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China's appetite is gobbling up supplies

A slice of pork is placed into a dipping sauce on a table full of pork dishes on March 23, 2008 on the outskirts of Lijiang in southwest China's Yunnan province.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Some of the variables that have been sending world food prices higher are reversible: bad harvests, bad weather, biofuel policy. They could all conceivably turn around, but over the long-term, there's one big unknown we can't really control: the growing collective appetite of 1.3 billion people.

From Shanghai, Marketplace's Scott Tong reports.


SCOTT TONG: Thirty-something Jane Hua strolls through a Shanghai supermarket. Not too long ago, food was rationed here.

JANE HUA: When I was a child I recall we will have a coupon to buy rice, or milk, something like that.

Oh what a difference a couple decades makes. Today, Jane wheels her cart around imported avocados, sushi, Oreos and all types of meat. She buys them all.

HUA: For a soup, something, I will just choose chicken. If I just want to have a party, for example, and then just probably I will use beef.

Which goes for $5 a pound. Jane is the face of China's new middle class, by some estimates 100 million people and counting. China, and India too, is developing an appetite for a wide range of foods, long out of reach for most citizens. These slow-motion dietary changes may be on the cusp of impacting world food markets. Take pork, by far China's main meat. Back in 1983, the average Chinese person ate two pounds a month. Now, it's seven pounds, and to raise one hog, say it weighs 200 pounds, it takes 800 pounds of feed, like soybeans, and
China's appetite for meat is not going to stop any time soon. Consider this. In the next 15 years, 200 million Chinese will migrate from the countryside to the cities, in search of better pay and better food, and that means protein.

WILLIAM MCCAHILL: All of the numbers that you deal with in operating in China are just astronomical.

William Mccahill is with the consulting firm JL McGregor.

MCCAHILL: And of course when they get graphed against global supplies of foodstuffs, as against global supplies of other commodities that China has begun importing, these have a great impact on the global balance of supply and demand.

Many analysts say hungry China will help keep world food prices high for the next decade. Part of the problem is China was dealt a horrible hand by Mother Nature. With 1.3 billion people, China has 22 percent of the world's population, but just 8 percent of its arable land, which is shrinking. Outside Shanghai, families grow soybeans and corn on little plots. That is plots that urban sprawl hasn't invaded, says farmer Chen Jianguo.

CHEN JIANGUO: In the last two, three years, things have really changed. There are more factories here than before, and all the roads out here, they're new.

So far, China has largely managed to feed itself, but David Orden, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, thinks that no longer makes economic sense.

DAVID ORDEN: Increasingly China should use the international markets. It's a country with a small land base for its population size. As income grows, China should be importing food, exporting other products to pay for it.

But food security is a touchy subject here. When the communists took power in 1949, they promised food self-sufficiency, says consultant Mccahill.

MCCAHILL: Remember Mao on the day he declared the People's Republic, stood in Tiananmen and said: "Today the Chinese people have stood up," and part of that had to do with independence from foreign supplies of food. Food has a kind of almost mythic importance in Chinese traditional culture.

Publicly, Beijing says China can keep supplying itself. It's passed rules to preserve precious farmland and squeeze more out of it. Liu Guoxiang is with the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences.

LIU GUOXIANG: The Chinese government has paid special attention to farming and food security, so the trend of self-reliance won't change since it's such a high priority.

Perhaps, but skeptics think it's just a matter of time before China imports vast amounts of grain to feed its ever wealthier, ever chubbier population, and suppliers and grocery shoppers everywhere will feel it.

In Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

KAI RYSSDAL: Our series "Food Fight" continues tomorrow. We'll take a look at how agribusiness is making cleaning your plate pricier.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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