EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Feeding Eight Billion Well: Introduction

In April 2005, the World Food Programme and the Chinese government jointly announced that food aid shipments to China would stop at the end of the year. For a country where a generation ago hundreds of millions of people were chronically hungry, this was a landmark achievement. Not only has China ended its dependence on food aid, but almost overnight it has become the world’s third largest food aid donor. 1

The key to China’s success was the economic reforms in 1978 that dismantled its system of agricultural collectives, known as production teams, and replaced them with family farms. In each village, the land was allocated among families, giving them long-term leases on their piece of land. The move harnessed the energy and ingenuity of China’s rural population, raising the grain harvest by half from 1977 to 1986. With its fast-expanding economy raising incomes, with population growth slowing, and with the grain harvest climbing, China eradicated most of its hunger in less than a decade—in fact, it eradicated more hunger in a shorter period of time than any country in history. 2

While hunger has been disappearing in China, it has been spreading in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Indian subcontinent. As a result, the number of people in developing countries who are hungry has increased from a recent historical low of 800 million in 1996 to 830 million in 2003. In the absence of strong leadership, the record or near-record grain prices in late 2007 will likely raise the number of hungry people even further, with children suffering the most. 3

One key to the threefold expansion in the world grain harvest since 1950 was the rapid adoption in developing countries of high-yielding wheats and rices originally developed in Japan and hybrid corn from the United States. The spread of these highly productive seeds, combined with a tripling of irrigated area and an 11-fold increase in world fertilizer use, tripled the world grain harvest. Growth in irrigation and fertilizer use essentially removed soil moisture and nutrient constraints on much of the world’s cropland. 4

Now the outlook is changing. Farmers are faced with shrinking supplies of irrigation water, a diminishing response to additional fertilizer use, rising temperatures, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, rising fuel costs, and a dwindling backlog of yield-raising technologies.

At the same time, they also face a fast-growing demand for farm products from the annual addition of some 70 million people a year, the desire of some 5 billion people to consume more livestock products, and the millions of motorists turning to crop-based fuels to supplement tightening supplies of gasoline and diesel fuel. 5

This helps explain why world grain production has fallen short of consumption in seven of the last eight years, dropping world grain stocks to the lowest level since 1974. Farmers and agronomists are now being thoroughly challenged. 6

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1. “Last Food Shipment Signals End of 25-Year WFP Aid to China,” Asian Economic News, 8 April 2005; U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply and Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psdonline, updated 10 August 2007; U.N. World Food Programme, “China Emerges as World’s Third Largest Food Aid Donor,” press release (Rome: 20 July 2006).

2. Xie Wei and Christian DeBresson, China’s Progressive Market Reform and Opening (Geneva: U.N. Industrial Development Organization, 2001); USDA, op. cit. note 1.

3. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006 (Rome: 2006), p. 8; Madelene Pearson and Danielle Rossingh, “Wheat Price Rises to Record $9 a Bushel on Global Crop Concerns,” Bloomberg, 12 September 2007.

4. Thomas R. Sinclair, “Limits to Crop Yield,” paper presented at the 1999 National Academy Colloquium, Plants and Populations: Is There Time? Irvine, CA, 5–6 December 1998; Patrick Heffer, Short-Term Prospects for World Agriculture and Fertilizer Demand 2005/06-2007/08 (Buenos Aires, Argentina: International Fertilizer Industry Association, January 2007); 1950–1960 data from USDA, in Worldwatch Institute, Signposts 2001, CD-Rom (Washington, DC: 2001); USDA, op. cit. note 1.

5. U.N. Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision Population Database, at esa.un.org/unpp, updated 2007.

6. USDA, op. cit. note 1.


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