Who Will Feed China?: Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet

by Lester R. Brown

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Worldwatch Institute, Environmental Alert Series. 1995. 163 pp. (Hardcover) ISBN: 0-393-03897-1, (Paperback) ISBN: 0-393-31409-X.

Reviewed by Cate Johnson, Ph.D., RD

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NI CHELE FAN NE MEIJOU? (“Have You Eaten Rice Today?”)

For the Chinese, rice provides the sustenance of life. Having sufficient food has remained a central theme throughout the centuries. The age-old greeting “Ni chele fan ne meijou” reminds the Chinese people of the Great Famine of 1959-1961 which claimed roughly 30 million lives, leaving an indelible impression on China’s national psyche.

In “Who Will Feed China?”, Lester Brown again urges us to respond to the warning signs of high population, shrinking cropland, and water scarcity in formulating global development policy for the 21st century. Reminding us that the Chinese account for 20 percent of the world’s people, Brown states: “In an integrated world economy, China’s rising food prices will become the world’s rising food prices. China’s land scarcity will become everyone’s land scarcity. And water scarcity in China will affect the entire world.”

China’s route to development has been fundamentally different than that of the West: it was already densely populated before it industrialized. The pressure of industrialization has displaced cropland, leading to a net decline in food production despite rising land productivity. Only three other countries have faced a similar situation: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, who (over the past few decades) lost 52 percent, 46 percent, and 42 percent of their grain-harvested areas, respectively. Cropland losses soon exceeded rises in land productivity, leading to declining output: since a peak in 1960, grain production has fallen 32 percent in Japan; and 24 percent in both South Korea and Taiwan since 1977. Brown warns that China’s rising industrialization may result in the same fate.

In addition to loss of cropland, China also faces an extensive diversion of irrigation water to non-farm uses. This problem is particularly acute in a country where nearly 80 percent of the grain harvest comes from irrigated land.

The problem of shrinking resources is compounded by rising grain consumption. As incomes rise, people diversify traditional diets by adding meat, poultry, dairy, and even beer, foods that are higher in the food chain and can demand even more grain for production. China’s enormous population– projected to be 1.5 billion by 2017– adds even more stress on grain reserves. Sheer numbers make keeping grain production in pace with population growth a daunting and improbable task. Although China has succeeded in slowing the momentum of population growth rate from 2.7 percent in 1970 to 1.1 percent in 1994, it is still adding approximately 12 million people each year to its population. Even a small increase in per capita grain consumption will have a substantial cumulative effect: Brown cites that just two additional beers per person in China will demand the entire Norwegian grain harvest.

To avert a crisis, Brown calls for stabilizing population growth (as set forth in the Cairo Platform for Action in 1994), protecting the environmental resource base (soils, aquifers, and the climate system), ensuring that cropland is utilized for food crops (for example, switching from tobacco to grain), and undertaking adequate agricultural research to maximize the value of new technological advances, augmenting food production.

In concluding, Brown remarks that “…China’s emergence as a massive grain importer will be the wake-up call that will signal trouble in the relationship between ourselves…and the natural systems and resources on which we depend. It may well force a redefinition of security, a recognition that food scarcity and the associated economic instability are far greater threats to security than military aggression.”

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