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China to import grain as economy grows: environmentalist

by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) June 4, 2008
China could be forced to become a major grain importer to feed its increasingly wealthy population at a time of record global food prices, a leading environmentalist said Wednesday.

As one of the world's top grain producers, China imports little wheat or corn, but may soon have to buy from abroad as citizens change their eating habits, said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute.

Brown, an influential environmental scholar, said four billion people worldwide are seeking to switch from grain-based diets to meat-based diets, which demand more farm resources.

"I don't anticipate much increase in China's grain production and I expect China to move into the international market," Brown told reporters in Beijing.

"If China imports only 10 percent of its grain needs, it will become the world's largest importer of grain."

Dwindling water resources in China, and a fall in crop yields brought on by global warming, will also force the world's most populous nation to tap foreign grain markets, he said.

China's 1.76 trillion dollars in foreign reserves will bolster its capacity to import more grain, he added.

"China's consumption of more meat, milk and eggs as it moves up the food chain is resulting in a two-million-tonne increase of grain consumption per year," Brown said.

Brown however debunked Western media reports that blame China's rising appetite for resources as fueling global food inflation, saying the real culprit was the Western drive to produce more biofuels for their cars.

"China's consumption of more meat, milk and eggs as it moves up the food chain is resulting in a two-million-tonne increase of grain consumption per year," Brown said.

"But grain fuel for the production of ethanol (biofuel) in the United States last year amounted to 20 million tonnes."

According to the World Bank, global food prices have nearly doubled in three years, with experts blaming factors such as rising oil prices and the growing use of biofuels.

Sky-rocketing commodity prices in the past year have battered developing countries, where food takes the lion's share of household income.

Rising food prices have sparked deadly unrest and rising malnutrition, and a number of countries have put limits on exports to try to feed their own populations.

"We are in the midst of the most serious food-price inflation ever witnessed," said Brown.

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