China urbanisation could bring world to brink of food crisis

Academics warn that greater grain imports could be catastrophic

samxmeg/istockphotoThe world faces a food crisis if China's rural population continues to gravitate toward towns and cities, experts have warned.

Research by the UK's University of Leeds into the agricultural stability of China suggests that if recent urbanisation trends in the country continue, and it imports just five per cent more of its grain, the entire world's grain export would be swallowed whole.? The knock-on effect on the food supply — and on prices — to developing nations could be huge.

"China is a country undergoing a massive transformation, which is having a profound effect on land use," said Dr Elisabeth Simelton, research fellow at the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, and lead author of the study. "Growing grain is a fundamentally low-profit exercise, and is increasingly being carried out on low-quality land with high vulnerability to drought. Quality land is increasingly being used for high-profit crops, such as vegetables and flowers."

The study looked at China's three main grain crops — rice, wheat and corn — to assess how socio-economic factors affect their vulnerability to drought.? Researchers compared farming areas with a resilient crop yield with areas that had suffered large crop losses with only minor droughts.

They found that traditionally wealthy coastal areas were just as susceptible to drought as areas with poor topography in the east of the country.

photomorphic/istockphotoAt present, the Chinese government claims that China is 95 per cent self sufficient in terms of grain supply.? But if China were to start importing just 5 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, said Simelton.

The pressure on grain availability for international markets could, in turn, have a huge knock-on effect, she warned, with?poorer countries particularly vulnerable, as demonstrated by the 2007-2008 food crisis.

Simelton added, "These trends of urbanisation are also happening in India, with the population there predicted to keep on rising until at least 2050. Ultimately, the limiting factor for grain production is land, and the quality of that land."

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