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China Reshaping Global Food Markets

As developing countries become richer, their diets shift from staples like rice and wheat to meat and dairy products, which along with use of corn in fuel, is taxing world grain supplies and driving up prices.

What’s the Latest Development?

As evidence of China’s growing appetite for grain-intensive products like meat and dairy, look to U.S. soybean exports. “China relies on American farmers in particular for soybeans to use in animal feed. Last year, total U.S. soy exports were nearly $20 billion—triple the level of a decade ago.” Also look at Chinese domestic consumption habits. “According to reports from the U.S. Foreign Agriculture Service, Chinese yogurt sales grew 15 percent in 2009, and dairy consumption overall is expanding 10 percent a year. Since dairy consumption remains low by the standards of the developed world, the report noted, it is expected to continue growing fast.”

What’s the Big Idea?

While world food supplies have always been highly variable, vulnerable as they are to changing weather conditions and disease, a shortage in one country was able to be offset by a bumper crop in another. “Now, with key reserves of many commodities at or near record lows, World Bank President Robert Zoellick has said the world is ‘one shock away’—a major crop shortfall in a large nation, a run of bad weather—from a serious food crisis. The potential fallout is clear: Rising food prices were partly behind recent unrest in the Middle East, and the bank estimates that food inflation has pushed tens of millions of people into poverty over the past year.”


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