March 14,2011

Can the United States Feed China?

By Lu Ting,Hong Kong

Mr. Lester Brown has been famous for warning that a growing China could add risks and pressures to global food supply. His recent piece on Washington Post says that Beijing is losing a long battle to feed its growing population on its own, as old deserts grow, as new ones form and as more and more irrigation wells go dry. In the years to come, China will almost certainly have to turn to the outside world for grain. Such a scenario - to be dependent on imported grain, much of it from the US- is China's worst nightmare and one that could create nightmares for US consumers, as well.

In 1995 he wrote "To feed its 1.2 billion people, China may soon have to import so much grain that this action could trigger unprecedented rises in world food prices." Actually after 15 years food imports only made up 5% (almost all of them are soybeans) of China's total consumption, only a couple of percentage points up from 1995 despite the 270% real GDP growth during 1996-2010. Global grain prices had been quite stable between 1996 and 2007. And, China's grain prices remain stable amid the surge of global grain prices in 2008, suggesting China was not the root cause of surging grain prices at that time. It's true that China's food prices, especially vegetable prices, are rising fast, but vegetables are almost non-tradable, and the rise of vegetable prices in China is more about changes in China's relative prices due to labor shortage. Finally, there is nothing wrong to import food. US consumers might consume many made-in-China products without considering pollution in making those products, so why not Chinese consumers buying more food from the US to conserve China's nature?

 

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