Grain Pains

Imagine if the drought this summer near Moscow happened near Chicago or Beijing. Lester Brown has, and he's afraid.


Lester Brown is probably the world’s leading expert on food security. The prolific author of more than 50 books has shifted the goal posts on food politics debates many times over, starting with his first book in 1963, Man, Land and Food. His most famous book, Who Will Feed China?, launched conversations from Washington to London to Beijing about agricultural productivity in the world’s most populous country. His books on international environmental issues have been translated into more than 40 languages.

With a significant amount of Russia’s fields near Moscow going up in flames this summer, following a severe drought, Brown weighs in on what he finds most worrisome — and what the future of global food security might look like.


Foreign Policy: When’s the last time Russia faced a predicament like these recent droughts?

Lester Brown: Well, Russia has never seen anything exactly like this. One of the interesting things about the heat wave in Russia this year was, one, that it lasted two months — it started in mid-late June and went until mid-August.

The other thing is that the average temperature in Moscow in July was 14 degrees higher than the norm. I mean, that is a huge jump. If it had been one day or a few days, that would have been one thing, but for the average for a month to be that high is a little bit scary because it is an example of the kinds of more extreme climate events that the climate models say we should expect as temperature rises.

FP: If the elevated temperatures and drought had happened in one of the world’s breadbaskets — say, the American Midwest or China — what might the impact have been?

LB: While the heat wave in Russia reduced their grain harvest — and I’ll use round numbers and say from 100 million tons to 60 million tons, so they lost 40 million tons — it could have been much worse.

If that heat wave had been centered in Chicago, we would have lost at least 150 million tons of grain, maybe 200 million tons of grain. If the temperature of Chicago had been 14 degrees above normal during July, there would be chaos in world grain markets.

That’s because the area around Chicago is such an exceptional piece of agricultural real estate. Just to give you an example of how productive it is, the U.S. state of Iowa produces more grain than Canada.

Russia is much more like Canada. It’s relatively low rainfall, it’s pretty far north, and you’re growing wheat not corn, so yields are not very high. Even when you’re using the most productive technologies and inputs and so forth, you don’t get very high yields in either Canada or Russia.

FP: What if the droughts had been in the North China plains?

LB: Well that’s the other worrisome scenario. The two most dangerous places in the world to have a drought like the one near Moscow this summer would be a drought centered in Chicago or one centered in Beijing.

Beijing is located in the North China Plain. The North China Plain produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. China, like the United States, produces 400 million tons of grain a year. So anything that took a big chunk of their grain supply would have had an enormous effect on the world.

Interestingly, where China would likely have come to buy grain in the event of a drought would have been the United States, because we are the leading grain exporter. So for American consumers, if the Moscow heat wave had been in Beijing, we would see our food prices going up dramatically and the temptation would be, politically of course, to restrict exports, to keep our food prices under control. But China is our banker today and so there are limits.

FP: According to the Wall Street Journal, for the first time in more than a decade, China is importing significant amounts of corn from the United States. Is this year exceptional, because of flooding or other factors driving down yields in China? Or is China now coming onto the world grain market in a big way? I know Beijing doesn’t release specific data about harvests.

LB: No one knows for sure whether the dam is about to break in China — whether China is permanently coming into the world market for large quantities of grain.

But I can tell you that the things that really impact grain harvests are high temperatures, heat waves, and drought. That’s when you get the really big reductions in harvests. And this year? Flooding, though it can be very destructive locally, doesn’t usually have a major impact on the size of a country’s grain harvest.

Another factor is the Chinese are losing a lot of cropland as they build more factories and cities expand, as they build roads and highways and parking lots. Last year, there were 12 million new car sales in China. This year, they estimate there will be 17 million. Last year they passed the United States — we sold just over 11 million vehicles; they sold 12 million. But at 17 million, they’re going to be way ahead of us this year.

When you add cars, you have to pave land. You just can’t keep adding cars without paving. You need more roads, more highways, more parking lots. And China’s losing land at a pretty good clip now in part because of the enormous growth in their automobile fleet. In this country, the rule of thumb is that for every five cars you have to pave one acre — roughly a football field.

So these are the things on the supply side that are making it difficult for China to keep up with a near record growth in demand because in China, a large part of its 1.3 billion population is moving up the food chain and consuming more grain-intensive livestock products.

China now consumes far more meat in total than in the United States. It accounts for roughly half of the world’s pork consumption. Half the world’s pigs live in China, and it takes a lot of grain to feed those pigs.

FP: How has your thinking on China changed since the publication of your 1995 book, Who Will Feed China?

LB: First, that book had an enormous impact in starting conversations in Beijing. The idea that China would have to import grain from the outside world, and that a good part would have to come through the United States, was rather scary.

It was rather scary because — though I knew it intellectually, I hadn’t fully absorbed the emotion of the situation — all the leaders in Beijing at that time and indeed today are survivors of the great famine of 1959 to 1961, when according to official numbers, 30 million people starved to death. That sort of experience affects how one thinks about food security. As a result, China’s leaders started investing more heavily in agriculture; they raised the support price of grain to encourage farmers to produce as much as they could; they invested in irrigation efficiency; they invested enormously in agricultural research.

But how much further can they continue to increase productivity? The problem today is they now have their rice yields up to the level of the Japanese — and the Japanese hit the rice yield ceiling about a dozen years ago. Rice yields haven’t been rising in Japan, nor are they likely to rise much more in China. So the Chinese are hitting some sort of technological limit now with the rather substantial increases in grain production over the last 15 years.

In 1996, China produced almost 15 million tons of soybeans. They consumed 15 million tons of soybeans. In 2010, they will again produce 15 million tons of soybeans, and they will consume 61 million tons — which means they’re importing like 46 million tons of soybeans. Now that is equal to mor
e than 100 million tons of grain in terms of resource requirements on land, water, and so forth. Demand is going up and up.

Probably the one area where my thinking has changed somewhat is that I’ve always before been reluctant in thinking about things in a very broad sort of historical sweep. But we know that when earlier civilizations declined and collapsed, it was most often because of a shrinkage of their food supply. In the Sumerians it was rising salt levels in the soil, with the Mayans it was soil erosion associated with deforestation and over-plowing.

I sort of assumed that in our modern world, food could not be the weak link. I now think not only that it could be, but that it probably will be the weak link. And if I were to do a scenario that would take us from failing states to a failing global civilization, one of them would be the one I just described — a Moscow-type heat wave centered in Chicago that would decimate the U.S. grain harvest. Another would be a heat wave of similar magnitude near Beijing.

Christina Larson is an award-winning journalist based in Beijing.

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