Revisiting the question "Who will feed China?"
(followed by "Who will feed Africa?" and by "Who will feed the US")

Michael Glantz
CCB, University of Colorado
June 11, 2009

Fragilecologies Guest ArticleRevisiting the question "Who will feed China?"
(followed by "Who will feed Africa?" and by "Who will feed the US")

Fifteen years ago Lester Brown wrote an interesting book with an intriguing title: "Who will feed China?" Brown's concern --- highly criticized as might be expected by Chinese government officials at the time --- was that China's population size coupled with increasing industrialization and affluence along with its population growth rates, when compared to the amount of land available for food production, would eventually (in the not-so-distant future) make China a major food deficit country. Making a bad situation worse were the various and numerous pollution hotspots throughout the country: air, water and land pollution. River waters have been over-exploited and heavily polluted. In many locations the air pollution from manufacturing enterprises was so thick that it blocked out the sunlight. Some lakes, ponds and streams were covered with trash. And so on. The soils have been worked for centuries, agricultural land was being converted to other uses and production levels were likely to peak. Fast forward --- to 2010.

If one were to ask the same question today, "who will feed China?", the answer would be quite different. China's economy has been booming for the past 15 years or so. The government has amassed more than a trillion dollars of US currency as a result of a chronic trade imbalance in its favor and against America. That puts it in a position to purchase food, whenever it needs to. It can buy energy resources, new technologies (such as for in-country water transfer schemes), fertilizers and whatever else it is that might be needed to increase crop yields and overall food production. But, even that might not be enough to feed China. There is a phenomenon that has been quietly taking place under the proverbial radar screen, that is, out of the purview of policy makers in most countries.

The phenomenon is referred to as the "land grab": that is, 99-year leases on hundreds of thousands of hectares (2.2 acres equal one hectare) of land in various countries including several in sub-Saharan Africa. China is acquiring the right to grow food (or biofuels, if it so chooses) in some African countries by leasing land on the "hungry continent". The contents of the leases are not clear to the public even though the African countries do receive benefits from China in the way of new schools or hospitals and new roads, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure. Nevertheless, land used by the Chinese means that land would not be available to Africa's local farmers or herders.

As far as the land grab is concerned, China is not alone. South Korea has been a major lessor of land in Africa and elsewhere. Its most recent "land-lease" was a controversial one in Madagascar. It had leased 1.3 million hectares for 99 years. As a result of protests within the country, however, the president of Madagascar was deposed and the lease agreement was cancelled. Other countries involved in "land grabs" includes Saudi Arabia, Germany, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, among others.

Who will feed China? Well, at this point, it looks like sub-Saharan Africa will help to do so! That however, raises another concern; who then will feed sub-Saharan Africa?

A year after Brown's book was published, political scientist Robert Paarlberg wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in 1996 (likely in response to the book by Brown) entitled "Who will feed Africa?" He felt that Africa was the problem of the future with regard to food security. Today, several articles raise the same concern about African food security.

  • ENERGY: Africa Will Have to Feed EU's Artificial Biofuels Demand
  • Will Africa feed rich nations?
  • Rice Bowls and Dust Bowls: Africa, Not China, Faces a Food Crisis
  • Could GM crops help feed Africa?
  • How Will We Feed Africa?
  • Organic Farming "Could Feed Africa" Says New UN Study
  • WFP to Feed Up to 50 Million People in Africa [2006]
  • [Prince] Charles's fantasy farming [organic] won't feed Africa's poor

Headlines like these continue to appear in the print and electronic media. There is no apparent "silver bullet", that is, one solution that can resolve all causes contributing to Africa's chronic food shortages and food insecurity. What we see going on in Africa today is a trend that has continued for decades; a lowering on the continent of its gross agricultural production. Odds are this trend is likely to continue for some time in the future with food deficits being countered by humanitarian food shipments.

There is an expression in English that "turnabout is fair play" If you do something to me, it is fair for me to do the same to you". It's a mild version of "an eye for an eye". Very recently, the China Daily (April 1, 2009) printed an article entitled "Who will 'feed' the US?" It seems to me to be an example of "turnabout". The article began in the following way:
The United States, the world's most developed country, is scrambling to answer the question "Who will 'feed' the US?" years after it had asked the most populous developing country a similar question: "Who will feed China?"
Is it sensational to ask the richest country the same question that China faced more than 10 years ago? The reply is "No." This time, it is not about "grain supply", but "capital supply" and "supply of order."… Who will be able to provide the financial support for the enormous fiscal deficit of the US government?

We live in globalized world. For thousands of years, however big the "world" seemed to be to local communities, its life's blood was based on trade or aid. Countries are now interconnected functionally in a wide variety of ways. Most countries rely on most other countries for something they need or want: capital, oil, food, labor, and so forth. China needs America among others to buy its products. The US imports goods and services its citizens require or desire. The US relies on laborers from Mexico and Central America. Similar needs are found in Europe and Japan.

In retrospect, it was likely that China would need food supplies from outside of its borders, as it industrialized and as affluence increased. Lester Brown pointed that out clearly in his 1995 book, noting a similar process for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, each of which had limited agricultural land as they were industrializing. They each import a large percentage of their grain needs normal for an industrializing country with limited agricultural potential for expansion.

What is clear from the examples above is that no country can remain a proverbial island in the 21st century. Countries are finding that they must interact with and need each other in a variety of not-so-obvious as well as obvious ways, politically, economically and culturally. In other words they each need to be fed in some way --- with food, water, energy, imports or exports, or humanitarian assistance. In coming years political leaders will have to adapt to a new world order and a new world culture, one that requires considerable reflection before action, compassion before self interest, and improvisation before retreat.

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