China is expected to surprise everybody and become the world's biggest grain producer next year. And that is just the beginning. The consensus among some of the world's leading wheat and rice experts, just back from China, including 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman E. Borlaug, is that the Chinese are going to increase their wheat, rice, and maize yields 25 to 50 percent in the next 10 years.
According to Dr. Borlaug, interviewed at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center here, China probably would have broken the world grain production record this year had not the North China Plain suffered its worst drought in half a century.
"The 1980 wheat harvest is down," Dr. borlaug said, "but there's no serious trouble thanks to tens of thousands of new tube wells. Otherwise it might have been a disaster."
In 1978-79, China produced more wheat than the United States, 61 million tons to 58 million, but grew much less than Russia. China is far and away the world's champion rice producer with 132 million tons compared to India's poor second place of 29 million. The United States still produces more maize, 197 million tons to China's 57 million, but US farmers feed it to pigs and cows while the Chinese eat it.
Will 4 million mechanized, oil-dependent American farmers mind being outperformed by 315 million muscle- powered Chinese peasants?
China is begger than the United States (2,403 million acres to 1,897 million) but is so mountanious and dry its cropped land is only two-thirds that of the US. By cropping more intensively, however, the Chinese sow the equivalent of 387 million acres vs. the US's 340 million.
The big reason China is likely to outproduce the United States from now on is chemical fertilizer. US farmers use about five times as much as the Chinese do, yet China's yields are still below the world average for wheat, maize, and barely and half of what the Japanese get with rice.
The Chinese, nevertheless, are catching up fast. Until 1960 the country had never used chemical fertilizers. Since the mid-1970s, it has built fourteen 1, 000-ton-per-day anhydrous ammonia plants and this summer started to double capacity at 1,200 small oil- and coal-based fertilizer plants. And China has all the domestic oil and coal it needs. Wheat production rose 50 percent between 1977 and 1979, from 41 to 61 million tons.
The country's success story starts with good soil. Unlike India, which uses dung for cooking fuel, China has been applying organic matter to the earth for centuries. Nothing goes to waste. In 1977 the Chinese applied 1.7 billion tons of night soil, cattle, sheep, pig, goat, and poultry manure, plant residues, green manure, mud and silt, city garbage, oil seed cakes, ashes, fish and silk waste, and Even bones. Until now, two-thirds of China's fertilizer has been organic.
Indeed the 320 million pigs in China today, up from 58 million in 1949, generate enough fertilizer to produce 30 million tons of grain a year, Dr. Borlaug estimates.
Chairman Mao called a pig "a fertilizer factory on four legs" and urged every Chinese family to raise one or two. (They pay for most village family TV sets.)
Since 1949 the Chinese also have invested heavily in irrigation. An estimated 83.7 million acres are now watered, representing the world's largest stretch of irrigated cropland or about twice the 39.5 million irrigated acres in the US. This allows for widespread multiple cropping and intercropping.
Amazingly, China feeds 24 percent of the world's people on 7 percent of its cropland and has managed to increase per capita consumption 50 percent since the revolution. Rice is the staple diet. Gurdev Khush, chief plant breeder at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, who was in China the same time as this writer in June, told me: "China's average rice yield is 4 tons per hectare. With enough chemical fertilizer this could easily be raised to 6 tons. China won't have any trouble feeding its people, up to the year 2000 and beyond."
In April the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau projected that China's 975 million population would rise to 1.2 billion by the year 2000, then level off at 1.5 billion, about the same 50 percent increase Dr. Khush predicts for rice production. And the bureau noted that its projection for the year 2000 could be on the high side "in light of China's recently announced policy to encourage the one-child family."
What is happening in China is part of the movement begun in the 1960s that applies Western biological science to agriculture. It enabled India to breeze through its worst drought in a century last year, thanks to 22 million tons of grain in stock. In Indonesia this year it has led to predictions of a record 20 -million-ton rice crop, creating a glut and embarrassing the Jakarta government. Jakarta officials, expecting much less, had ordered 2.6 million tons from abroad.
Western scientists find few crops in China today that have not been crossed with dwarf high-yield varieties originally bred in Mexico, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea. Other evidence of post-Mao China rapidly opening its doors to Western farm science is widespread. Since 1974 in wheat and 1976 in rice, China has been exchanging crop germ plasma and the latest farming techniques with the rest of the world. Most experts estimate Mao's 27-year rule set back Chinese biology and applied agricultural science a generation.
The apparent buoyancy of Asian agriculture contrasts sharply with recent gloomy forecasts from Washington -- particularly "The Global 2000 Report to the President" published by the Carter administration in August.
Africa, where food production fell 7 to 8 percent during the 1970s, and parts of Central and South America seem to fit the administration's study. But not Asia.
The Global 2000 report has the average Chinese eating 217.6 kilograms of food in 1973-75, rising to 259 kilograms by the year 2000. But in Peking this summer the minimum current per capita consumption figure was 286 kilograms. Some estimates ran as high as 307 kilograms.