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Chinese grain imports to strain world food supply - expert

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 18 Oct 2013 12:30 GMT
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A man eats noodles for lunch at a migrant workers' village in Beijing on February 19, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - China’s growing demand for grain imports will place new strains on a world food supply already stretched thin by plateauing farming yields, over-used aquifers and climate change, according to a leading expert on food security and water.

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Institute and author of several books on food security, said during a teleconference this week that changing Chinese appetites and losses of farmland to industrialisation mean China will need to look abroad for an increasing share of its grain.

According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture, Chinese grain imports shot up to 22.8 million tons in 2013, nearly twice what they were the year before and the highest they’ve been in the country’s history. Brown says the increase is driven by rising demand for meat among China’s increasingly affluent population, and a desire to produce that meat at home.

The country’s industrialisation is reducing the amount of land suitable for growing grain, meaning it is increasingly having to turn to other countries to meet this demand at a time when many world grain producers are already pushing the limits of the land they farm.

As farmers struggle to produce enough, total food prices have doubled and grain prices have more than doubled just in the last 10 years, according to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Meat is becoming a larger part of the Chinese diet. Pork has long been the most popular meat in China, accounting for nearly 70 percent of meat consumption in 2013. Globally, the country consumes roughly half the world’s pork and is home to about half the world’s pigs.

Yet, pork is starting to lose its dominance in China. “China is beginning to now more and more diversify its meat consumption,” Brown said. “The Chinese want to live like Americans,” and pork is America’s least favorite meat. Instead, people in the U.S. eat more poultry and a lot more beef, a historically small part of the Chinese diet but one that takes more grain than pork to produce.

This aspiration to be like Americans poses serious problems for grain production. Brown estimates that for the Chinese to eat as much meat per person as Americans would require imports of 240 million tons of grain per year - “a huge amount of grain in global terms,” and more than India produces each year.

Worldwide, farmers produced 2.2 billion tons of grain in 2012.

What is more, raising beef, in particular, requires a lot of grain. According to the Earth Institute, it takes seven pounds of grain to produce just one pound of beef, compared to three pounds for pork and two for poultry.

As such, it comes as no surprise the increase in Chinese meat consumption has corresponded with a steady rise in the amount of grain used as feed since 1960, according to USDA data.

Industrialisation, the source of China’s increasing affluence, is making it harder for domestic farmers to respond to this demand.

“The rapid rate of industrialisation in China is really chewing up crop land at an alarming rate,” Brown said. “China is now losing cropland.”

He said there is technological capacity for Chinese farmers to increase their yields per acre of certain grains like maize and wheat, but “for rice, there’s just not much there.”

China is pressing against what agronomists call a “glass ceiling” of rice production, Brown said – a point at which a rice plant cannot produce more grain because of limitations such as day length, solar intensity and its capacity for photosynthesis.

Once a crop reaches this point, the only way for farmers to produce more is to plant more, Brown said.

Farmers in China are not the only ones facing a glass ceiling. In fact, 40 percent of grains across the world have already hit it, Brown said. American farmers have not seen significant increases in maize yields per acre for four years, and in Europe, wheat yields have remained stagnant for more than a decade.

“It’s not that farmers wouldn’t like to raise their wheat yields right now, because prices are good,” Brown said. “It’s just that they can’t.”

To make matters more complicated, Brown said grain producers may need to try to keep up production despite dwindling access to water. In China, he estimates, 130 million people are being fed with grain produced from wells where water is being pumped faster than it can be replaced. In India, as many as 190 million people rely on grain produced using such well, and even in the U.S. aquifers are being over pumped.

“Almost everywhere that you have irrigated agriculture, wells are going dry,” Brown said.

Although countries generally eat more meat as they become more affluent – as is happening in China - Brown noted that in the United States meat consumption has started to drop off slightly in the last few years. In fact, U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers show about a 9 percent decrease in the amount of meat Americans eat per person since a peak in 2004.

Brown attributes part of that decline to meat prices rising faster than wages – and the price increases are in part because of increased demand from places like China. But he also noted a change young Americans, in particular, are more aware on the impact meat eating has on their health and the environment.

Jake Lucas is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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