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Can The U.S. Feed China?

“For Americans, who live in a country that’s been the world’s breadbasket for more than half a century, a country that’s never known food shortages or runaway food prices, the world is about to change.”

“For Americans, who live in a country that’s been the world’s breadbasket for more than half a century, a country that’s never known food shortages or runaway food prices, the world is about to change.”

So says Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and a person described by The Telegraph of Calcutta as the “guru of the global environmental movement.” In a critical look at China’s agriculture and its long-term ability to feed its burgeoning population, Brown comes to some startling conclusions.

“Like it or not, we are going to be sharing our grain harvest with the Chinese, no matter how much it raises our food prices,” he concludes.

While Brown’s comments and conclusions are consumer-focused, the implications for animal agriculture are clear. If you thought ethanol threw a kink in the cattle industry’s expansion plans, wait until China unties its purse strings.

According to Brown, several factors are converging to cause the Chinese to have to go outside their borders to ensure food security. At one level, however, that’s something they’ve done already.

Some time back, Chinese leaders opted to be self-sufficient in grain production and import soybeans. “China’s decision to import vast quantities of soybeans led to a restructuring of agriculture in the Western Hemisphere, the only region that could respond to such a massive demand,” Brown says.

“The U.S. now has more land in soybeans than in wheat. Brazil has more land in soybeans than in all grains combined. Argentina, with twice as much land in soybeans as in grain, is fast becoming a soybean monoculture,” he says. “For the hemisphere as a whole, there is now more land in soybeans than in either wheat or corn.”

To maintain grain production, China plowed grasslands in the northwestern provinces and began irrigating heavily from aquifers. “Over-plowing and overgrazing are creating a huge dustbowl in northern and western China,” Brown says. “The numerous dust storms originating in the region each year in late winter and early spring are now regularly recorded on satellite images.”

Those and other trends are causing China’s food supply to tighten. “Now, after 15 years of near self-sufficiency in grain, it seems likely that China will soon turn to the world market for massive grain imports, as it already has done for 80% of its soybeans.”

How much will China import? “No one knows for sure, but if China were to import only 20% of its grain, it would need 80 million tons, an amount only slightly less than the 90 million tons the U.S. exports to all countries each year,” Brown says.

For China, he says, 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 on the U.S., far and away the world’s largest grain exporter.”

And, according to Brown, the U.S. has no choice but to send it. “When the U.S. Treasury Department auctions off securities every month to finance the U.S. fiscal deficit, China has been a major buyer. It holds over $900-billion worth of U.S. Treasury Securities. China is our banker.”

For a country that’s declared it will be self-sufficient in food production, relying on the U.S. for its food security will be a big bolus to swallow. “To be dependent on imported grain, much of it from the U.S., will be China’s worst nightmare come true,” Brown says.

And ours. “If China enters the U.S. 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 U.S. grain harvest, driving up food prices,” Brown concludes.

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