Essay on Global Food Supply

Submitted By angelo256
Words: 4792
Pages: 20

(1)This past February, while giving a speech in Oslo, Norway, at a conference on sustainable development, I illustrated some of the global dilemmas that lay ahead as a result of China's headlong dash toward industrialization. I suggested that when countries become densely populated before they begin to industrialize, as is the case with China, they inevitably suffer a heavy loss in grain land as farms are devoured by factories, roads, and parking lots. If industrialization is rapid, land losses quickly outstrip rises in agricultural productivity, which leads to a decline in grain production.

(2)Ironically, the same industrialization that shrinks grain harvests also raises income and with it the demand for grain. Indeed, given the opportunity, people will quickly shift from a monotonous fare--in which a staple such as rice supplies the bulk of calories--to one that includes a substantial portion of pork, beef, poultry, milk, eggs, and other livestock products. Unfortunately, these items require more grain than would otherwise be consumed in a starchy diet. For example, 4 kilograms of grain are needed to produce 1 kilogram of pork, and 7 kilograms of grain are needed for 1 kilogram of beef.

(3)I pointed out that before China; only three countries--Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan--were densely populated before they industrialized. Within 30 years, each had lost more than 40 percent of its grain land. And since the huge losses could not be offset by productivity gains, grain output fell in Japan by 32 percent and in both South Korea and Taiwan by 24 percent. Add to this equation the widespread demand by the suddenly affluent populations for greater diversity in their diets, and the three countries went from being largely self-sufficient to collectively importing 71 percent of their grain needs. In no case was the heavy dependence on imports a conscious policy goal, but rather it was the result of industrialization in a region of land scarcity.

(4)While the problem was severe for these three smaller countries, I showed that it will be overwhelming in China, with its immense and rapidly growing population--which at nearly 1.2 billion is 10 times larger than that of Japan and amounts to more than one-fifth of the world's population. Meanwhile, the country is on track for adding some 490 million people between 1990 and 2030--the equivalent of four Japans--swelling its population to more than 1.6 billion. Moreover, in China's increasingly industrial society, incomes are rising faster for more people than ever before in history. If the country's economy continues growing at its breakneck pace--it has expanded by a phenomenal 56 percent in just four years--China could overtake the United States as the world's largest economy by 2010 and will accelerate its demand for more food at a record rate.

(5)China could thus become such a massive importer of grain that the United States and all the rest of the exporting countries combined will not be able to meet the need. For the first time in history, the collision between expanding human demand for food and the earth's natural limits will produce devastating effects worldwide. Because of China's effect on our global economy, its land scarcity will become everyone's land scarcity, its grain shortages will become everyone's grain shortages, and its rising food prices will spread throughout the world.

(6)In short, I proposed that China's emergence as a massive grain importer will serve as the "wake-up call" signaling trouble in the relationship between ourselves and the natural systems and resources on which we depend. It will force governments everywhere to address long-neglected issues such as the need to stabilize population, to rethink agricultural priorities, and to redefine security in terms of food scarcity rather than military aggression.

(7)Following the presentation, which was well received, I had to leave after the coffee break for the