Grain Importers Should Be Nice To Grain Exporters

Through most of our lives, growth in grain production outran world population growth.  That resulted in grain prices falling for decades and grain being fed to animals for meat production.  World per capita meat consumption more than doubled from 49 kg 1960 to 107 kg in 2009.  Growth in grain production per hectare stalled in 2000 though, and higher production from here can only come from putting more land under the plough.  That mainly means clearing Amazonian rainforest.  That is a finite resource and might cope with population growth to 2035 if the current benign climate holds. 

In the big game of musical chairs that the world is playing in terms of population growth and food production, not everyone is going to get a seat when the music stops. In East Asian region, the only significant net grain exporters are Thailand and Vietnam.  Most of the other countries are heavily reliant on imported grain and soybeans.  For example this is the grain consumption history of the Philippines from 1960 to 2013:

Imports are now feeding a rising percentage of the Philippines’ rising population.  The big one in the region is China and this is what their situation looks like:

China has a policy of autarky in grain production and it has mostly successfully fed itself for the last 54 years.  That policy of self-sufficiency doesn’t apply to meat, which is considered an indulgence.  Thus soybean imports took off in the late 1990s and these are mostly fed to pigs.  China is now one of the more well-fed countries in the region as shown in the graph of per capita grain and soybean consumption by country:

Chinese per capita consumption of 450 kg is twice the minimum required to sustain life and is approaching the US level of 600 kg per capita.  The very low level of per capita consumption in 1960 of 130 kg is well short of what is needed to keep body and soul together.  This was during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and up to 45 million people, 7.5% of China’s population at the time, duly died. 

The rise in Filipino, Indonesian and Malaysian consumption reflects their increasing standard of living and age profiles, in that a slowing population growth rate means a higher proportion of adults.  And now we have the graph that shows how vulnerable these countries are to disruption in grain supply:

Malaysia is importing 80% of its grain and soybean consumption.  Its per capita consumption of these is about 250 kg so grain is supplying most of their calories and protein, suggesting that there is no other major food source that these charts are missing.  So Malaysia is very vulnerable to supply disruption.  Similarly the Philippines has 40% of its grain needs imported.  Grain consumption is below 200 kg per capita, suggesting that starch sources such as bananas and cassava are a high proportion of their diet.  Indonesia is still clearing rainforest too and so might make it through a supply constriction without society coming apart. 

The Pentagon’s plan for war with China is called Air-Sea Battle.  The US has no interest in landing troops on Chinese territory and so Air-Sea Battle is basically a blockade of China.  In terms of food supply, this will mean that the 70 million tons per annum of soybeans that China imports will have to find another home and that China’s swine herd of 457 million animals will be killed off.  China has another 100 million more mouths to feed before its population peaks out.  That will require another 25 million tons of grain at close to the minimum subsistence level.  This could come from producing less chicken meat and so China might come through the Air-Sea Battle with its society intact.  The involuntary vegetarianism involved will be unpleasant, but there may not be mass starvation as long as the current benign climate holds.  For most of the other countries in the region there will come a time when they will go begging for grain.  When that time comes, Japan and South Korea should have first dibs on any US surplus.  Everyone else has proved to be fair weather friends. 

David Archibald, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Regnery, 2014)

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