current affairs development food sustainability

The price of China’s economic growth

Last week a Chinese agricultural adviser issued a warning about the state of China’s soil. “The deterioration in soil quality is now a very important problem,” he told journalists, and could soon become a threat to China’s food security.

China feeds over a fifth of the world’s population on 10% of the world’s arable land, and it does so through intensive fertiliser use. Chinese farmers use twice as much nitrogen fertiliser as the global average, and China is the world’s leading manufacturer and user of chemical fertilisers, using 35% of the global total.

When coupled with a drive towards urbanisation, this presents China with a major problem. People move off the land into the cities, reducing the number of small farmers on which China depends. As cities expand, more arable land is build over, compounding the problem. Diets also change as people move into the city, and demand rises for more land-intensive foods such as meat and dairy products. It’s quite a squeeze on China’s overworked soil.

Forgetting to look after the dirt is an age old problem. In his book Dirt, soil scientist David Montgomery argues that the neglect and overwork of the land around Rome was a key factor in the fall of the Roman empire. Arguably, the more advanced a society becomes, the easier it becomes to forget the soil. We get distracted by arts and culture, technology. An increasingly small and marginalised section of society is actually involved in working the ground. It’s a dangerous place to be. Once the soil is gone, it takes centuries to replace it.

The soil is just one aspect of China’s environmental crisis. The whole world saw Beijing’s struggle to control air pollution ahead of the Olympics. Last year saw riots in three provinces over the government’s failure to regulate against polluters. In 2005, China’s deputy environment minister Pan Yue gave a telling interview to Spiegel Magazine, warning that his country had paid a high price for its economic development:

“the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China.”

Yue saw a direct parallel between the drive for economic growth and environmental degradation. He also saw that there were very obvious limits, and that some of those had already been transgressed. “Because air and water are polluted,” he warned, “we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product.” This is what Herman Daly refers to as ‘uneconomic growth‘, or “growth that increases costs faster than benefits, thereby making us poorer.”

Industrial society is at risk of becoming one big experiment in identifying the line between economic and uneconomic growth. China is just a starker example of the consequences of unsustainable development.


    1. Yes, all quite understandable. It’s just a shame to see history repeat itself so many times. I think the biggest challenge for China will be the social division that is emerging between the people who are suffering the pollution, and the people who are benefiting from the economic growth.

  1. Ah, yes. Social divisions are an unfair reality. As Prof. Yunus explains in his book, Banker to the Poor, economic development doesn’t always lead to poverty alleviation, contrary to popular beleif. It’s sad.

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