China's spreading deserts may force up food prices

Posted: 24 March 2011

Sixteen years ago Lester Brown wrote an influential article asking "Who will feed China?" In the years that followed the Chinese Government made strenuous efforts to boost grain production, while importing the bulk of its soybean needs. But now says Brown, in a new report, China will increasingly be forced to import grains - with massive impact on global food prices.

Despite China’s herculean efforts to expand grain output, several trends are now converging that make it harder to do so. Some, like soil erosion, are longstanding. The pumping capacity to deplete aquifers has emerged only in recent decades. The extraordinary growth in China’s automobile fleet and the associated paving of land have come only in the last several years.

Encroaching desert on family home, China © CCICCD
Desert encroaching on family home, West China
© CCICCD

Overploughing and overgrazing are creating a huge dust bowl in northern and western China. The numerous dust storms originating in the region each year in late winter and early spring are now regularly recorded on satellite images. For instance, on March 20, 2010, a suffocating dust storm enveloped Beijing, prompting the city’s weather bureau to warn that air quality was hazardous, urging people to stay inside or to cover their faces when outdoors. Visibility was low, forcing motorists to drive with lights on in daytime.

Beijing was not the only area affected. This particular dust storm engulfed scores of cities in five provinces, directly affecting over 250 million people. And it was not an isolated incident. In early spring, residents of eastern China hunker down as the dust storm season begins. But it is the farmers and herders in the vast northwest, whose livelihoods are blowing away, who are paying a far higher price.

Wang Tao, one of the world’s leading desert scholars, reports that from 1950 to 1975 an average of 600 square miles of land in China’s north and west turned to desert each year. By the turn of the century, nearly 1,400 square miles of land was going to desert annually. The trend is clear.

China at war

China is now at war. It is not invading armies that are claiming its territory, but expanding deserts. Old deserts are advancing and new ones are forming like guerrilla forces striking unexpectedly, forcing Beijing to fight on several fronts. And in this war with the deserts, China is losing.

A US Embassy report entitled “Desert Mergers and Acquisitions” describes satellite images showing two deserts in north-central China expanding and merging to form a single, larger desert overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu Provinces. To the west in Xinjiang Province, two even larger deserts — the Taklimakan and Kumtag — are also heading for a merger. Highways running through the shrinking region between them are regularly inundated by sand dunes.

An estimated 24,000 villages in northwestern China have been totally or partially abandoned since 1950 as sand dunes encroach on cropland, forcing farmers to leave. Unlike the US Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when many farmers in the Great Plains migrated to California, China’s “Okies” do not have a West Coast to migrate to. They are moving to already heavily populated eastern cities.

Overpumping, like overploughing, is also taking a toll. As the demand for food in China has soared, millions of Chinese farmers have drilled irrigation wells to expand their harvests. As a result, water tables are falling and wells are starting to go dry under the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. The overpumping of aquifers for irrigation temporarily inflates food production, creating a food production bubble that eventually bursts when the aquifer is depleted. Earth Policy Institute estimates that some 130 million Chinese are being fed with grain produced by overpumping — by definition, a short term phenomenon.

In a 2010 interview with Washington Post reporter Steve Mufson, Chinese groundwater expert He Qingcheng noted that underground water now meets three fourths of Beijing’s water needs. The city, he said, is drilling 1,000 feet down to reach water—five times deeper than 20 years ago. He notes that as the deep aquifer under the North China Plain is depleted, the region is losing its last water reserve — its only safety cushion. His concerns are mirrored in the unusually strong language of a World Bank report on China’s water situation that foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.

Cars versus crops

At the same time, China is losing cropland to residential and industrial construction, and to paving land for cars as their numbers multiply at a staggering rate. In 2009, vehicle sales totaled 14 million, surpassing those in the United States for the first time. In 2010, sales jumped to 18 million, and in 2011 they are projected to reach 20 million, the highest ever for any country. Adding 20 million cars to the fleet means paving one million acres for roads, highways, and parking lots. Cars are now competing with farmers for cropland in China.

Rural China is also facing a tightening labour supply. As industrial wages rise, it becomes more difficult to find young people to work at low-return jobs in rural areas. Marginal cropland and smaller plots, no longer economical, are abandoned. As the rural labour supply shrinks, so does the potential for labour-intensive double-cropping (such as planting winter wheat and then corn as a summer crop in the north or producing two rice crops per year in the south), a practice that has dramatically expanded China’s grain production.

As all these trends converge, China’s food supply is tightening. In November 2010, the food price index was up a politically dangerous 12 percent over a year earlier. Now after 15 years of near self-sufficiency in grain, it seems likely that China soon will turn to the world market for massive grain imports, as it already has done for 80 percent of its soybeans.

Soybean exports to China

How much grain will China import? How will it compare with their soybean imports? No one knows for sure, but if China were to import only 20 percent of its grain, it would need 80 million tons, an amount only slightly less than the 90 million tons of grain the United States exports to all countries each year. This would put heavy additional pressure on scarce exportable supplies of wheat and corn.

For China, the handwriting is on the wall. It will almost certainly have to turn to the outside world for grain to avoid politically destabilizing food price rises. To import massive quantities of grain, China will necessarily draw heavily on the United States, far and away the world’s largest grain exporter. To be dependent on imported grain, much of it from the United States, will be China’s worst nightmare come true.

Worst nightmare

For US consumers, China’s worst nightmare could become theirs. If China enters the US grain market big time, as now seems inevitable, American consumers will find themselves competing with 1.4 billion Chinese consumers with fast-rising incomes for the US grain harvest, driving up food prices.

This would raise prices not only of the products made directly from grain, such as bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals, but also of meat, milk, and eggs, which require much larger quantities of grain to produce. If China were to import even one fifth of its grain, there would likely be pressure from US consumers to restrict or to ban exports to China, as the United States did in the 1970s, when it banned soybean exports to Japan.

But in dealing with China, the United States now faces a very different situation. When the US Treasury Department auctions off securities every month to finance the US fiscal deficit, China has been a major buyer. It holds over $900 billion worth of US Treasury securities. China is the country's banker. In another time, another age, the United States could restrict access to US grain as it did in the 1970s, but with China today this may not be possible.

For Americans, who live in a country that has been the world’s breadbasket for more than half a century, a country that has never known food shortages or runaway food prices, the world is about to change. Like it or not, we are going to be sharing our grain harvest with the Chinese, no matter how much it raises food prices. For the rapidly growing population in the less developed world the consequnces would be even more serious.

 

This is an abridged version of the original report which may be seem here.

Lester Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the
newly published book World on the Edge