One economist who worries about China's impact on world grain markets is Lester R. Brown of the Worldwatch Institute. In a new book entitled Who Will Feed China?, he outlines a scenario that makes cautionary reading.
Brown likens China's development to that of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Like China, each was densely populated and basically self-sufficient in grain production before it began to industrialize. Within 30 years, however, each had lost more than 40% of its cropland and was importing from 66% to 76% of its grain needs.
The reasons for this shift are no mystery. As industrialization proceeds, cropland is converted to other uses: factories, dwellings, roads, and expanding urban areas. Farm workers migrate to industrial sites. Industry lays claim to scarce resources like water. And rising incomes spur demand for better diets and more living space.
All of these problems, notes Brown, are intensified in fast-growing China, whose population of nearly 1.2 billion is expanding by 13 million a year. Although its land mass is close to that of the U.S., only a tenth of China's land is cultivatable, and many of its cities and rural areas face chronic water shortages. Meanwhile its agricultural productivity gains are slowing.
China's emergence as a major grain importer, combined with rapid population and economic growth in other developing countries, says Brown, suggests that "the world grain market will soon become a seller's market." And that, he fears, could spark economic and political turmoil in Third World nations, where the poor already spend much of their incomes on food.