High health and environmental costs of cheap food

08:44, October 16, 2009      

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Illustration: Liu Rui (Global Times Photo)


Time magazine published a cover story on August 31, The Real Cost of Cheap Food, which reflected on food in the US, the most powerful country in the world when it comes to agricultural production and the export of agricultural products.

The article suggested a distinctive idea. Though the US has the most developed agriculture in the world and produces an astounding output, the consequent cheap food also has a real cost for Americans – the obesity rate in the US has risen quickly and stayed high in recent years, adding $147 billion a year in medical expenses.

Cheap food also extracts a high cost from the soil and natural environment. Doug Gurian-Sherman, an American senior scientist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has said, "The way we farm now is destructive of the soil, the environment and us."

Compared to the situation in the US, food in China is actually cheaper, due to excessive grain supply and a long-term national policy of low grain prices.

For instance, at the beginning of 2008, the international grain price was more than three times higher than that in China. Take the price of rice. One kilogram of rice costs about 12 yuan ($1.76) abroad, but was only sold for 3 yuan ($0.44) in China.

In China's neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea, the price of rice was even about 40 to 60 yuan ($5.86-8.79) per kilogram. Such disparities in price even led to smuggling.

In recent years, everything in China seems to have gone up in price, except grain.
China's obesity problem is escalating at a worrying speed – people get fat before getting rich, and beer bellies become a common sight.

Chinese people were once the thinnest in the world. However, currently, obesity is spreading as quickly as that in developed countries.

According to the statistics of China's fourth nutrition and health survey in 2004, about 22.8 percent of Chinese adults are overweight, and 7.1 percent obese. Together they accounted for over a quarter of China's entire population.

Over the past fi ve years, the growth rate of obesity among urban children is 160 percent, and 400 percent among rural children. If such tendencies continue, the obesity rate will soon catch up with that of Western countries.

In order to guarantee high grain output, China's current application rates of fertilizer per mu (666.67 square meters) is the highest in the world.

Nitrogenous fertilizer has been seriously abused, but the actual utility ratio is less than 20 percent. The excessive application of fertilizer and pesticide has led to the degeneration of the soil's physical, chemical and biological properties.

In poultry farming, many raisers are forced to focus on quantity, due to the low price of chicken. A bad growth environment led to poorer and poorer disease resistance among the poultry. Large doses of antibiotics are then used. When ultimately entering human bodies, they allow the buildup of antibiotic resistance diseases, and hurt public health.

The Chinese have a good tradition of cherishing grain. However, each year, about 85 billion kilograms of rice produced in China is purely wasted. In Beijing alone, there are 1,600 tons of leftovers on average each day. Each year, the Chinese consume alcohol made out of 30 billion kilograms of grain. If the grain price is not raised, grain will never be cherished.

The low grain price is still the reason of why it's hard to fuel rural demand, since a farmer's annual income is even lower than a migrant worker's monthly salary. Farmers are thus less and less willing to make efforts in grain production, and the limited land is used with low efficiency.

The author is a professor at Renmin University of China

Source: Global Times
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