Bernardo M. Villegas
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Who Will Feed the Chinese?

           One of my readers reacted to an article I wrote in this paper about the "The Unlimited Capacity of Human Inventiveness" which was a take-off from a study of the Boston Consulting Group on "The fifty ideas that shaped business today."  He disagreed with my debunking the Malthusian hypothesis that the world is running out of resources because the world's population is increasing towards unsustainable levels.  According to him, Malthus is still right when it comes to food.  The technologies I cited--microchips, mobile communications, imaging technology, barcodes, and robotics, among others--won't directly increase the amount of food available to the 8 to 10 billion people who will populate this planet in the next decades or so.  He was especially anxious about China that has meager agricultural resources but is increasingly seeing its 1.3 billion people graduate to middle-income status.  When all these people in China reach a food consumption level, especially of high-value food products like vegetable, fruits and livestock, that will be similar to what citizens of advanced countries like the U.S., Japan and Germany consume today, the Chinese will eat the food of the world and the rest of us will starve.  These remarks remind of a book entitled "Who Will Feed China" by a resource specialist at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.   To make the future even more "scarifying", let us add the equally populous India that will surely surpass the Chinese population in the next decade or so.   And add other giant emerging markets like Indonesia and Nigeria. Who will feed all of them?

          Let me turn again to the BCG study that appeared in The Financial Times last June 2013.  One of the fifty ideas that shaped business today was under the chapter on Biotechnology.  Together with Information Technology and Material Sciences, biotechnology will be one of the defining fields of research in the twenty first century.  In the subsection entitled "High-Yield Agriculture," the BCG analysts first made a direct reference to the first prophet of doom in economics:  "In 1798 Thomas Malthus, the British theorist, postulated that the world's population would eventually outstrip the planet's ability to produce sufficient food for all, leading to widespread famine and death."  Of course, as I learned from the famous economic historians of Harvard, that never happened during the centuries after Malthus.  When I was taking my doctorate in the early 1960s, for a short period, it seemed that Malthus was right, especially as regards India where increases in grain production did not keep pace with population growth.  I remember that then U.S. Ambassador to India, the famous economist John Galbraith who taught our Development Economics course at Harvard, was busy arranging for food aid for India.  Fears of widespread famine was rampant after two droughts in the mid-1960s. 

          But what is the reality today.  Were the pessimists proven right?  The BCG report states:   "Today, however, India is self-sufficient in food grain.  The turnaround is the fruit of the Green Revolution, which brought high-yielding hybrid seeds and other high-tech, intensive farming techniques to millions of small farmers across Asia.  The Green Revolution was driven by philanthropic organizations (the Rockefeller and Ford foundations), international agricultural research institutes that developed the new high-yielding seed varieties, and governments that ploughed money into fertilizers, irrigation networks and pesticides."  We know only too well this phase of Asian economic history.  The leading international rice institute was in our very midst in Los Banos, Laguna.  Experts from all over Asia, especially  the Thais and Vietnamese, came to the Philippines to benefit from the findings of the International Rice Research Institute funded by Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. They returned to their respective countries.  Their governments had the wisdom and political will to shower their small farmers with everything needed to help them implement the learning they obtained from the Filipino and other international experts in Los Banos.  Our successive governments did not build the farm-to-market roads, irrigations systems, post-harvest facilities and other rural infrastructures that were so generously provided to the small farmers by the Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian governments.  Result?  Our neighboring countries became huge exporters of agricultural products, especially rice.  We continued to suffer from large shortages of all sorts of staple crops.  Clearly, the explanation is not the lack of technology or the lack of natural resources.  As I have been crying out literally for decades the culprit is the State neglecting rural infrastructures.  Fortunately, since the time of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the government has done much to focus on countryside development, the major symbol of which is the Philippine nautical highway.  The present Administration is building on her accomplishments and trying to increase the ratio of infrastructure spending from the very low historical record of 2 per cent of GDP to what is the average in the East Asian region, which is 5 per cent of GDP.

          Who will feed China?  Among the best contenders are Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.  If we persevere in building more adequate rural infrastructures--both hardware and software-- we may join the next group of Southeast Asian countries that will replicate the Thai model of agribusiness development.  I am referring to Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, all well endowed with agricultural resources.  There is no question that Southeast Asia, especially after the full integration of the ASEAN Economic Community, will be a major food belt for China and the other Northeast territories of Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.  Together with agribusiness behemoths like the United States, Brazil and Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, not only the Chinese can be fed at high levels of nutrition but also the other food-short regions  of the world.  With increased research in biotechnology, I am positive that twenty years from now, the food supply for the world will mirror what is already happening to the formerly critical input called petroleum.  In the next five years, we shall see an oversupply of energy.  One generation later, we shall see an abundance of food.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.