EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. The Food Debate with China

In 1994 I wrote an article for the September/October issue of World Watch magazine entitled “Who Will Feed China?” The late August press conference releasing it generated only moderate coverage. But when the article was reprinted that weekend on the front of the Washington Post’s Outlook section with the title “How China Could Starve the World,” it unleashed a political firestorm in Beijing.

The response began on Monday morning with a press conference at the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture in which Deputy Minister Wan Baorui announced China’s official disagreement with the analysis. He claimed that by 2025 they would nearly double their grain production and thus would have no trouble in satisfying their increasing food needs.

Although I was aware that the Chinese were sensitive to the notion that they might one day need to import large amounts of grain, I had not fully realized the depth of their sensitivity. Only thirty-three years had elapsed since the massive famine in 1959–61 that came in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap was an ill-conceived national initiative by Mao Tse-tung for China to industrialize quickly. It included, for example, building hundreds of thousands of backyard furnaces to produce steel, none of which turned out to be usable. So much labor was pulled from agriculture to build the furnaces and develop the coal and iron ore mines that the grain harvest fell precipitously, leading to death by starvation of some 36 million Chinese. The leaders in Beijing were survivors of this massive man-made famine.

The national psyche of China clearly has been scarred by this devastating famine in ways that we cannot even imagine. The insecurity associated with dependence on the outside world for part of their food supply was psychologically difficult to accept. It was also politically anathema. In what would become a common refrain, they said China had always fed itself and it always would.

Then things quieted down until early November, when I was in Tokyo to receive Japan’s Blue Planet Prize. While there, Reuters correspondent Eiichiro Tokumoto asked if I could elaborate on my analysis of China’s food prospect. We discussed in more detail why China would likely become heavily dependent on the outside world for a large share of its food supply. His story, carried on the Reuters world wire, was picked up in China.

Shortly thereafter, an article appeared in the China Daily written by Hu An’gang, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Dismissing my analysis as unbelievable and unscientific, Hu pointed quite proudly, and rightly, to the dramatic gains made in grain production since the birth of modern China in 1949. He accepted my projection of the growth in future grain demand as population grew and incomes climbed, but rejected my much less bullish outlook for grain production. His main point was that China had an enormous potential for expanding its grain harvest and that I was underestimating it.

What confounded the Chinese was that someone from outside China, who was not a China scholar, and who obviously had not seen much of Chinese agriculture, could make a projection of the sort that I was making. But my analysis and projections were not out of the blue. Several years earlier, I had noticed a pattern of changes in the grain supply-demand balance in countries that are densely populated before they industrialize. This had happened first in Japan and then shortly thereafter in both South Korea and Taiwan.

As industrialization accelerates, the demand for grain rises along with incomes. Grain production also initially begins to rise in response to the expanded market for farm products, but this increase is short-lived for two reasons. One, industrialization requires land—land for building factories, warehouses, and still more land to build the roads, highways, and parking lots that are hallmarks of a modern industrial economy. This loss of land leads to a steady shrinkage in cultivated area.

Second, as industrial wages rise, labor is pulled out of the countryside into the cities. In these densely populated countries, multiple cropping already had been pushed to the hilt in the quest for grain self-sufficiency. But this intensification requires a generous amount of labor in the countryside, enough workers to quickly harvest one crop and then prepare the seedbed and plant another. In countries of relatively small farms, the availability of rural labor was key to the extensive multiple cropping that existed at the time industrialization began. Japan, for example, produced an average of 1.4 crops on every acre of cropland in 1960. Today, Japanese farmers average scarcely one crop per year. As demand climbs while production is falling, the dependence on imports soars.

In Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, it was only a matter of time until each country was importing roughly 70 percent of its grain supply. All three were essentially self-sufficient in rice, their food staple. But they imported nearly all their wheat and also the corn for their rapidly growing livestock and poultry industries. I termed this sequence that leads from near self-sufficiency in grain to heavy dependence on imports in countries that are densely populated before they industrialize the “Japan syndrome.”

It was almost inevitable that the same sequence would unfold in China. Although a much larger country, China still has a high population density, with roughly 1.2 billion of its 1.3 billion people living in the eastern and southern provinces that make up less than half of the country’s geographic area. The rest of China, mostly mountains and deserts, is sparsely populated.

In 1988, I had sent a copy of my Worldwatch Paper The Changing World Food Prospect to Lin Zixin, the head of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China and a longtime friend. Among other things, the paper discussed the Japan syndrome and its relevance for China. The purpose was to alert the leaders there to the potential for enormous growth in dependence on imported grain. But senior party leaders, preoccupied with making China an industrial power as quickly as possible, showed little interest.

After the economic reforms in 1978, the Chinese had restructured agriculture, shifting from large government-coordinated production teams to what was called “the household responsibility system,” an approach that broke up the large collective land holdings, leasing parcels of land to individual families to farm. At the same time, the government strengthened its support for agriculture with a hefty rise in the procurement price for grain. These initiatives helped expand China’s grain harvest by half between 1977 and 1984. It was a remarkable achievement—the result of adopting an enlightened agricultural policy.

But after this surge in production, Beijing relaxed its emphasis on the food front and began again to focus on industrialization. If China eventually imported most of its grain, following the path of its three smaller neighbors, it would put great pressure on the world’s exportable grain supplies. While the world could meet 70 percent of the grain needs of a country like Japan with some 120 million people, supplying a similar share of food to one with 1.2 billion people would be a vastly greater challenge.

The World Watch article attracted more attention than anything I have ever written. In addition to appearing in our magazine’s five language editions—English, Japanese, Chinese (Taiwan), German, and Italian—it also appeared in abridged form in many of the world’s leading newspapers, including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the International Herald Tribune. It was syndicated internationally by both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Among the other major news organizations covering the analysis were the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal, including the Asian edition.

In early February 1995 I was in Oslo, Norway, to address an international conference of environment ministers, hosted by Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The theme of the conference was sustainable development. In my presentation, I defined sustainable development—the process of meeting current needs without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations—and outlined a strategy for achieving it. In doing so, I illustrated some of the challenges that lay ahead on the food front by using China’s likely emergence as a massive importer of food as a wake-up call that would force governments everywhere to address long-neglected issues, such as the need to stabilize population and invest more heavily in agriculture.

Following my presentation, we adjourned for a midafternoon coffee break and I left for the airport so that I could attend a dinner in Stockholm. Later I learned that when the session reconvened, the Chinese ambassador to Norway, Xie Zhenhua, asked for the floor even though he was not a scheduled speaker. He claimed that my analysis was misleading. The Times of India reported him saying, “We are giving priority to agricultural productivity. Our family planning program has been very successful. Science and technology and economic growth will see us through.” In concluding, he repeated my question, “Who will feed China?” and then solemnly replied, “The Chinese people will feed themselves.”

The following morning, Ambassador Xie, apparently bolstered by fresh information from Beijing, held a news conference pointing out “unequivocally that China does not want to rely on others to feed its people, and that it relies on itself to solve its own problems.”

The Communist Party of China has a relatively small membership, one that includes scarcely 6 percent of the people, and thus cannot risk any major sources of instability, such as possible food shortages and the rising food prices that could come from a heavy dependence on imported food. This is why my projection of future growing dependence on imports was so unsettling in Beijing.

Yet even as my indirect dialogue with Chinese officials was taking place, the food situation was tightening within China. In late February and March of 1995, the tone of reports coming out of China began to change. On February 28, a Reuters story referred to the “sounding of alarm bells” by Communist Party chief and President Jiang Zemin and by Premier Li Peng about the state of China’s agriculture.  At the National People’s Congress meeting in mid-March, officials acknowledged that “China is facing a looming grain crisis, with a hike in imports the only apparent solution to the demands of a growing population on a shrinking farmland.” Extensive consideration of the food issue at the congress suggested that it was becoming a matter of concern within party circles.

Not too long after the meeting in Oslo there was a conference in Zurich focusing on the use of technology in dealing with issues such as food security. Both China’s minister of science and technology, whom I had met earlier, and I were addressing the conference. He and his assistant used a good cop/bad cop approach. When speaking, the minister referred to me in discrete and positive ways in his talk, but when the floor was open for questions, his assistant, who was sitting in the audience, jumped up and loudly and aggressively challenged many of the basic points I had made.

The overall response to the magazine article suggested to me that it would be useful to do a more detailed analysis of China’s agriculture. The result was the book Who Will Feed China? published in September 1995. The media coverage of it went viral. One of the most interesting responses was in Washington, DC, where the National Intelligence Council, the umbrella over all the U.S. intelligence agencies, analyzed the effect of China’s growing demand for grain on world agriculture and any security threats that it might pose. A panel of prominent researchers, led by Michael McElroy, then head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard, produced a first-rate study of several hundred pages.

One of the team’s conclusions was that China’s cultivated area, according to satellite data, was actually substantially larger than officially reported. They said that although China could harvest more, the country nonetheless would be coming into the world market for massive quantities of grain in the not-too-distant future. They also recognized the effects of water shortages, soil erosion, and some of the world’s most polluted air—all of which threatened China’s agricultural prospect, essentially confirming my analysis.

Elsewhere, there were hundreds of conferences, symposia, and seminars on feeding China, only a few of which I could work into my schedule. One was organized by the Center for International Affairs at Harvard in early 1996. The two-day conference brought together a large group, including economists, foreign affairs analysts, agriculturalists, China scholars, and others. The event, entitled “Feeding China: Today and into the 21st Century” included among the speakers Michael McElroy, economist Jeffrey Sachs, and me.

Meanwhile, within China, every few weeks another study was released attempting to demonstrate why my analysis was wrong. These critiques came from such disparate sources as a scientist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, and an independent academic scholar. Not long after, an enterprising Chinese publisher took a copy of the original World Watch magazine article and a collection of the critiques of it and published them in a book entitled The Great Debate Between Lester Brown and China. The criticism of my work by the Chinese government did not bother me at all. Paradoxically, the more Who Will Feed China? was criticized in Beijing, the more it gained in credibility.

In early May 1995, I was invited to have dinner in Washington with Cheng Xu, director of science and technology in China’s Ministry of Agriculture. He shared with me a thick folder containing a photocopy of my World Watch article and copies of a stack of articles responding to it, mostly in Chinese. Cheng said that the principal contribution of my article had been to focus the attention of China’s leaders on agriculture, a sector they had been neglecting in the breakneck effort to industrialize. He was sharing these essays with me, he said, because he valued highly my intervention and the way in which it increased the resources available to those working on agriculture in China. Many Chinese officials working in agriculture saw the problems unfolding but were unable to do much to address them. In a sense, I had become their voice.

In commenting on my works, Jasper Becker, the Beijing bureau chief for the Hong Kong–based South China Morning Post, wrote that “[Brown’s] arguments have caused near panic in the highest levels of the Communist Party and the government has responded by holding seminars and issuing defiant rebuttals. ‘He has had a very big effect because grain is so important in China. It has forced the government to devote more investment to agriculture,’ admitted Lei Xilu, an agronomist who works for … the State Planning Commission. In the past 40 years few other foreigners have managed to shake the confidence of China’s rulers as Brown has.”

Even as my analysis was being officially attacked and denounced, China was moving ahead aggressively on the agricultural front, launching an all-out effort to maintain grain self-sufficiency. The government quickly adopted several key production-boosting measures, including a 40 percent increase in the grain support price paid to farmers, a dramatic increase in agricultural credit, and heavy investment in plant breeding to develop higher-yielding strains of wheat, rice, and corn.

By far the most interesting encounter with official China came in April 1995 at a meeting of the InterAction Council, an organization whose membership consists exclusively of former heads of state. Founded in 1983 by Takeo Fukuda, formerly prime minister of Japan, and chaired by Helmut Schmidt, formerly chancellor of Germany, the council had always been frustrated because they had never had a former head of state from China since, until that time, all Chinese leaders had remained in office until their death. At the meeting scheduled for Tokyo, they invited, in lieu of a former leader, Huang Hua, who had been foreign minister and then vice premier from 1976 until 1992, when he retired at age seventy-nine.

This particular annual meeting of the InterAction Council was focusing on population, food, and development aid. They invited Nafis Sadik (head of the United Nations Population Fund), Robert McNamara (former president of the World Bank) as the authority on official development assistance, and me as the resource person on food. When I arrived at the meeting I learned that Huang Hua would be the discussant of my presentation. Even more interesting, he had brought with him copies of his response to the talk I had not yet given, which he proceeded to distribute to the members of the council as the meeting was beginning. It struck me as unusual, though flattering, that such a prominent retired political leader was brought into the fray to continue the Chinese challenge of my work and to assure all the former heads of state in attendance that China had always fed itself and always would.

We were all staying at the Prince Hotel in Tokyo and each day were bused to and from the hotel and the United Nations University conference center. Because of the tight security associated with the presence of so many former heads of state, the bus had a heavily armed military escort during our daily commute.  On one of these rides, I sat next to Huang Hua, which gave me a chance to ask him some questions, such as where he was at the time of the Long March, the movement of people northward and westward who were fleeing the Chiang Kai-shek regime. He indicated that for a short time he was in Yan’an, the destination of the Communist marchers, and at one point was actually going out to meet the stragglers, many of whom were literally on their last legs, helping them into the camp.

Huang Hua had two sons—one a graduate of Harvard, the other of the University of Missouri. That night at a reception, I met the one educated in Missouri, who was now working in Hong Kong. When we exchanged business cards, I was shocked to see that he was working with Smith Barney, the U.S. investment firm. What a contrast: In one generation, the family had gone from the Long March to Smith Barney!

The following evening, a dinner cruise on Tokyo Bay, was even more interesting. Huang Hua’s wife, He Liliang, a demographer by training, had asked earlier if we could sit together on the dinner cruise. I was surprised by her invitation, but agreed, eagerly anticipating the chance to talk with her. After we sat down in adjacent deck chairs, she—wearing a formal Chinese dress—opened her purse and pulled out a piece of paper folded many times over. It was a photocopy of the original “Who Will Feed China” article from World Watch magazine on which she had penciled notes in the margin in Chinese. For an hour or so, she went through the article paragraph by paragraph explaining “the errors” in my analysis. I began to feel like a character in a spy novel.

What I had not realized until I read Huang Hua’s obituary after his death in November 2010 was what a key player he had been in China from the mid-1930s onward. He had attended an American missionary university in Beijing, where he had become proficient in English. When Edgar Snow wanted to interview Mao Tse-tung and his comrades in 1936, it was Huang Hua, then a secret member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), who went with Snow (who was one of Huang Hua’s professors at the missionary university) to the hills in Shaanxi province, where Mao was located. Huang Hua was an interpreter for Snow as he gathered the material for writing Red Star Over China, a classic on the Communist revolution then just getting under way.

During the revolution, Huang Hua became an assistant to one of the prominent Communist Party military leaders, Zhu De. When the CPC established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Huang Hua began work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and among other things helped to negotiate the armistice that ended the Korean War. During the 1960s, he was ambassador to Ghana and Egypt. This was before he and his wife returned to China in 1969 and were sent to live and work in rural villages during the Cultural Revolution.

In July 1971, Huang Hua was assigned to meet secretly with Henry Kissinger in Beijing, a meeting that set the stage for President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in February 1972. Huang Hua was centrally involved in arranging Nixon’s visit to China and in reestablishing diplomatic relations with the United States. When China replaced Taiwan at the United Nations in 1971, Huang Hua became its first permanent representative to the international body.

In retrospect, I am awed to have had both Huang Hua and his wife involved in my own “reeducation” about Chinese agriculture. Among the few Chinese who were in the hills in Yan’an with Mao in the mid-1930s, Huang Hua was perhaps unique in that he served continuously in one increasingly responsible position after another into the early 1990s.

Over time, China’s leaders came to both appreciate and acknowledge how Who Will Feed China? had helped change their thinking. A late 1998 issue of Feedstuffs, a weekly agribusiness newspaper, quotes Lu Mai, an agricultural economist and senior fellow at a government think tank in Beijing, as saying, “Brown seems to have been accorded guru status in high places. ‘He’s like the monk from outside who knows how to read the Bible.’”

When I later met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, in 2006, the first thing he said was, “Your book was very helpful to us.” That same year, the National Library of China —the equivalent of the U.S. Library of Congress—gave the Chinese edition of my book Plan B (more of this in Chapter 11) its Wenjin Book Award. In 2003, Shanghai University honored me with an appointment as honorary professor. In 2005, the Chinese Academy of Sciences appointed me to an honorary professorship at its graduate school. In 2008, the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research followed with an honorary professorship in recognition of my work on world water issues, including those in China.

At this writing, China has emerged as a leading importer of grain. It also imports a staggering 60 percent of all soybeans entering world trade. Its grain and soybean imports are soaring—and there is no end to this rise in sight.

Thus the question “who will feed China?” is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 1995. It is not so much a matter of population growth, because China’s current population of 1.35 billion will be peaking at roughly 1.4 billion around 2027 and turning downward. Instead, the huge growth in the demand for grain in China is coming as its increasingly affluent society rapidly moves up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock, poultry, and farmed fish. The pressures of China’s rising affluence on world food supplies are starting to show up in local village markets and at cash registers in supermarkets throughout the world.