Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Who will feed China? What does it mean for us?

by Bill Duesing

Lester Brown's Who Will Feed China?: Wake Up Call for a Small Planet was published nearly 20 years ago.
Bill Duesing
He noted that in an integrated world economy, China's rising food prices become the world's rising food prices.  China's land and water scarcity become the whole world's problems.

It looks like he got it right.

As the New York Times reported this morning, "A large, growing and increasingly affluent population, worsening soil and water pollution and rising urbanization rates have combined to reduce Chinas arable land and put immense pressure on the countrys ability to meet its food needs domestically."

This was in an article about Cofco, a Chinese state-owned food conglomerate (think of a government-owned Cargill, and shudder!),recently buying a controlling stake in Hong Kong based agricultural trading company Noble Agri.   Cofco gains access to food from low cost producers in Africa, Eastern Europe and South America and to affluent consumers in Asia and the Middle East.

In February, Cofco bought a controlling interest in Dutch-based grain trader Nidera which, among other things, exports American grain. In fact its US subsidiary is headquartered in Wilton, CT and buys grain from farmers at elevators in Chicago and Milwaukee, creating in effect a "direct" connection from American farmers to China's consumers. Welcome to the global food system.

Cofco is one of the largest of China's state-owned enterprises and is involved in all aspects of the food supply chain from seeds and growing to making wines and owning the hotels to serve them in. 

The U.S. as China's factory farm

I started to write this piece last week after reading Tom Philpott's article in Mother Jones, "Are We Becoming China'sFactory Farm?"
Illustration: Michael Klein from

The short story is that China is importing more of our pork because it is cheaper to raise pigs here than it is in China. That is largely because of the low cost of subsidized grain here and the pollution and drought which limit production there.

And as China is moving away from small scale farms and into industrial hog operations, they are also importing nearly a quarter of the US soy crop to process into oil for people and meal for pigs.

So it wasn't a surprise to see a report this morning about big soy farming organizations from this country and South America meeting recently in China to push for strengthened trade relations so this hemisphere can remain the premier supplier of soy to China. They did however, express concerns for speedy approval there of the new biotech varieties industrial growers favor.

This is not really new.  The large US organizations funded by the soy check-off program have had an office in China to promote American soy exports since 1981.
Now soy is our largest export to China, just ahead of trash and scrap.

The same forces that have China buying our pork, and Smithfield, this country's largest pork producer, are causing joy among dairy farmers.

Bloomberg news reports that "China Milk Thirst Hands U.S.Dairies Record 2014 Profits." Demand for milk and milk products, driven by rapid growth in exports to China and Mexico, has driven up the price of milk at the farm and puts upward pressure on the prices of most dairy products to consumers.

What we get

Maybe this wouldn't be so disturbing if we didn't know about the effects of this long distance, industrial food system. 

Industrially produced pork and dairy leave behind lots of manure to pollute our air, land and water. The jobs at these factory farms and processors are often low paid, dangerous and very unpleasant.

The genetically-engineered corn and soy grown in the U.S. to feed animals here and in China leave behind damaged soil, air, water, communities and estuaries after massive applications of anhydrous ammonia, Roundup, neonicotinoid insecticides, atrazine, super phosphate and other ecocides. (See note 1.)

In response to strong demand, high prices and subsidized crop insurance, farmers are plowing up millions of acres of prairie and wetland each year to plant more row crops.  This is an unmitigated environmental disaster.  Stable and perennial bio-diverse ecosystems are replaced by annual, chemical-drenched monocultures.  The soil disturbance from plowing and fertilizing releases massive quantities of greenhouse gases.  The Environmental Working Groups calls them worse that those from the Keystone XL pipeline

If yields aren't so good, crop insurance helps out.

Climate Connections
This is even more disturbing in light of Monday's release of the latest report on climate change impacts and the options for adapting to them.  The news that agriculture will be much more affected by changes in the climate has many people very concerned about the future food supply. 

China's efforts to feed its people through buying control of entire global supply chains makes sense, in a way. However, since they have bought into the industrial model, they are dooming themselves and the rest of life on this planet to a more dire future. (Note 2.)

The local, ecological alternative

"Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate," is the subtitle of the UN's Trade and Environment Report 2013. It recommends a rapid and significant shift away from “conventional, monoculture-based… industrial production” of food that depends heavily on external inputs such as fertilizer, agro-chemicals, and concentrate feed.

Instead, it says that the goal should be “mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers and foster rural development”.

This is what is happening here in Connecticut with a thousand new small farms started between 2007 and 2012. Just look at how many more people are now growing vegetables, producing maple syrup or selling eggs from a cooler by the road. 

The report stresses that governments must find ways to factor in and reward farmers for currently unpaid public goods they provide – such as clean water, soil and landscape preservation, protection of biodiversity, and recreation.

We also need to find ways to charge producers who are destroying public goods such as clean water and a stable climate, a very controversial idea.

Locally Grown New England

The American Farmland Trust, The Conservation Law Center and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group just released a report: "New England Food Policy: Building a Sustainable Food System" which identifies policies that are helping New England grow its capacity to feed itself, policies that are hindering this growth, gaps in the existing policy framework, and opportunities for new policies to strengthen our food system.

This is just one of many local, state and regional efforts to encourage sustainable, local food.

Very early in my study of food systems, I read Farmers of Forty Centuries or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan.  FH King wrote this in 1909 after he studied traditional farming methods in those countries. He could see even then that agriculture as practiced in the West was not sustainable and was intrigued by countries that had fed large populations from the same limited land for 4,000 years.  King's descriptions of intensive growing for local consumption using carefully made compost and crop rotations inspired many of us.

It is ironic that one of those countries whose past practices were so inspirational is now a leading adaptor of the non-sustainable industrial system worldwide. 

We are going to pay a lot more for food. 

That money can support a resilient, smaller scale and sustainable, local food system or the destructive and vulnerable long-distance industrial one. 

If we chose the sustainable way it will take a lot of work, but we'll end up with a healthier planet and healthier communities. 

If we do nothing, the industrial model and environmental disaster will follow.

I welcome your thoughts.  
Bill Duesing


1. Gary Baise, a principal in a large DC law firm that specializes in defending "agriculture" (read industrial ag) against federal agencies and others, lists what is important to American Agriculture.

He includes monoculture cropping, confined animal feeding operations, international trade, genetically modified organisms and the ability to dump animal wastes into the environment as critical issues to "agriculture."  All these help set the table for China.

2. Other resources:


  1. Excellent read. Great resource links.
    For years I've said that the only sustainable economy is a local economy … and it is rooted in the earth that we share … the Food that we eat.

  2. Ditto here. Thorough and informative, Bill. I couldn't agree more on the irony of countries with ancient agriculture now going industrial. It is sickening. We have all been talking and struggling with this for so many years. It is hard not to be discouraged.

    Thanks, Bill.

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