soybeans,” said Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC.

In the 1990s, Brown had triggered upset reactions from China over his book, “Who will feed China?”, but today even Chinese scientists consult him for advice on the country’s food crisis.

China’s Academy of Social Sciences even named him an honorary member.

The expert warned that Chinese grain stocks are now down to a level where they probably should not drop further without the risk of shortages.

It would be “only a matter of years” before the country had to buy grain in the world market.

“If China imports only 10 percent of its grain it has an enormous impact on the world market,” Brown said.

“China is contributing, but its contribution at least in the last years is relatively small compared with the ethanol production in the US,” explained Brown, citing the expansion of bio fuel production as the main reason for the crisis.

While China uses just under 2 million tons of grain as cattle feed each year, the United States have in the last two years allocated more than 20 million tons to ethanol production, about half of the additional grain supply needed worldwide to have averted the current food crisis.

To solve the situation in the short term, Brown suggested to drop ethanol production altogether.

“That would make a huge difference, and we can do it quickly.,” he said. But in the long term, new think models and strict measures for climate protection would be imperative.

The current food crisis was no temporary phenomenon as in earlier decades. “What we experience now is something very different,” he said.

The world has consumed for the past seven to eight years more grain it produced and global stocks were dwindling fast.

“We are in a chronically tight food situation,” cautioned Brown.

The gap between supply and demand would make food prices increase further in the long run.

According to the United Nations, food prices had risen an average of 83 percent in the past three years, while wheat alone skyrocketed by 181 percent.

“It becomes more difficult to rapidly expand production. the days of doubling or tripling yields are over,” said Brown.

Groundwater tables in China, the world’s largest rice producer, subside steadily and wells are drying up.

Global warming causes glaciers in the Himalayas to thaw and eventually disappear faster than anticipated.

These glaciers are the main water sources feeding China’s Yellow and Yangtze rivers during the dry season.

“What happens in the flow of these rivers affects the grain harvests,” explained Brown, adding that some 80 per cent of China’s agricultural land depended on irrigation.

The world still grossly underpriced water as if it were abundant, and the only option would be to make it more expensive.

“If we raise the price of water we will raise the efficiency of the use of water.” he said.

Even the implementation of new farming technologies hardly increased harvest yields in China.

Chinese rice farmers had already reached the productivity of their Japanese counterparts, which they originally emulated.

But that is not the only bad news: with every 1-degree increase in global temperature yields of wheat, rice and corn decrease by 10 percent, according to climate experts.

A recent climate study by China’s government predicted droughts in the north and floods in the south.

Grain harvests would plummet between 2030 and 2050 by up to 10 percent, the study said.

Environmentalists argue that greenhouse gas emissions would have to be decreased by 80 percent until 2020 if global warming is to be brought to a stop.

But politicians already have trouble to agree to a 50-percent reduction by 2050.

“The challenge for us today is to build a new energy economy and do it quickly,” said Brown.

But at a time when global cooperation would be needed most, food scarcity weakens the political system.

Large grain exporters like Russia and Argentina have already limited their exports to stabilize prices domestically.

China, meanwhile, is looking to purchase or lease farmland in Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Russia and Brazil to shore up its own grain production.

India, South Korea, Egypt and Libya follow a similar course and want to secure their own food situation through bilateral contracts or supply agreements.

“I begin to wonder if we are capable of dealing with the basic causes of the problems like climate change and mobilize for that,” said Brown.

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