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Can the United States Feed China?

Mar 16 , 2011

China is at war. It is not invading armies but expanding deserts that threaten its territory. As old deserts grow, as new ones form and as more and more irrigation wells go dry, Beijing is losing a long battle to feed its growing population on its own.

In the years to come, China will almost certainly have to turn to the outside world for grain to avoid politically destabilizing price spikes. Enter the United States — by far the world’s largest grain exporter. The United States exports about 90 million tons of grain annually, though China requires 80 million tons of grain each year to meet just one-fifth of its needs.

Just as China is America’s banker, America could become China’s farmer. Such a scenario — to be dependent on imported grain, much of it from the United States — is China’s worst nightmare and one that could create nightmares for U.S. consumers.

The evidence of China’s plight is clear. Since 1950, some 24,000 villages in the northwestern part of the country have been totally or partially abandoned as sand dunes encroach on cropland. And with millions of Chinese farmers drilling wells to expand their harvests, water tables are falling under much of the North China Plain, which produces half of the nation’s wheat and a third of its corn.

Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and the author of “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.”

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