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Towards a Food Crisis in China and the Whole World?
|Interview by Jean-Pierre Cabestan
Taipei, September 8th 1997
Jean-Pierre Cabestan: In 1995, you published Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call for a Small Planet. Can you first briefly sum up the main argument of your book and explain the timing of this wake-up call?
Lester Brown: The book was actually the expansion of an article we published in August 1994, also entitled Who Will Feed China, for the Worldwatch magazine. The thing that I began to realise a few years back, was that whenever a country is densely populated before it industrialises, invariably loses a lot of cropland to the industrialisation process, including the construction of factories, and highways, and so forth. And in the case of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, that process has been remarkably similar in terms of loss of cropland and the growing dependence on imported grain, and each of the three countries now imports more than 70% of its total grain supply. China today is where Japan was in 1960, in terms of population density, cropland per person, so the question is what happens to agriculture, to the cropland base if China develops more or less the same way Japan did. What we see is an enormous loss of cropland as the result of industrialisation, and also population growth: Chinas population is still projected to grow by another 400 million people. Now 400 million people is only a 33% increase in China, but this figure is enormous by anyone elses standards. Just providing housing for 400 million people, at five people per housing unit means building 80 million housing units, either free standing homes in villages or cities, or apartments in high-rises. It is going to take a lot of cropland. And what most people dont realise, is that although Chinas total land area is almost identical with that of the United States including Alaska, two thirds of China is essentially uninhabitable. Most of Chinas 1.2 billion people live in a thousand mile strip on the eastern and southern coast. For Americans to understand that, it would be as if we took the entire US population and squeezed it east of the Mississippi River and then multiplied it by five. That is the density of the inhabited region of China. So, we look at housing construction, and factory construction. There are a 120 million workers who have left their villages and migrated to the cities and to the construction sites, and the plan is to employ them in industry. If the average factory built in the future employs a hundred workers, which is par for the private sector, we are looking at the construction of one million factories. Every factory has to have a warehouse, to store the raw material going in and the finished product that comes out, while it waits to be shipped. Each one has to have an access road. Therefore, China will lose a lot of land to industrialisation and to population growth, and much of that land will be cropland, because that is where the 1.2 billion people live. So I am very much concerned about the loss of land and its effect on Chinas food production trends, but in addition to land, China, in contrast to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, will be losing a lot of irrigation water. The northern half of the country is now a water deficit region: water tables are falling, the Yellow River is being drained dry for part of each year. I do not think most people understand how serious the water issue is for China. The Yellow River now runs dry longer each year, and each of the last dozen years, it has failed to reach the sea for part of the year. This year it went dry a week earlier than it did last year. Last year, for part of the time, it did not even reach Shandong province, which is the last province it flows through en route to the sea. This year with the situation exacerbated by drought, for some weeks, it hardly reached Hebei province, which is the next province inland. And for a period, in late July and early August this year, a third of the irrigation wells in Shandong were not pumping, because the water tables had gone down. We have to remember that the Yellow River not only provides surface water for irrigation and other purposes in Shandong province, but it also recharges the underground aquifer, and when the Yellow River does not reach Shandong, the water table falls even faster.
A year ago, we were visited by Professor Chen Yiyu, who is vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and responsible for earth resources. I asked him if they were monitoring water table levels throughout China, and he assured me that they were. He then said there is an area in northern China where the water table has fallen by some 20 to 30 meters over the last few decades, and I asked him how large that area was. He said it is about a hundred million people: I asked the question in geographic terms, he responded in demographic terms. The reason he did is because he and his colleagues are asking themselves: What do we do when the aquifer is depleted, and the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge? I mention this because I think parts of China are facing some substantial cutbacks in the supply of irrigation water. The combination of losing cropland to non-farm use, and the loss of irrigation water at a time when the population is continuing to grow by 13 million people a year and China is still consuming more and more livestock products, is going to create an increasingly large grain deficit.
JPC: On this question of water scarcity, can you propose some solutions? Do you think bringing water from the south, which is not in deficit, would be too costly and would take too much time?
LB: If I were Prime Minister of China and had to decide whether to allocate capital to the Three Gorges project or transporting water to the north, I would have opted for the latter. It would be costly; it is a long distance water transport project. In the US, it would be comparable to the city of Washington deciding to get its water from the Mississippi River, which is 900 miles away. This is basically what Beijing is doing in order to get water, and it is going to take a lot of investment, because of the number of bridges and underpaths that have to be developed, in order to move the water that far. So, we are looking at some very heavy investment. Still, it is a relatively small response to the problem of water scarcity in northern China.
JPC: You describe land scarcity, water scarcity and soil erosion as the main factors of a possible food scarcity in China. How would you evaluate the respective weight of these three factors?
LB: I think water scarcity is the most severe limiting factor because there is a lot of land in northern China that could be very productive if there were abundant water. But it is the lack of water that is an issue; also at the global level, people talk a lot about water scarcity. When I meet with political leaders around the world, one of the things they often bring up is the water issue. If we are facing a future of water scarcity, then we are also facing food scarcity, because 70% of the water that is pumped from the ground, or diverted from rivers for human use, is used for irrigation, 20% is used for industrial purposes, and 10% for residential purposes. So, water scarcity means scarcity of irrigation water, and irrigation accounts for about 40% of the worlds grain harvest.
JPC: According to you, can a more extensive use of fertilisers, better seeds, an increase of multiple harvests, use of modern technologies and higher prices for the grains reduce the prospect of food scarcity in China? In other words, does not Chinese agriculture still have a great potential of productivity, as other experts assert?
LB: China does have the potential to further expand food production. The question is how this potential for expanding production compares with the losses from the diversion of cropland into non-farm uses and the losses of irrigation water supplies. I think the people who talk about the technological potential tend to overlook the loss of the basic resources of land and water. At the same time, China is not a totally underdeveloped agricultural country by any stretch of the imagination. For example, fertiliser use is very high in China. Last year, Chinas farmers used 31 million tons of fertilisers. US farmers only used 22 million tons. So there is not an enormous potential for increasing the use of fertiliser in China. In fact I doubt this would increase much more the production of grains in China.
JPC: I noticed in your publication that European countries and America tend to use less fertilisers.
LB: Fertiliser use has leveled off in Europe, North America, Japan and Russia. It may be in the process of leveling off in China as well. I think there is some room for improvement for getting a better balance among nutrients. In terms of overall production, overall use of fertilisers, I dont see much prospect for growth. I do think there is still some potential for increasing multiple cropping, and in a country that has a lot of unemployment, this is important. For example, transplanting rice is a long established process, by which you can get more rice crops per year. It is also possible to transplant corn, but no country does it: You can use corn seedlings and put them in the field. By doing so, in some areas in China, you could get two, or even three crops per year instead of one or two. There are still some possibilities.
JPC: The official grain output published by China was 490 million tons in 1996, an increase of 5% compared to 1995. On the other hand, since the early 1980s, the ratio grain output / population (390 kg/person in 1996) has, if not steadily increased, at least constantly remained above the world average (313 kg / p in 1996). Moreover, the Chinese government estimates that in 2000, output will reach 500 million tons (384 kg / person), and 700 to 730 million tons (437-456 kg / person) in 2020. Yourself, you predicted that Chinas demand for grain would grow to 615 million tons in 2030, and that it would face a grain deficit of up to 348 million tons by that year. How do you reconcile these two series of figures?
LB: First, the term grain used in China is somewhat different from the standard international usage. When they talk about grain production, they also talk about soy beans, potatoes and sweet potatoes. I did not include those in my figures. The projections that I did were based on certain assumptions about the loss of cropland, consumption, population growth, and those trends are very clear. But the question is: Can the Chinese government change those trends very much?
Interestingly I first published this article in 1994that got so much attention in Beijing. We released that publication in late August 1994, on a Thursday, and the following Monday, the Ministry of Agriculture held a press conference to respond to it. So, I think it scared them a bit, for two reasons: the leadership in Beijing is very much concerned with future food security. First, all the leaders in Beijing today are survivors of the great famine in 1959-61, when at least 30 million people starved to death. I think that left a psychological scar on the society that outsiders cannot fully appreciate. The second reason is that the Chinese now realise that if they become heavily dependent on other countries for their food supplies, they will become heavily dependent on the United States, because the US controls half of the worlds grain exports. So the Chinese are very sensitive and it has been interesting to watch how Beijing increased its support prices for grain in the last three years: they increased it by 60% or more in real terms. They have provided strong incentives for farmers to produce more and try to keep people on the land, to keep them from migrating to cities. They dramatically increased their investment in agriculture, through loans provided to farmers by the China Agricultural Bank. They are taking strong steps in trying to increase agricultural output, and with some success. Consequently, they brought down their grain import from 17 million tons in 1995 to perhaps eight million tons this year.
But the bottom line still is that they are going to have a great challenge in keeping grain prices high enough to keep people on the land, because as income is rising in the cities, the gap between them and the poor people from the countryside will widen. In Japan for instance, they kept pushing the support prices of grain up higher and higher. The question is whether China, still largely a rural society, can do that. I doubt it. There is already a debate in Beijing about whether they may not have pushed the support prices too high, and it is costing too much money. But they will continue to lose large areas of cropland. I was recently looking at some figures for airport construction in Guangdong, for example, which will cover 16,000 hectares. I am pretty sure it is going to be built on rice land. Every province in China is expanding its international airport, or building a new one.
The idea of emphasising the transportation system is actually being criticised by many people within China. There are some signs that China is beginning to back away from the heavy emphasis on developing an automobile centered transportation system, partly because of the effect on land area. So the problems facing the Chinese government are real ones, and the government is starting to appreciate how difficult it is going to be to satisfy future food needs, given the loss of croplands, and irrigation water.
JPC: Do you think they will increase their production if they pursue these efforts?
LB: I think the higher prices had an effect on the production, but this is a one time effect. In Japan for instance, where the support price for rice is six times higher than the world average, still the rice yields did not increase for the last 13 years, because there is only so much a farmer can do. They are already using the best varieties, all the latest technology, and China is moving toward the same situation, where no matter how high the support prices are, it wont have much of an impact on the production anymore.
I think one of the weaknesses in the analysis of the Chinese government is that they do not fully understand the physiological limits that they are beginning to approach in agriculturejust as Japan has with rice, just as the United States has with wheat.
JPC: According to your projections, Chinese grain output in 2030 will only be half of that in 1996. Can grain output decrease that much?
LB: The assumptions in my projections were that they would continue to lose cropland at the rate of the first half of the 1990s. I think also they have slowed that down somewhat, at least for the time being. For example, Guangdong has banned the construction of golf courses. The purpose of my analysis was not to predict the downfall of China, but to let them know that if the trends of recent years continue, they are going to have serious problems. I think they are going to have serious problems regardless what they do, but they can modify it somewhat.
JPC: What is the impact of your book on the Chinese? Do you think you woke them up?
LB: The increase of the support prices and the doubling of agricultural loans to farmers are good examples, but I dont think I should claim total responsibility for those things, because the circumstances were already there. But maybe everything was speeded up by my analysis, and I know that people have analysed my book throughout governmental channels. I may be better known now in China than in the United States. It is clear that my analysis influenced a lot of research in China on environmental issues. I have heard that both President Jiang and Premier Li have read my analysis.
JPC: The Chinese government claims that the overall surface of arable land is still increasing, up to 120 million hectares in 1995 compared to 109 million in 1994. Some land has been lost around the main urban areas but huge efforts have been made in order to expand cultivated land in other areas. Between 1990 and 2000, the Chinese government has planned to clear 330,000 hectares every year, which will allow a net increase of 13 million hectares. Moreover, local authorities tend to under-report their fields in cultivation, some experts say by as much as 25%. What is your assessment of these efforts and the real situation of the arable land?
LB: The Chinese now believe that the cropland area is actually 30% larger than officially reported, and I think this is the casethe US satellite data has confirmed this analysis. But as far as I am concerned, this does not change the analysis: China is still losing a substantial part of its best cropland at a time when the demand is going up rapidly, and while there are official efforts to reclaim new land, this land is almost without exception marginal land. Most of the good cropland is already in use, because there has been so much pressure on the land for such a long time. Most of the land that can be added has to be irrigated or terraced on mountain sides, so I dont see that as a major source of additional cropland.
JPC: As the average standard of living is improving in China, the diet of many Chinese has changed: in 1977 each Chinese could expect to eat 8 kilograms of meat per year. While this figure increased to 32 kg per year, the annual consumption of cereals has increased. Your argument is that such changes, far from alleviating the prospects of grain scarcity in this country, are putting heightened pressure on world grain supply. Could you explain why, keeping in mind that the Chinese diet will probably never be as heavy in fat-rich livestock products as the American diet (400 kg / person against 800 kg /p)? (1)
LB: At present, China is using just over 300 kg of grain per person, Taiwan about 400 kg, Western Europe is about 565 kg, the US is close to 800 kg. It seems likely to me that China will move up if incomes continue to rise, and it will move up toward 400 kg or so before leveling off. And when you combine a one-third increase in demand from moving up the food chain with another 400 million people, that provides a very substantial increase in demand of roughly 70% over the current level. So, it is that growth in demand, combined with the difficulty in expanding supply that will lead to growing dependence on imported grain. One of the interesting things about Chinas effort to expand its grain production is that it has come in part at the expense of oil seeds which is the second largest commodity group. And the demand in China for oil seed meals to supplement livestock feed and for vegetable oil are both going up very fast, at maybe 4 or 5% a year. China, this year, will probably import over 40% of its total vegetable oil supply, and that is likely to go up even more in the years ahead. Chinas dependence on imported oil seed meal is also going up very fast. So, while they made an enormous effort on grain, it has been partly at the expense of oil seeds. So one way or another, China is going to affect food prices in the rest of the world.
The water scarcity issue is an interesting one, because already we see around Beijing that farmers have been banned from reservoirs, because all the water in the region is now needed in the city of Beijing itself. As countries cut back on irrigation, they have to import grain to offset that loss: to import a ton of grain is to import in effect a thousand tons of water. What is now beginning to happen is that water scarcity is beginning to shape international grain trade patterns, in the same way that land scarcity has historically.
JPC: Most people in the Chinese government recognise that grain production will have to be complemented by grain imports. In 1996, those imports were still very limited, as you mentioned. Their estimations is that by the turn of the century, China will have to import between 35 and 45 million tons of grain a year, which will be a fair share of the worlds grain exports. Will it pose problems to China and the rest of the world?
LB: It is interesting that the Chinese themselves now recognise that they will have to import substantial quantities of grain in the future: not very large in Chinese terms, but in terms of international trade, these are substantial quantities. If China were the only country importing grain in the world, it might be manageable for at least some years in the future, but it turns out that many countries are increasing their grain imports. Indonesia is importing large quantities of wheat and increasingly large quantities of corn, as well as some of its rice. India and Malaysia are importing more grain, Thailand is now a corn importer, but used to be a corn exporter. Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Mexico are all facing severe water limits, and also what they can do in agriculture at a time when their population is growing rapidly. There are so many countries that want to import more grain, but so few countries that can export more grain. Both Canada and Australia are severely constrained by rainfall. People talk about Brazil, but it is the largest grain importer in the western hemisphere: if it does really well, it might become self-sufficient again some day, but it is facing large growth in demand from population growth. In the US, our land productivity is rising at only 1% a year, and our population is still growing at 1% a year, so it is becoming difficult for us to increase our exports.
As for stocks, I dont think it will be that easy to rebuild them, because the growth in demand is so robust. We are adding 80 million people a year to the world population, and incomes are going up throughout Asia. We focus on China, but the demand for grain is also going up in the rest in Asia. The growth in demand is very strong, but the capacity to expand production is diminishing. We can still expand production, for instance in Europe or in Argentina, but is becoming more difficult to expand it fast enough to keep up with the growth in demand. And again, water is increasingly becoming a constraint on production. There are dramatic examples emerging, on how water is going to reduce the capacity of grain production, Saudi Arabia being the most dramatic example.
JPC: After a fall in grain prices for half a century, you indicated that the world price of wheat has increased by 39% over the last three years. Between 1995 and 1996, corn price has more than doubled. Do you think that countries like China can import less expensive crops, in order to fulfill its demand? And are these trends going to continue in the same way?
LB: If our analysis is at all close to the mark, then the half century of decline of grain prices has come to an end: the low point came in 1993, and since then we have seen wheat prices go up by 37%, rice prices up by 30%, and corn prices up by even more than that. I expect that grain prices will continue to rise in the future but not necessarily every year. Some years they may go down, but I think the long term trend now is going to be toward higher prices. I differ from the analysts of the FAO and the World Bank who say the grain prices will continue to decline through the year 2010. The principle difference between them and me, is that they dont fully understand the physiological constraints on efforts to raise grain yields, nor do I think they understand the hydrology involved in expanding production. Water is, I think, the wild card in the next decade, and is now being greatly underestimated.
JPC: China can follow another rationale. Instead of investing in the agricultural sector at higher and higher cost, China could just import more grain, and at the same time expand its exports of manufactured goods in order to get the money to pay for those imports.
LB: That is exactly what Japan, Taiwan and South Korea did, and with great success, but I have real doubts China can do it, because of the size of China. Moreover, when Japan was industrialising, and turning to the outside world for importing grains, there was a surplus capacity in the world, but now, China will be facing different circumstances, with no surplus capacity. That is another reason why I did the China analysis, because I want governments everywhere to recognise that we may not always have surplus capacity and declining grain prices: We may face a future different from the past. In contrast to the economists of the World Bank who argue that the future is going to be an extrapolation of the past, I do not think so, I think it will be very different, and governments should recognise that sooner rather than later.
JPC: China is keen to preserve its economic independence, especially from the US. This is why China bought huge pieces of land in foreign countries, for agricultural purposes, like in Brazil. Do you think this kind of measure can alleviate the agricultural dependence of China?
LB: I have heard reports from various places in the world that China is buying huge parcels of land, which means the Chinese government acknowledges they are facing a problem with their scarcity of cropland. It is a growing trend in the world: George Soros bought 400,000 hectares of agricultural land in Argentina, because he thinks the price of the land and grain are going to go up in the near future, and he wants to take advantage of those trends. This shows that other people, some of the most savvy investors in the world, are beginning to share the views of my analysis of the future food prospect.
JPC: You have mentioned the possibility of a food crisis by the year 2030. What would be the main impact of such a crisis? War?
LB: The food emergency will come well before 2030. It could come almost anytime: I think the next poor harvest in the world could trigger a rather dramatic rise in food prices, and it might be difficult to get them back down again. It has often been said that in the Middle East, future wars will be fought not over oil, but over water. This is a possibility, but the wars over water are more likely to take place in world grain markets: the competition will be over grain. The reason why water is important is largely because of irrigation for grain production. And we are already beginning to see some signs of that. We have been watching for some time the growth in the global economy. International trade is expanding rapidly, the key countries are bringing their fiscal deficits down. So the economic indicators are very bullish but the environmental indicators are consistently quite negative. I think at some point, we will have to reconcile the economic trends and the environmental trends, because the global economy depends on environmental support systems. My sense is that agriculture is likely to be the sector that will reconcile these diverging sets of trends. It will come in the form of higher grain prices, that will lead to political instability in Third World countries, and Third World cities especially. This instability could disrupt economic progress, could affect the earnings of multinational corporations, the performance of stock markets and the stability of the international monetary system. At that point, the problems of the poor will become the problems of the rich, because up until now, most of us in the affluent West, have not worried that much about the price of food, because first we spend a small share of our income on food, but secondly because we dont buy raw commodities. We buy a loaf of bread, which in the US might cost one dollar, and contain 10 cents worth of wheat. If the price of wheat doubles, you add 10 cents to the price, no big thing. But for the 1.3 billion people in the world who live on a dollar a day or less, according to the World Bank, a doubling of the price of wheat is a threat. When you live on a dollar a day, you dont buy bread, you buy wheat, and you mill it yourself, or you buy corn, or rice and consume it directly. So, that is where I see the linkage coming between the environmental deterioration, between soil erosion, global warming, aquifer depletion, loss of biological diversity, over-fishing. I see all those trends converging on the food prospect.
JPC: The Chinese have made huge efforts, but what else can they do to improve the situation, slow down these trends?
LB: One, I think they should continue to press for the one-child policythat is terribly important. Two, one of the weakest segments of their development effort is increasing water efficiency. They still tend to treat water as essentially a free commodity, although it is becoming scarce. The water users are not charged very much, in some cases not charged at all, so it seems to me they need to move toward water marketing. They also need to concentrate much more on developing more water-efficient technologies. In my opinion, they need to rethink entirely their transportation strategy, because if they do continue emphasising the development of an automobile-centered transportation system, they are going to lose an enormous amount of land to the construction of highways and parking lots, and I dont think they can afford that. Also, they should protect cropland from non-farm uses, and my inclination would be to adopt a very heavy tax for the conversion of cropland to non-farm uses, so that anyone considering building a home or a factory would at least look around and see if there is some land which is not suitable for agriculture that could be used.
JPC: To what extent could the Chinese government force enterprises which operate outside of the state sector to abide by the new environment protection laws and regulations?
LB: It is a great challenge. Our sense is that the central government does not have much control over these enterprises to enforce these laws. In the US, we have a pretty good enforcement mechanism in place: all the major corporations in the US have to publish annually a toxic release inventory, all the pollutants they release in the atmosphere, and not only do they have to identify them, but quantify them, so that gives everybody a pretty clear picture of what they are doing. And it is difficult to cheat on that, because we know what manufacturing process releases what kind of toxic waste. There is not anything like that in China, so it is a real issue.
Also, new developments like the Yellow River running dry: Many manufacturers upstream just discharge wastes in the river with the assumption that it will be carried to the sea. But if the Yellow River does not reach the sea, then the wastes end up in underground water tables. The safety of underground water is going to be an enormous problem, and China could be one of the first countries to become heavily dependent on bottled water for human use, like drinking and cooking, because the water tables are so polluted.
JPC: In many cases, the Chinese government has imposed fines on the most polluting industries. But the companies concerned tend to integrate these extra costs in the overall production costs and dont really do much to improve the environmental situation. What can the Chinese government do about this?
LB: If companies simply decide to absorb the fines, then it is because the fines are not large enough. China is moving very rapidly in the pollution of its air and water toward a situation which existed in Eastern Europe until the political revolution took place. And that is something that the Chinese leadership should be concerned about. One of the reasons why the governments in Eastern Europe lost their legitimacy was because they were not dealing with environmental problems, in particular the pollution problems. Thus the people realised that their government just could not protect them from pollution.
JPC: Do you think that the state-owned enterprises do better than the others as far as environmental protection is concerned?
LB: I have not seen much evidence that state-owned enterprises are very good at this either. Indeed, in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union where there was not much other than state companies, they certainly were not very able to do a very good job.
JPC: What is your opinion about the Three Gorges project?
LB: The mind-set in China that has led to the construction of the Three Gorges dam is now outdated. The options today, for energy production, are much more promising with wind than with water. The Chinese themselves have taken wind resources in their inventory, and they now know they could double their electricity production by harnessing wind energy. The Three Gorges dam does not make sense displacing two million people and inundating large areas of land. Had I been Prime Minister of China, I would not have approved the Three Gorges project; instead I would have invested that capital in the north-south project.
JPC: Is the Chinese government cooperative with the Worldwatch Institute, and receptive to your analysis?
LB: The Chinese government has been highly responsive to what we have done, not always in a constructive way, but increasingly so. They have paid more attention to what we say. The more they criticised our analysis, the more it became clear they had a problem. If they did not have a problem, they would have ignored our analysis. I dont think any government has ever paid so much attention to our research as the Chinese government has to the book Who Will Feed China. It is extraordinary: I would not have guessed three years ago that we could have focused the attention of the Chinese government on the food issue as we have.
JPC: When you indicate that one of the leading potential dangers to the cropland is the development of the automobile in Asia, do you imply it would be better that neither China nor India catch up with the Western countries in terms of standard of living? Would that not be unfair?
LB: Not at all in my opinion. We have written an article in Worldwatch magazine that was published just a year ago, looking at Chinas development compared to the US, and the principal conclusion of that article was that China would demonstrate that the Western industrial development model would not be viable for China, and therefore not viable for the rest of the developing world. And in a context of an integrated global economy, not viable for the Western world itself in the long term. That is what we are learning from China. It is not just that an automobile-centered transportation system is not viable for China: in the long term, I dont think it is viable for the Western world either.
JPC: So, you are in favour of restoring in China some sort of Maoism with a human face?
LB: The question is: if we want mobility, how do we best get that? It is clear that the automobile and the city are not very compatible. We have the statistic in one of our recent reports that in Bangkok, the average motorist spends 44 working days each year in traffic jams: it is becoming ridiculous! In London today, the average speed of traffic is not faster than a century ago when they had horse carriages, and yet enormous investments of money have been made in road systems. This is not very sensible. Governments are beginning to realise that: we are beginning to see a move from the automobile toward rail transportation and toward the use of bicycles. For instance, we have a silly situation in the US where it is so unsafe to use bicycles in the cities, that people go to gyms and sit on stationary bikes for half an hour to get exercise. Something is wrong and we have to rethink the system.
One of the things that is going to come out of the Chinese experience is that we have to rethink our entire development strategy.
JPC: You have been criticised as somebody over-pessimistic, compared to Malthus, or the Club of Rome. They both proved to be wrong. To what extent are you different from them?
LB: For those who think I am being excessively pessimistic, I hope they are right, but I am afraid they are not. The reason why the Institutes work is being translated and published in some 30 languages is because it is seen as very useful, in trying to understand what is happening in the world today. We are today the most widely cited research institute, not only in the environment field, but I think in any field, although our research staff is only 15 people. The reason why State of the World is an instant best seller each year is because the research is considered valuable. The reason why I am asked to deal with corporate and political leaders is because they think our research is useful. Last year, State of the World was adopted in 768 college and university courses in the US alone. I cite that as an indication that the academic world values our work. Our goal at the Institute is not to be excessively optimistic or unduly pessimistic, but as realistic as we can be, because realism is a good foundation for policy making.
1. A large part of the grain consumption is indirect. It is used as animal feed. It is estimated that it takes two kilograms of feed grain to produce a kilogram of poultry; pork requires four kilograms of feed, and beef needs seven kilograms.