eToday I thought I’d return to China’s one-child policy and an attack by two US-based researchers on one of the arguments for the policy: food security. Huang Wenzheng (PhD in Statistics at John Hopkins University) and Liang Jianzhang (professor ay Economics at Stanford University) write that:

“…China has sufficient arable land and food production capacity to respond to any demographic changes caused by liberalization of childbearing.

Food security crises result from a supply shortage rather than a change in demand. Even with an ultra-high birth rate, natural population growth is a few percent a year. If the supply remains unchanged, slightly rising demand will not cause starvation.”

What has this to do with the one-child policy? Well, one of the fears back in the 1970s of the Chinese government was that it would be unable to adequately feed its burgeoning population resulting in under-nutrition:

“Still, even if it won’t necessarily increase the risk of outright famine, it is true that China’s massive population may drive down per capita food consumption, resulting in chronic under-nutrition. This was one of the major reasons originally behind the one-child policy. However, China’s per capita food production continues to grow at a steady rate.

There is, however, a bona fide food security issue that China must face in the future. It is not linked to any supposed shortage in arable land, nor a growing population. Instead, as Chinese society gets wealthier, it will push up the opportunity cost of agricultural production; that is, the increase in revenue of other industries will lead to the increase in the cost of the labor force engaged in agricultural production. This, in turn, will push up agricultural product prices – and could spark a market failure in the food production business.”

So as other industries grow, agricultural production will also increase in price. But there is a lot of slack in the Chinese food system that could be tapped (we have mentioned these issues before in relation to famine on the world-wide level – the problem is supply and waste and politics, not population):

“China attaches great importance to food security. Its food self-sufficiency rate has stabilized at around 90 percent, and for grain this is more than 95 percent. The country’s food reserve is more than 30 percent of its annual consumption, which is twice the world average. This is a lot higher than the safety line of 18 percent recommended by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

In addition, China uses 20 million tons of grain every year to make liquor. The same amount of grain is reportedly wasted in reserves.”

In conclusion, the authors argue that the future of China’s food security will not be secured by limiting population and that attempts to do so merely reduces China’s full “potential”. As we’ve talked about on this blog before, China is in danger of now growing old before it grows rich, a situation that will surely have some Communist Party apparatchiks lying in bed at night awake and worried:

“The solution is to raise China’s agricultural output efficiency, and provide agriculture subsidies according to need. Moreover, the country’s food supply will depend more and more on the international market.

Ultimately, reducing the population cannot bring food security. Unless efforts are made to enhance the technical level of agricultural output, the comparative advantages of production will not necessarily be achieved. China’s advantage is not in agriculture, but in manufacturing. To continue to limit people’s fertility instead of allowing an immediate and full liberalization of childbearing is a chokehold that smothers China’s true potential.”

However, even if the policy were reversed tomorrow, we’ve seen that it may be too late to raise China’s low fertility rate. The “true potential” of China may already have been smothered. 

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...