The high price of cheap food

By Zheng Fengtian
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, October 15, 2009
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We all agree that the cheaper food is, the better; or do we? Having solved the problem of putting food on people’s tables, we are now facing whole new range of issues such as obesity, waste, and livestock diseases.

Cheap food comes at a price

A cover story on Time Magazine on August 31, 2009 highlights the heavy price Americans pay for the cheap food, including soaring obesity rates, which cost an estimated US$147 billion each year, soil exhaustion and outbreaks of disease among battery-farmed livestock. "The way we farm now is destructive of the soil, the environment and us," says Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Compared with the US, food in China is even cheaper, and the price we pay is even higher. We are rightly proud that we managed to feed and clothe 1.3 billion people. But more than 30 years on, we face even bigger challenges caused by overproduction of food, obesity, waste, livestock diseases, and so on.

Food is too cheap

Overproduction and government policy mean food prices in China are far lower than in other countries. Last year, international cereal prices were three times higher than domestic prices. One jin of rice cost six yuan overseas, but only 1.5 yuan in China. In Japan and South Korea, the price was 20-30 yuan. Price differences encourage smuggling. On June 4, 2009, a Guangzhou ring was discovered to have smuggled 8,600 tons of grain.

Obesity rate growing

The number of overweight people is growing sharply. The Chinese used to be among the thinnest people in the world. But obesity is reaching levels seen in developed countries. According to a national survey of nutrition and health, 23 percent of adults are overweight, and 7 percent are obese. That is 260 million people, or more than a quarter of the population. In the last five years, the obesity rate among children in urban areas has risen by 160 percent and in rural areas by 400 percent. Western countries are making huge efforts to curb the problem, but China has not begun to address it seriously.

Overuse of fertilizer and pesticide

China uses more fertilizer and pesticides per acre than anywhere else in the world, with serious consequences for people’s health and the environment. Recent research shows that 80 percent of nitrogen-based fertilizer is wasted and the carcinogenic runoff often finds its way into water supplies.

High density, high risk livestock farming

Livestock and fowl are raised in high-density farms. Typically they live in cramped, dirty, damp enclosures, where disease is rife. To prevent outbreaks they are dosed with antibiotics which travel up the food chain and are deposited in our bodies, posing a huge risk to human health.

Mountains of food wasted

In China, 85 billion kilograms of grain are wasted every year, especially in restaurants and school dining-halls. The catering industry reckons that 10 percent of food is wasted. If everyone were to save half a kilogram of grain each year, that would amount to 600 billion kilograms of grain, or the equivalent of 8.2 million mu of arable land. But while food remains dirt cheap it will be treated like rubbish and thrown away.

Low farm prices put a brake on domestic demand

Low food prices mean low farm income and, consequently, low overall domestic demand, at a time when we are trying to move away from reliance on exports. Another consequence is that farmers move to cities to look for work, neglect their farms, and their land is used inefficiently.

All these problems are getting more serious and require urgent attention by policy makers. We need to adjust price of food to improve the situation.

(This blog was first published in Chinese on October 11 and translated into English by Li Xiaohua and Jessica Zhang.)

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