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In-depth Analyses
Why is Lester R. Brown wrong in predicting that China cannot feed itself?
In 1995 Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute predicted that China's grain import needs would likely increase to between 200 and 369 million tons by 2030 (Brown, 1995). While, of course, no one knows the future, it is highly unlikely that Brown's predictions will come true. As several experts have demonstrated in great detail, Brown used incorrect data, made unlikely assumptions, and did not take into account the technical and economic potential for improving China's domestic food supply (see Alexandratos, 1996, 1997; World Bank 1997, Crook / Colby, 1996).
Brown used an incorrect estimate for China's cultivated land area. He only briefly mentioned the serious under-reporting of cultivated land in official Chinese statistics, but did not take into account the implications. We now know that China's cultivated land area is in the range of 132 million ha, which is some 39% more than the 95 million hectare figure reported in the Chinese Statistical Yearbooks (the Yearbook always included a footnote, which said that this figure was known to be underreported).
Because Brown's calculations are based on a cultivated land area that is some 30-40% smaller than the true area, his yield estimates for China are too high. Average crop productivity in China is much lower than Brown assumes, which means that there is more room for improvements. For instance, Chinese grain yields in 1993 were officially reported at 4,131 kg per hectare. While even this estimate is probably somewhat inflated it is significantly lower than typical grain yields in developed countries.With a modernized agricultural sector, China could probably double average cereal yields. (High crop yields of up to 11,250 kg per ha for multicropping rice systems are restricted to only a few areas in China.)
Brown does not take into account China's land reserves (primarily in Northern China), totaling 30 million ha, of which some 15 million ha could be used for crop cultivation after moderate investments in infrastructure and agricultural inputs.
There is a great potential for boosting grain production through the expansion of multicropping - a possibility ignored by Brown. In 1995 China's average multicropping index was about 155%;  it could be increased to at least 160%. That may seem to be only a minor improvement, but a 1% increase would be equivalent to 1.3 million ha of sown area.
Brown overestimates arable land losses and the decline in agricultural productivity due to pollution and other forms of environmental degradation. Heavy pollution is concentrated in a few areas close to (rural) industries and urban agglomerates. Most of China's arable land is located far from these areas of intense environmental degradation.
As can be seen from statistics available here, by far the most important reason for losses of arable land in China are floods. Between 1988 and 1995 China lost some 856 million ha of cropland due to disasters, mainly flooding. This is almost the same amount of cultivated land area lost to all kinds of urban expansion and infrastructure construction combined. As many other countries have demonstrated, flooding can be usually prevented with adequate hydraulic engineering. Brown does not consider existing technical possibilities for improving disaster prevention in China's agriculture. Floods are a major cause of crop failure in China, and much can be done to reduce this risk.
Brown does not take into account that China is quickly moving into high-tech agriculture and livestock production. In May 1996 Chinese government officials and science representatives decided that agricultural research aimed at the increase of crop yields should be a top research priority (Tacey, 1996). As reported in a special section of the Science magazine (Science, Vol. 270), the University of Wuhan has an excellent center for rice breeding and biological pest control. The CAS Institute of Virology in Beijing has become a leading center on molecular biology and is a key laboratory in plant cell and chromosome engineering. In central Hunan province and on the island of Hainan, China is conducting field tests of genetically modified plants on a scale much larger than in the West.
As Alexandratos (1997) and others have shown, Brown raises a false alarm, by predicting that international grain markets would not be able to supply China's increasing grain deficits without massive price increases. With realistic projections, China might have a grain deficit of between 30 and 50 million tons in 2020, which is well within the historical range of fluctuations in the volume of the world grain market. The large grain exporters (USA, France, Canada, and Australia) could easily increase exports to cover this additional demand from China. We should not forget that in the past many developed countries have implemented massive measures to reduce grain production, such as the elimination of subsidies or programs to reduce harvested areas (farmers in several European countries receive money for not cultivating land).
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Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)  - Copyright 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright 1999 by IIASA.)