A few months ago, I commented on the (un)likelihood of China ending its one-child policy, noting also that there’s really no such thing as a single population policy that applies evenly to all of China. While I still think it’s unlikely that birth restrictions will disappear anytime soon, there has been a new round of policy relaxing as a result of the Third Plenum meeting of Party leadership last week in Beijing. For the first time, China will adopt on a national scale the policy of allowing a second birth if either the mother or father are single children. Previously, in most regions of the country, second births were only allowed if both parents were single children. UC Irvine and Fudan University demographer Wang Feng has estimated that this change will add one to two million additional births every year. “If carried through, the relaxation would be the first significant nationwide easing of family size restrictions that have been in place since the 1970s,” Wang says.
“This step is really, I think, the middle step toward allowing all couples to have two children, and eventually taking away the state’s hand,” Professor Wang said. “But this shift is historical. It’s fundamental. To change the mentality of the society of policy makers has taken people more than a decade.”
There is already some concern being expressed in the media about how this decision will impact China’s resource hunger. Fear of a hungry and modernizing China, with millions of mouths to feed and livelihoods to provide for has been a staple of popular media and environmentalist anxiety for decades. It was most notably expressed in Lester Brown’s poorly research and inflammatory book, Who Will Feed China? So, it’s not surprising that China’s announcement was met immediately with anxiety here in the US. The Wall Street Journal published an article yesterday titled “US Farm Belt to Feel One-Child Change in China: Growth in Chinese Population to Add Demand for Food.”
China will not be able to meet all its corn and soybean needs so it will rely on more imports. The U.S. is a prime supplier to China and that trade will become more important as time goes on. China is forecast to import 7 million metric tons of corn and 69 million tons of soybeans in the marketing year that started on Oct. 1, both records, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of that is used to fatten animals consumed by China’s burgeoning middle class, which ate 13.5 million tons of chicken and 52.7 million tons of pork, also records, USDA data show. China will import 775,000 tons of pork in 2014, again the most ever.
Well, as the article seems to make clear, the issue is not so much the numbers themselves, but the changing diets of a rising ‘middle class’ of Chinese consumers. Nor is it clear from the article that US farmers are themselves worried about China’s rise.