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2nd Revision



Second Revision

This analysis of food security in China had been carried out at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in the early and mid 1990s and published in 1999 on a CD-ROM. It is now mainly of historical interest. At that time, in the late 1980s and 1990s, parts of the academic community, particularly those concerned with environmental questions, where publishing hysterical warning cries that the world was facing food shortages - particularly in China. Lester Brown had posted his (rhetoric) question: Can China feed itself? and had answered it with the alarming conclusion that the country would be unable to do so (Lester Brown: Who Will Feed China?: Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet. 1995). A whole research community was developing "doomsday scenarios" in which food shortages in China would destabilize global grain markets, lead to spiking prices on the global grain market and thus trigger widespread famine in African countries that depend on food imports.

Much has happened in the meantime. China has opened up its economy (and to some extend its society) and experienced unprecedented development. Millions of Chinese peasants (some estimate up to 160 million) have moved from their poverty-stricken villages in central China to the booming coastal provinces and found labor in the rapidly expanding manufacturing sectors. Contrary to popular belief, the massive migration of farmers from rural to urban areas had not triggered food deficits in China. To the contrary - China's food supply is now more stable and diversified than in a long time. What we have predicted in this study has actually happened: China now imports large amounts of feed-grain (particularly soybean) from Brazil, saving valuable domestic cropland for higher-value crops, such as fruits and vegetables. Even with cropland "wasted" for industrial and infrastructure developments China has not experienced food shortages. It can afford to buy food on international markets, because it had earned huge amounts of foreign currency by becoming the world's prime manufacturing site and a leading exporter of industrial goods.

The times of the "Great Leap Forward" famine, when dozens of millions of peasants perished in China, are now almost forgotten. However, they should be a reminder that no population is more vulnerable to the fanatism of their leaders or the variability of weather conditions than uninformed and impoverished peasants who depend for sustenance almost exclusively on their own small-scale food production. Family farming may be the romantic ideal of some (urban) academics, who have never seen the hardships of rural life. But it is not a viable development model - not for China and not for Africa! Those who promote small-scale, supposedly sustainable, agriculture for Africa or Asia should try it out for themselves. They will quickly find out that they have no chance against large-scale, industrialized production systems, which can provide food and other agricultural products at a fraction of the costs due to economics of scale. Those, who are interested in sustainable agriculture should better spend their time in finding out how large-scale food production can be made more energy efficient and environmentally benign. Sustainability also means economic sustainability. Promoting an outdated rural development model is a recipe for economic disaster and social crisis - as we have seen in many parts of Africa (and some parts of Latin America).

I have re-published this study on food security in China because it offered an optimistic outlook more than 10 years ago (based on information and data from up to 15 years ago) and proved those wrong, who had alerted the international community with outrageous doomsday projections of a looming food crisis. Today, we have again discussion about (global) food shortages and dire predictions linked to energy and water scarcity. I suspect that a more detailed study would reveal again that many of these arguments are not based on facts, but derived from a faulty development ideology. Science and technology are the ultimate driving forces of development - and that is true not only for the urban sector, but also for the rural world. Promoting a pre-industrial development ideal with self-sufficient, small-scale family farming at its core, will not solve the development problems in large parts of Africa and it will not increase global food security. 

Gerhard K. Heilig, New Rochelle, NY in February 2011

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Please also visit my new web site: www.china-profile.com

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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.)