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Published by: Daisy on Nov 17, 2008
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The phenomenal rise in China’s grain production from90 million tons in 1950 to 392 million tons in 1998 wasone ofthe great economic success stories ofthe latetwentieth century. But in 1998 production peaked andturned downward, falling to 322 million tons in 2003. Asnoted in Chapter 1, this drop of70 million tons exceedsthe entire grain harvest ofCanada. Thus any attempt toexpand the world grain harvest enough to rebuild deplet-ed world grain stocks starts with reversing the decline inChina.
Virtually all ofChina’s production decline ofnearly18 percent from 1998 to 2003 is the result ofa 16-percentshrinkage in grain area. Several forces are at work here, asdescribed in Chapter 5. Cropland is being converted tononfarm uses at a record rate, including industrial andresidential construction and the paving ofland for roads,highways, and parking lots. With deserts expanding by360,000 hectares (1,400 square miles) a year, drifting sandsare covering cropland in the north and west, making agri-culture impossible. The loss ofirrigation water is alsoreducing the harvested area, particularly ofwheat, whichis grown in the northern, drier regions ofthe country.
In 2004 China’s improved grain harvest, lifted by a
Reversing China’sHarvest Decline
from Lester R. Brown
, Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challengein an Age ofFalling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures
(NY: W.W. Norton& Co., 2005). © 2005 Earth Policy Institute. All Rights Reserved.
substantial rise in the rice support price and unusuallyfavorable weather, was expected to regain 21 million of the 70-million-ton-drop ofthe preceding five years. Evenwith this projected production increase, China’s harvestin 2004 will still fall short ofconsumption by 35 milliontons. And there are several worrying trends that under-mine the hope that the harvest will rise consistently againanytime soon.
Grainland Shrinking
Chapter 1 described “the Japan syndrome,” a set ofinter-acting trends that explain why grain production declines incountries that are already densely populated before theyindustrialize. Each ofthe three countries discussed—  Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—had virtually identicalexperiences. In short, as industrialization gains momen-tum, grain consumption and grain production both rise,more or less together. In a relatively short time, however,grain planted area begins to shrink as farmland is convert-ed to nonfarm uses, as grain is replaced by higher-valuefruit and vegetable crops, and as the migration offarmlabor to the cities reduces double cropping. This shrinkagein grain area then leads to declining grain production.
China is facing precisely the same forces that withinthree decades cut grain harvests by one third to one half in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But China’s chal-lenge is even greater because it is also losing grainland toexpanding deserts and it is faced with spreading watershortages that are shrinking the grain harvest—problemsthe other three countries did not have.China’s deserts are advancing as its 1.3 billion peopleand 404 million cattle, sheep, and goats put unsustain-able pressure on the land. Indeed, desert expansion hasaccelerated with each successive decade since 1950. TheGobi is marching eastward and is now within 150 miles
Reversing China’s Harvest Decline
ofBeijing. Some deserts have expanded to the pointwhere they are starting to merge. Satellite images showthe Bardanjilin in north-central China pushing south-ward toward the Tengry desert to form a single, largerdesert, overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces.To the west in Xinjiang province, two much largerdeserts—the Taklamakan and the Kumtag—are alsoheading for a merger.
Wang Tao, Deputy Director ofthe Cold and AridRegions Environmental and Engineering Research Insti-tute, the world’s premier desert research institute, reportsthat on average 156,000 hectares were converted to deserteach year from 1950 until 1975. From 1975 to 1987, thisincreased to 210,000 hectares a year. But in the 1990s, itjumped to 360,000 hectares annually, more than doublingin one generation.
The human toll is heavy, but rarely is it carefullymeasured. Wang Tao estimates that 24,000 villages “havebeen buried [by drifting sand], abandoned or endangeredseriously by sandy desertification” affecting some 35 mil-lion people. In effect, Chinese civilization is retreatingbefore the drifting sand that covers the land, forcingfarmers and herders to leave. Most ofthis abandonmenthas come over the last two decades.
Overplowing and overgrazing are converging to cre-ate a dust bowl ofhistoric dimensions. With little vegeta-tion remaining in parts ofnorthern and western China,the strong winds oflate winter and early spring canremove literally millions oftons oftopsoil in a singleday—soil that can take centuries to replace. For the out-side world, it is dust storms like the ones described in thebeginning ofChapter 5 that are drawing attention to thedeserts forming in China.The removal ofsmall soil particles by wind in duststorms marks the early stages ofdesertification. This is
Reversing China’s Harvest Decline
tle herd has scarcely doubled since 1950, the number of sheep has nearly tripled and goat numbers have quintu-pled. The disproportionate growth ofthe goat popula-tion is a telltale sign ofa deterioration in forage quality,a shift that favors the hardier goats.
Millions ofrural Chinese are being uprooted andforced to migrate eastward as the drifting sand covers theircropland. Expanding deserts are driving villagers fromtheir homes in Gansu, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxiaprovinces.An Asian Development Bank assessment of desertification in Gansu Province reports that 4,000 vil-lages risk being overrun by drifting sands.
A report by a U.S. embassy official in May 2001 aftera visit to Xilingol Prefecture in Inner Mongolia (NeiMongol) notes that the prefecture’s livestock populationclimbed from 2 million as recently as 1977, just before theeconomic reforms, to 18 million in 2000. With the eco-nomic reforms, the government lost control oflivestocknumbers. A Chinese scientist doing grassland research inthe prefecture notes that ifrecent desertification trendscontinue, Xilingol will be uninhabitable in 15 years.
The U.S. Dust Bowl ofthe 1930s forced some 2.5 mil-lion “Okies” and other refugees to leave the land, manyofthem heading from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas toCalifornia. But the dust bowl forming in China is muchlarger, and during the 1930s the U.S. population was only150 million—compared with 1.3 billion in China today.Whereas the U.S. flow ofDust Bowl–refugees was meas-ured in the millions, China’s will be measured in the tensofmillions.
While the deserts are expanding, so too are the cities.With the fastest economic growth ofany country since1980, the voracious land hunger in the residential, indus-trial, and transportation sectors is consuming vast areasofland—much ofit cropland. The sheer size ofChina’sfollowed by sand storms as desertification progresses. Thegrowing number ofmajor dust storms, as compiled by theChina Meteorological Administration, indicates how rap-idly this is happening. After increasing from 5 in the 1950sto 14 during the 1980s, the number leapt to 23 in the1990s. (See Table 8–1.) The current decade began withmore than 20 major dust storms in 2000 and 2001 alone.
While overplowing is now being partly remedied bypaying farmers to plant their grainland in trees, overgraz-ing continues largely unabated. China’s cattle, sheep, andgoat population tripled from 1950 to 2003. While theUnited States, a country with comparable grazing capac-ity, has 96 million cattle, China has a slightly larger herdof103 million. But for sheep and goats, the figures are 8million versus a staggering 317 million. Concentrated inthe western and northern provinces ofInner Mongolia,Xingjiang, Qinghai, Tibet, and Gansu, sheep and goatsare destroying the land’s protective vegetation. The winddoes the rest, removing the soil and converting grasslandinto desert.
Even as overgrazing destroys forage, the number of sheep and goats continues to increase. While China’s cat-Table 8–1.
Number ofMajor Dust Storms in China,by Decade, 1950–99
See endnote 8.

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