By Rui Bingyou
Published: 2008-02-29

China's massive but dwindling aquifers would be on track to run virtually dry if over-pumping continued, said Lester Brown, prominent US environmental policy advocate. At that point, its grain production would dive, severely exacerbating any food price increases that had already accumulated. Without rationally priced water, Brown predicted this scenario and a severe global food shortages as inevitable.

At once an ecologist, author, farmer, and activist, Brown was one of the earliest pioneers of the modern environmental movement. He had worked in various capacities for the US Department of Agriculture, ultimately becoming the director of the International Agriculture Development Service in 1966. In 1974 he founded World Watch, a non-profit devoted to global environmental issues, and in 2001, the Earth Policy Institute.

In 1995, Brown wrote a book entitled "Who Will Feed China?", prompting worldwide attention and fierce debates in China on its role in affecting global food security.

As part of the EO focus series on China's rising food prises, Brown discussed with us the greater ecological significance in agricultural production.The key, he said, would be water.

The EO: Looking back fourteen years after you wrote "Who Will Feed China?", how do you evaluate the predictions you made then regarding China's ability to meet grain demands? 

Brown: The first thing is that immediately after I wrote that, China took a number of important policy steps. One was to raise the price of grain by 40 percent, another was to increase credit to farmers, and another was to invest more in agriculture and development. These together have helped China expand is grain production well beyond the level at that time.

Having said that, as an ecologist, in terms of sustainable advances, though some have been sustainable-- for example higher yielding crops--a substantial amount of China's grain production increase has come from over-pumping aquifers. As you probably know, water tables are falling all over china, including the North China Plain. The challenge is to find out how much of China's grain is being produced by over-pumping.

I don't have enough data to be confident, but as I recall-- and this is data I saw awhile ago—there are 100 million people living in the high river basin, which include Beijing and Tianjin, and there is extensive over-pumping going on. If I picked a number, I'm reluctant to but I remember 40 billion cubic meters (tons) of water left which is enough to sustain 40 million tons of grain. (This is a number from some years ago, but the general point is, a lot of over-pumping in China and grain produced this way is not sustainable. So if you adjust for that, then the actual gains would be much less than are being reported.

The other major point is that in the effort to remain self-sufficient in grain, in market terms that is, China has not been either a major exporter or importer of grain over the last decade or so. It has been essentially self sufficient. But if you look at what has happened to soybean-- its production has gone nowhere during this period, and China has gone essentially from being self sufficient in it to this year importing 34 million tons, around 70 percent of total consumption. A ton of soybeans is requires three times as much inputs as grain does, so that would equal 100 million tons of grain [lost if that 34 million tons of soybean were grown domestically]. So if China, for example, decided to remain self sufficient in soybeans, and decided to produce them domestically, it would then be importing substantial amounts of grain. It had a choice, and it decided to push for grains, but not much on soybean. Now, it's far and away the largest soybean importer, most of which are from the US and Brazil.

The EO: How should the government balance the need to keep water prices at a level bearable by common citizens, but high enough to discourage waste? What other water-management policies should China consider? 

Brown: One of the things that China needs to do-- and indeed most countries—is to charge full cost pricing for water so that the price of water reflects the cost of water on a sustainable yield basis as opposed to over-pumping. One can over-pump in the short run but not in the long run, and China, like many countries including the US, is over-pumping its aquifers.

Just to give you an idea what happens if you keep doing that, Saudi Arabia, which has been self-sufficient in wheat for years, because it has been over-pumping an underground aquifer, has recently announced that by 2016 that it will be out of the wheat business. I mention that because they have been realistic enough to look ahead and say when that aquifer will be depleted. Now Saudi Arabia is only 24 million people or so, not nearly as big as China so not nearly as big an impact.

But the point I want to make is that both have been over-pumping for some time. Now if you look at the North China Plain, the key to China's agricultural future, and more specifically look at the Shaolou and Deep aquifers there. The first is replenishable, naturally replenishable from rainfall. The Deep aquifer is a fossil one, so it does not recharge. And I know that some Chinese scientists have said that they dread the day when that aquifer is depleted because it will lead to acute or extreme water shortages. No matter how you cut it water looms large in the agricultural future of china—the challenge is to do projections as the Saudi's have done.

There's one other thing to think about on the water front and this is a bit more long term. A very detailed study in China on glaciers has been published... The number that struck me was one by one of China's leading glaciologists who said that the glaciers on the Qinhai plateau are melting at 7% a year. That's a rather staggering figure when you think about what it means for the flow of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, as both of them rely on the glaciers for their flow to be sustained during the dry seasons. The Ganges is also experiencing this now, which some scientists believe will become a seasonal one once the Gangotri glacier is gone. They think it will eventually flow only during the rainy season. I mention these things because they are so enormously disrupting. The irony of all this is the two country's whose food security will be most affected by these melting glaciers are the same two countries that are building most of the world's coal-fired power plants today. There's an irony in that situation and I think that Beijing and New Delhi are the same as Washington D.C. in that the political leaders have not been able to absorb the meaning of these scientific studies and make policy. 

The EO: A recent World Food Program Report paints a grim picture for the poorest in the world now struggling to maintain their caloric intake as prices increase?  

Brown: The entire world is going to be, indeed is already affected. I think there may be a tendency to think this is a temporary situation when in fact this may be a fundamental shift in the world food supply demand balance. It's affected by a number of things, most dramatically by the massive US conversion of grain to ethanol fuel for cars. The growth in the demand for grain by ethanol grain distilleries now exceeds all growth in demand for feed grain in the world, to put it in perspective. So we're seeing a dramatic tightening [in the grain market] that will become worse before it gets better. I don't know how the world will cope-- the problems are different between India and China because the margin of survival in India is so low.

The EO: How will Chinese society fare with increasing prices?

In China it's a different kind of problem because there is much more cushioning now between survival and grain levels, and much of it is being converted into other foods. In China it's more a matter of price stability and the relationship between food price stability, or instability, and political stability. China is probably more sensitive to food security issues than just about any country in the world simply because all the leaders there are survivors of the great famine of 1960 and 1961, a time when official stats say 31 million people died. That's something difficult for people outside of China to understand, but I would think that the political leaders in Beijing would be scrambling given the effects of melting glaciers to their future food security... The melting of these glaciers poses the greatest threat to food security that the world has ever seen.

The EO: Ten years ago it was argued that foreign suppliers were unable to anticipate spikes in grain demand in China due to lack of access to government data. Is this still the case now? 

Brown: I'm not close enough to the situation to answer with precision but my sense is that data dealing with food within China are much more available now than it was ten years ago. An exception to that is data dealing with underground aquifers, both how much they are being over-pumped and how much water remains for how much longer. The Saudi's say 2016 and it's over-- what about the deep aquifers under the China North Basin Plain? I don't know, but someone in Beijing should be thinking about it because it will certainly affect China's food prospects. 

The EO: What else should the Chinese government do in the short and medium term to guarantee sustainable food supplies and agriculture? 

Brown: The most important single thing is to price water at a level that more accurately reflects demand. To say that full-priced water pricing is going to create problems for people is certainly true, but the failure to price water at its real value will lead to the wasteful use of it and far more disruptive, damaging situation in the long term. I think the goal of water pricing policy should be to stabilize water tables, because stable water tables are the only way of managing underground water tables. That should be the goal, it's the only reasonable goal and should be the only acceptable goal. 

One other agricultural policy I'd like to mention is the need to transfer title of land to farmers so that it will encourage them to invest in improving that land and its productivity. There was a major advance in agricultural production after the 1978 reforms under the Household Responsibility System in agriculture. Now I think that the time has come to give titles to farmers so they can invest in it in a way that will help expand agricultural output further over the long term.