Industrialisation of China threatens global food supply

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Agriculture, Cereal, Maize

Global grain markets are facing breaking point because of drought and mass urbanisation in China which is diverting land-use away from crops, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Leeds.

The study exposes the fragility of the global grain supply and states that if China’s recent urbanisation trends continue, and the country imported just five per cent more of its grain due to a shortfall, the entire world’s grain export would be “swallowed whole”​.

The research, published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy, said that the pressure on the availability of grains for international grain markets could have a “huge”​ knock-on effect​on the food supply and prices to developing nations.

It follows a year when food manufacturers faced soaring commodity costs in 2008 as prices for key raw materials such as corn and wheat reach unprecedented figures, putting intense pressure on company balance sheets.

Dr Simelton, lead author of the study and research fellow at the Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds, said: “China is a country undergoing a massive transformation, which is having a profound effect on land use.

“Growing grain is a fundamentally low profit exercise, and is increasingly being carried out on low quality land with high vulnerability to drought.

“Ultimately the limiting factor for grain production is land, and the quality of that land.”

However, she added that quality land is increasingly being used for high profit crops, such as vegetables and flowers.

Global grains production in 2008/09 is expected to climb to about 1,800m tonnes.

China produces about 500m tonnes of grain a year and, according to the Chinese government, the country is 95 per cent self sufficient in terms of grain supply.

The study looked at China’s three main grain crops - rice, wheat and corn - and how socio-economic factors affected their vulnerability to drought over the past 40 years using statistics of harvests and rainfall and qualitative case studies.

The report said that if China were to start importing just five per cent of its grain to make up a shortfall produced by low yields or change of land use to more profitable crops, the demand would “hoover up”​ the entire world’s grain export.

It added that increased urban development in previously rich farming areas would be the likely cause.

The report concluded that vulnerability to drought seems related to underlying population economic and land-use factors.

Volatile markets

Commodity prices have been rising since 2005, according to a report last year by consultancy firm Deloitte.

This has been blamed on increasing consumer demand from emerging markets and increasing populations, a competing demand for grains from biofuels, the rising cost of oil and poor weather conditions.

Possible solutions to help ease the problem include genetically engineered (GE) crops, which have potential for enhanced yields.

However, opponents argue that not enough is known about the safety of GE crops and food.

Source: Journal of Environmental Science & Policy

doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2008.11.005

“Typologies of crop-drought vulnerability: an empirical analysis of the socio-economic factors that influence the sensitivity and resilience to drought of three major food crops in China (1961–2001)”

Authors: Elisabeth Simeltona, Evan D.G. Frasera, Mette Termansena, Piers M. Forsterb and Andrew J. Dougilla

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