Guest essay by Eric Worrall
China’s environmental and food logistics problems may be far worse than they are letting on.
China’s hunger for soybeans is a window into an encroaching environmental crisis
BY JEFF NESBIT
How China’s desperate efforts to source soybeans from all over the world is explained by the country’s fear of running out of water.
China approached Peru and Brazil with an extraordinarily ambitious proposition several years ago. It would build a 3,000-mile railroad from the western coast of Peru to the eastern coast of Brazil to handle commerce and trade from the interior of South America to China.
If successful, the massive infrastructure project would expand Peru’s trade options and give Brazil’s soybean farmers a cheaper, more direct route to China than the increasingly expensive shipping through the Panama Canal.
The much bigger question is why China was willing to go to such extraordinary lengths. Yes, such a railroad through the heart of the Amazon would shorten times for soybean shipping between Brazil and mainland China, and bypassing the Panama Canal to ship across South America and then from a Peruvian port would likely save the Chinese money. But why the pressing need? Are soybeans a genuinely strategic resource, requiring China to secure their continued supply?
The answer, in a word, is yes. Soybeans have become quite important to China. They are the answer–for now–to a looming crisis building for 20 years that now threatens the fabric of the Chinese economy in the near future.
Sixty percent of all soybeans grown worldwide are now exported to China, with 5% to 8% growth per year and no signs of slowing down. Experts predict this insatiable appetite could outstrip the entire global production of soybeans–including in the U.S. and Brazil–within a decade. This partially explains why China is willing to build a railroad through the Amazon. It needs to buy almost every soybean grown in South America.
In northern China, where soybeans were once traditionally grown, water tables are dropping at a rate of up to 10 feet a year. Northern China (and parts of the west) is running out of water. The remaining water in rivers and streams is so polluted that the government has a daunting sanitization task. Add the effects of desertification–drifting sands covering cropland at the rate of 1,400 square miles (that’s like adding a new desert larger than Rhode Island) every year–and it’s nearly impossible to grow soybeans in northern China.
The climate change in question isn’t necessarily caused by CO2, it might have been caused by excessive land clearing. A study in Australia in 2013 blamed excessive land clearing for a substantial drop in rainfall in arid regions (h/t JoNova).
The effect of land clearing on rainfall and fresh water resources in Western Australia: a multi-functional sustainability analysis
Mark A. Andrich & Jörg Imberger
It is widely recognised that southwest Western Australia has experienced a decline in rainfall over the last 40 years. It is generally thought that this decline is due to natural periodic variations and changes induced by global warming, but recently evidence has emerged suggesting that a substantial part of the decline may be due to extensive logging close to the coast to make way for housing developments and the clearing of native vegetation for wheat planting on the higher ground. We compare coastal and inland rainfall to show empirically that 55% to 62% of the observed rainfall decline is the result of land clearing alone. Using the index of sustainable functionality, we show that the economic consequences associated with this change of land use on fresh water resource availability have been underestimated to date and disproportionately affect the environment and poorest members of the population.
Read more (paywalled): https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13504509.2013.850752
If the claims in the fast company article are true, obviously its a huge risk for China to have to import such a large portion of their food needs, it leaves them very vulnerable to any interruption of international trade. But the alleged contamination and water table problems in the North of the country may prove intractable. Lets hope China finds a solution to their problems before their situation becomes more desperate.