The news is surprising for several reasons. First, China has a one-child rule in place, so the population shouldn’t be rising that fast (or so one would think).
Second, China – at 9,326,410 square kilometers (about 3,601,000 square miles) – is the second largest country in the world, smaller only than Russia, which claims as part of its 16.3 million square kilometers such essentially uninhabitable areas as the Far East and Siberia. In fact, take out these zones and Russia is actually a small country, in keeping with its population.
China, with 19.5 percent of the world’s population (Jan. 19), beats out even India, with 17.3 percent. Still, we’re not hearing of Indian starvation, though the sudden rise in food prices globally – a rise not unlike that of 2008 – has been called a threat to governmental stability.
In 2008, spiking food prices saw riots from Haiti to Bangladesh, as nations already on the brink of destabilization tried to feed populations from a pool of increasingly pricey food or donations from an international community already strapped by a (recently declared) recession, which some called the worst since the Great Depression.
Today, in the first month of 2011, similar increases in the prices of staples like wheat and rice have seen riots in Algeria, export bans in India, and concern in the U.S., where plenty has given way to uncertainty and record numbers on food stamps.
Globally, food prices are up 32 percent, according to a report in Business Week. So why the particular focus on China?
According to Olivier DeSchutter, a Visiting Professor of Law at Columbia and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Right to Food (autumn 2010; rapporteur being one who is authorized to report), China faces food shortages because of its lifestyle; urbanization, over-reliance on fossil fuels and fertilizer, and land degradation.
The story has been told before. Rushing to catch up to the “big boys” in terms of a production economy, China has literally left part of its population behind, and the price it pays may be the sort of starvation it experienced during the Great Famine (1958 to 1961), when somewhere between 20 and 43 million people died because of unreliable weather patterns (including drought) and an even more unreliable governmental social welfare net.
At least, this is what DeSchutter seems to be suggesting, and those famine years – called the “Three Bitter Years” – is a period in Chinese history still has the power to inspire terror in bureaucrats. As well it should. Chinese politicians were too busy building a manufacturing infrastructure to cater to the needs of the Western world – an initiative some still call the Great Leap Forward – to notice that things in the heartland weren’t going as well as could be expected.
By the time someone picked up on the fact, it was too late for many, and China – overly eager to earn a reputation as a nation able to stand on its own two feet – did not ask for help.
In the 11th year of a new millennium, China again has reason to be concerned. According to De Schutter, about 345 million square kilometers of the nation’s arable land have been degraded by cropping practices, and another 82,000 square kilometers have been withdrawn for urban development, industrial parks and forestry initiatives.
The Chinese, unlike their Indian counterparts, are also getting a feeling for the high life – not surprisingly, just as some Western nations begin to calculate that lifestyle’s cost, in terms of environment. More Chinese are choosing meat over rice, and the demand for eggs has risen by almost a third over 2009. This isn’t even counting all the food exported to developed nations to fatten various corporate bank accounts and pay the workers.
In fact, as Chinese exports rise, and more Chinese abandon the countryside for better paying jobs in cities, that nation begins to look like the United States did in the post-WWII era, when we still could have changed direction, cut back on our demands, saved a lot of worn-out acreage from the bulldozer, and a lot of species from extinction.
Too late for us, now, especially as climate change wreaks havoc on California’s Central Valley, where all our winter produce is grown, and on the Heartland, where all our grain matures.
And, as DeSchutter suggests, it may soon be too late for the Chinese as well. However, they have something most developed nations can only envy; a 40-percent food reserve that includes 550 million tonnes of grain that gets released only when shortages loom or prices begin to fluctuate too wildly.
Thus, while DeSchutter brings a basket of bad news, I suspect the Chinese may weather the storm of recession and climate change better than those of us who think we are ready.
Article by Jeanne Roberts, appearing courtesy Celsias.