The phenomenal rise in China’s grain production from 90 million tons in 1950 to 392 million tons in 1998 was one of the great economic success stories of the late twentieth century. But in 1998 production peaked and turned downward, falling to 322 million tons in 2003. As noted in Chapter 1, this drop of 70 million tons exceeds the entire grain harvest of Canada. Thus any attempt to expand the world grain harvest enough to rebuild depleted world grain stocks starts with reversing the decline in China.
Virtually all of China’s production decline of nearly 18 percent from 1998 to 2003 is the result of a 16-percent shrinkage in grain area. Several forces are at work here, as described in Chapter 5. Cropland is being converted to nonfarm uses at a record rate, including industrial and residential construction and the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots. With deserts expanding by 360,000 hectares (1,400 square miles) a year, drifting sands are covering cropland in the north and west, making agriculture impossible. The loss of irrigation water is also reducing the harvested area, particularly of wheat, which is grown in the northern, drier regions of the country.
In 2004 China’s improved grain harvest, lifted by a substantial rise in the rice support price and unusually favorable weather, was expected to regain 21 million of the 70-million-ton-drop of the preceding five years. Even with this projected production increase, China’s harvest in 2004 will still fall short of consumption by 35 million tons. And there are several worrying trends that undermine the hope that the harvest will rise consistently again anytime soon.
Excerpted from Chapter 8, “Reversing China's Harvest Decline,” in Lester R. Brown, Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in and Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earth-policy.org/books/out.