Rice Bowls and Dust Bowls: Africa, Not China, Faces a Food Crisis

World grain markets tightened sharply in 1995, bringing Malthusian worries back into fashion. A weather-related drop in corn production in the United States combined with strong worldwide demand to push U.S. corn export prices up 45 percent in a single season. Corn and wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade jumped to a 15-year high. Both the United States and the European Union stopped subsidizing wheat exports, and the EU even imposed export taxes to guard against shortages at home. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projected that world grain stocks would fall, before a new harvest came in, to between 14 percent and 15 percent of annual consumption, the lowest level in two decades, and much less than the 17 percent to 18 percent level the organization considers safe.

Lester R. Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, believes these short-term changes may be the leading edge of a disturbing scenario: world grain shortages caused by the growing imports of China. In Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, Brown calculates that by the year 2030 China’s need for grain imports will far outstrip the spare production capacity of exporting nations. International prices will then skyrocket, imperiling consumers in poor importing countries. This scenario seemed to be unfolding ahead of schedule last year, when China, already the world’s largest importer of wheat, switched from being an exporter to an importer of corn.

The result has been a flurry of speculation about the trouble facing Chinese agriculture and the long-term consequences for the world food system. In China itself, even top leaders such as Premier Li Peng have expressed concern. Yet the most severe problems facing today’s world food system -- and tomorrow’s -- will not be in China, but in South Asia and Africa. Especially in Africa, which is plagued by poor government, slow economic growth, and rural environmental degradation, malnutrition is likely to increase in the decades ahead, whether or not prices rise in the international commercial marketplace.

GRAIN PROSPECTS

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