By Li Ping, Rui Bingyou
Published: 2008-02-28

A jittery Chinese government imposed temporary price-controls on a slew of basic food products in January after news that the consumer price index jumped to an 11-year high that month. Food prices were cited as a main contributor to the increase.

The pressure of rising food prices has afflicted not only China, but reflected a greater global trend driven by complex factors such as population growth, changes in dietary trends as groups were lifted out of poverty, increased demand for biofuels, and climate change.

"It is an extremely complex issue -- but the bottom line is that China and the world are accelerating in the fog toward a precipice," said Paul Ehrlich, president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University and a professor of population studies there.

Ehrlich was an early force in alerting the public to the problems of overpopulation and resource scarcity, and the environmental consequences of public policy. He has co-authored several books on the subject, including Food Security, Population and Environment, and Population, Sustainability, and Earth's Carrying Capacity

To tie these issues to China and discuss the greater global food supply situation, the EO conducted an email interview with Ehrlich.

EO: Around the world, people are blaming China for food shortages. How do you view China's food supply problems, and how China is influencing the world with them?

Ehrlich: China's rising demand for meat is doubtless a significant factor in the rising prices of grains and the increasing demand for feed grains on the world food market. Because China's population is so large and still growing, and its demand is rising rapidly, these changes inevitably affect the global food supply. But this is a global and globalized crisis traceable to ignorant leadership almost everywhere -- hardly "China's fault." China's leadership has been much more sensible than that of the United States (at least China is trying to control its population!)

EO: For certain, the world will soon say goodbye to low-priced foods. How will these adjustments affect both the US and Chinese economies (some of the world's largest economies) and societies as a whole? 

Ehrlich: Correct. We fear that the adjustment is likely to have a bigger impact on China than on the United States. Most Americans can rather easily afford to pay somewhat more for food than they have been used to, although they won't like it. Since the United States is still the world's leading exporter of grains, absolute shortages are not too likely soon, other than perhaps short-term shortages of meat if livestock producers sell off their herds because they can't afford to feed them.   

China is much more constrained and much more water short (with water needed for irrigation now being diverted into secondary recovery in its faltering oil fields). China will likely have other serious problems, it may become harder to import foods, and higher food prices will certainly impact a large segment of the Chinese population. The trend toward higher quality diets of the last decade or two might be reversed if food shortages become severe. China's foreign exchange may be able to overcome much of the problem, so China will be in a better position than many other developing nations -- although if it enters the military confrontation with the U.S. over Caspian Basin fossil fuel stores that both countries are planning on, both (and the world) could suffer a fatal nuclear convulsion... 

EO: What suggestions do you have for China in light of the crisis?

Ehrlich: This is a slow, long-term crisis, not one in the usual sense.Thus it calls for an assessment of China's agricultural system with an eye to making it as sustainable as possible -- that is, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and artificial fertilizers and pesticides with their deleterious environmental effects. In addition, it is important to try to anticipate climate trends and adapt to them. Obviously, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is imperative if the billion-plus Chinese population is to be securely provided with food in decades ahead. It should also be remembered that agriculture is itself a major source of greenhouse gases. And, of course, the sooner China's population policies are successful and a decline can be begone, the greater China's chances of survival as a viable society.

EO: Many international groups working on food policy have expressed worry over global food supply levels. Can you describe the state of the international food supply today? What exactly are these groups worried about? 

Ehrlich: The state of the food supply is that grain reserves are at their lowest level in the last decade, less than two months carryover stocks.  Cereal grains such as wheat, rice and maize comprise the feeding base of humanity, although a growing portion of them (especially maize and other "coarse grains") are fed first to livestock. Because of that, and because of rising incomes in developing nations in general, demand for grains is growing faster than population growth (which is also a cause of increasing demand).

Moreover, some groups are very concerned that the present modern system of food production, using high-yield strains of crops, which require high inputs of water and fertilizers to achieve that high productivity, is inherently unsustainable for a number of reasons. The high water needs of modern grains (and many other crops) mean that the most productive food production depends on irrigation, and most of the areas that can feasibly be irrigated already have been. Irrigation unfortunately is often a temporary business -- aquifers are being drained too fast in many areas, and dams tend to silt up. Also, in many countries, grains are grown in large monocultures (a vast swath of land planted in a single crop of genetically nearly identical plants), making them very susceptible to attacks from insect pests and requiring inputs of pesticides.  

A major source of worry, of course, is that global heating. As climate disruption proceeds, it is quite possible that the climates in temperate regions of good soils will become much less favorable to crop agriculture. Furthermore, climate change will require vast expenditures to continually adjust the water-handling infrastructure that is key to the most productive agriculture. And it seems likely to us that this will result in more serious mismatches between where agricultural water is needed and where it is available. In addition, in much of Asia, rice and wheat crops are growing at very close to their high temperature limits, so more heating could have drastic direct impacts on yields.  

Finally, the current boom in biofuels is causing a displacement of crops grown for food to make room for growing crops (food or feed crops mainly so far) for production of ethanol or biodiesel. In the last year or two, this seems to be the biggest proximate cause of food shortage and rising prices, but it is just an exacerbation of an already tight situation. Switching to biofuels also will tend to exacerbate global heating in many cases.

EO: Why we are where we are today? Will things change in the medium and long term?

Ehrlich: The last 60 years have been characterized by a race to increase food production fast enough to stay ahead of population growth. Although the population is now growing more slowly than it was 40 years ago, there also was a need to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and provide a more adequate diet. There has been considerable success in that, but some of the underlying problems described above may be undermining that success.   

Global heating has already slowed the increase in crop yields. As for the future ... much will depend on decisions taken by governments and international agencies on issues like the preservation of humanity's natural capital (especially biodiversity) that provides essential services to agriculture (pollination, pest control, etc.), ending the biofuels scam, and so on.   

Global warming and the "oil peak" will certainly constrain the use of fossil fuels, and probably the production of fertilizers, in the next few decades. Water shortages are already appearing and may well get worse.  Agriculture in many developing regions, especially sub-Saharan Africa, is largely undeveloped and unproductive in modern terms. Unless priority is given worldwide to maintaining and increasing agricultural production, including developing alternative, more ecologically sound methods of growing food, the picture will be very bleak.