China Heeds U.S. Economist's Food Warnings

One reason often cited for soaring prices is increasing demand for meat and dairy products in China and India, the world's most populous countries. A U.S. economist warns that China could soon become one of the world's biggest grain importers, and China's administration has embraced his message of environmental sustainability.

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And one of the reasons often cited for rising food prices is that more and more people in India and China are eating meat and dairy products. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this profile of one U.S. economist who's warning that China could very soon become one of the world's biggest importers of grain, and he's gone from a persona non grata in China to someone people there are listening to very carefully.

ANTHONY KUHN: In 1995, Lester Brown wrote a book called "Who Will Feed China?" in which he argued that China's rising consumption and falling production of grain could contribute to world food shortages.

In Beijing's view, Brown wasn't just guilty of being an alarmist. He was suggesting that China's economic resurgence might somehow threaten the rest of the world.

Today, Brown heads the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, and he's still issuing dire warnings about China's decreasing grain production.

Mr. LESTER BROWN (Earth Policy Institute): We will have 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with fast-rising incomes competing with .3 billion U.S. consumers for the U.S. grain harvest.

KUHN: Right now, Brown says, China's grain imports are minimal, and its contribution to skyrocketing food prices is far less than, say, America's use of corn to make ethanol for use as a motor fuel. But Brown notes that China's leaders are making a strategic shift away from self-sufficiency in grain production. Instead, they're relying more on world markets to get what they need.

Mr. BROWN: China only has to import 10 percent of its grain, and it has an enormous impact. I mean, it would automatically become by far the world's largest grain importer, and I think that's just a matter of years now.

KUHN: One thing there's not much debate about is why China's grain stocks are hitting new lows. Its glaciers, rivers and underground water tables are drying up. Farmland is being paved over to make new cities and factories, and on the demand side, Chinese are eating more and more meat, which requires grain for animal feed.

China's leaders are vigilant about the food supply situation because they know it has serious political implications. Brown agrees.

Mr. BROWN: The stresses associated with emerging food shortages could lead to more and more failing states.

KUHN: Li Gueshong(ph) is an expert in agricultural economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Mr. LI GUESHONG (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: There's a reasonable basis for Brown's concerns, he says. We're worried too that if China loses too much arable land and becomes too reliant on world markets, then we'll be in a vulnerable position.

Li has just come back from Hunan Province in China's wheat belt, where he found some reasons for optimism.

Mr. GUESHONG: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: The reason China is not about to become a big grain importer in the short term, he says, is that most Chinese farmers still keep their own private stash of up to a year's worth of grain.

Chinese leaders and experts have apparently come to see that for all his grim predictions, Lester Brown is no China-bashing conspiracy theorist. He's a soft-spoken and thoughtful person who got his start planting tomatoes in Southern New Jersey. More importantly, China's current administration has embraced Brown's overall message of environmental sustainability, and the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences has made Brown one of its honorary members. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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