- Grains in China: Foodgrain, Feedgrain, and World Trade
China’s food security had its five minutes of fame way back in 1995 when the publication of Lester Brown’s controversial book Food in China: Wake-up Call for a Small Planet (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) caused a genuine flurry of interest in the topic among Western press and television pundits. Those of us conducting research related to agriculture in China, while largely disagreeing with Brown’s ultimate conclusions, welcomed the attention of those sunlit halcyon days when someone beyond the academy seemed to care about this important topic imbued with global implications. In fairness, Brown’s book was published just as the Chinese government instituted a series of price and policy reforms that radically altered the domestic conditions under which grain was produced. These reforms, in turn, rapidly and dramatically reduced China’s participation in the global grain trade—at least in terms of imports. Dire in tone and conclusion, Brown argued that China’s rapid economic growth must invariably result in massive imports of food grains that would eventually undermine the international grain trading system, causing global shortages and greatly impacting developing nations that could no longer afford to buy food at inflated prices caused by increased demand and declining reserves.
The anticipated crisis proved to be greatly exaggerated. Indeed, most scholars would argue that the leadership of China’s farm sector has done a remarkable job—all things considered—of securing the nation’s food supply in the face of ever changing domestic and international conditions. How this has been accomplished over the past several decades and what the future might bring are the topics of this well-crafted edited volume. China’s turnaround from importer to exporter in a decade surely should be of interest to agricultural planners and researchers in all nations. This is not to say there are not significant and pressing problems (including the environmental issues raised by Brown and others) that must continually be addressed, but I know of no researcher writing in the mid 1990s who anticipated China’s vigorous participation in the global trade in agricultural products—as an exporting nation. However, in contrast to the well-publicized fears of the mid 1990s, China’s qualified success in this arena has not received the public attention it genuinely deserves. It is often said that good new travels on foot, and bad news on horseback. This is definitely the case for issues related to food security in China.
Writing a summary of China’s grain sector, especially one incorporating predictions for the future based on an analysis of the past, is a difficult challenge. In the past, this was well-trod ground, but this current book is more sophisticated in approach and should not be confused with previous efforts that relied largely [End Page 318] on aggregate published time series data gathered from one or two annual yearbooks. Bona fide time series trends are very difficult to generate, and the authors frequently note problems with data availability or quality that well may impact their results. This “honesty” is welcome. The pace of change of China’s domestic grain-related policies has been matched by equally mercurial annual production and changes in domestic demand for meat and livestock products, while being further obscured by many unresolved disputes related to the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. Indeed, it is hard to know what the future will bring, but this volume certainly raises all the important issues.
Most important, Zhang-Yue Zhou and Wei-Ming Tan are to be congratulated for a very fine and ambitious book that deserves a much greater audience than the book will probably get (although I hope I am proven wrong). In part, the volume is successful because virtually every chapter combines sound and succinct summaries documenting some aspect of the evolution of China’s grain production and trading system over the past two decades with a rich...