The End of Food

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'The End of Oil'

A Tour of China's Over-Heating Food Economy

The International Vegetable Fair in Shandong Province. China is emerging as a produce powerhouse.

Chinese Food

I visited the coastal provinces of mainland China in May 2005 to study the country's rapidly changing food economy. The big export scandals were still several years off, and Chinese agricultural officials were eager to show me the rapidly modernizing food system, from meat processing plants to wheat and vegetable farming. As we traveled from one booming farm city to the next, local officials and businessmen took me to their factories and laboratories and let me see first hand how the world’s most populous country nation is coping with the transformation of the national diet.

To market, to market
Chinese are eating more meat--including half the world's pork--but demand is hurting grain supplies

   With rising incomes and more efficient farms, Chinese are eating more like Western consumers—more meat and dairy and more processed foods. This new diet has improved nutritional standards--the rates of stunting are falling rapidly—but it's also having negative effects. Some one hundred million Chinese are now overweight. More seriously, rising meat consumption has pushed up demand for feed grains. But where the Chinese central government could once tell Chinese farmers exactly what to grow, Beijing relaxed that iron-grip policy in the 1980s in order to encourage farmers to be more productive. Unfortunately, while China’s newly entrepreneurial farmers are more productive, they're also more self-serving and have been abandoning grain crops, which have low margins (and need lots of fertilizers and water) in favor of raising more profitable vegetables and fruit.

The new face of Chinese Agriculture
Like many Chinese farmers, Ren Quing Hun traded grain farming for produce

This shift is making individual farmers and local governments rich, but it is also reducing China's overall grain supplies and has forced the country to give up its cherished policy of food self-sufficiency and start importing. China's emergence as a net grain importer has helped drive up prices of corn, wheat, and other cereals to record levels--and has raised questions about the long-term adequacy of global supplies.

Hand-crafted wheat in Anhui Province
Farm tractors are rare, and most farmers still hand-spray their crops

Making Every Inch Count
Farmland is so scarce in China that this farmer has planted wheat between his greenhouses.

The Next Napa
A grape research specialist tests new varieties for China's booming wine sector.

Fragmented Farm Scape
Because Chinese farm land is divided among all a family's children, farms are now average 2.5 acres.

And then....

                             .....scenes that never made the book.

Mountains of rubble
Demand for rock and gravel for China's building boom has leveled entire mountainsides.

Rapid Transit
Author, test-driving what passes for a pick-up truck in Anhui Province

Life in the fast lane
Every morning and evening, city streets are jammed with moms and children on bikes. Yikes!

Good advice...
...for a country of 1.2 billion that must balance soaring food demand with constrained supplies.