June 10, 2011

Open letter to Peng Chong
Center for Earth System Science
Tsinghua University
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management
University of California

Dear Peng Chong:
I read with delight your article (China Needs No Foreign Help to Feed Itself NATURE vol 474 no. 7439 June 2, 2011 page 7).  It is good to see that there are credible plans afoot by which China will never face famine or even the need to import food competing with others that may need it at some time in the future. 

It also is good to know that China is building strategic food reserves.  That is only prudent.  Much as I approve, one thing does come to mind.  My experience is that bread simply does not taste as good as it used to.  Even French bread in France, once one of my favorite treats, is no better than acceptable.  I suspect it is because of strategic food reserves.  Nothing lasts forever, not even stored grain.  So in order to retain the reserves one must regularly replace it, drawing off the oldest for use while putting in the freshest.  Since common frugality dictates keeping the grain as long as it can produce acceptable flour, all the bread we eat is from grain that has been stored nearly as long as possible.  It is as stale as is acceptable.  So although the bread may be freshly baked, the flour is not fresh.  The same goes for any strategic food reserves.

I see no way out of this.  I think we are doomed forever to stale bread.  Still, it seems like a reasonable alternative to famine if things go badly.

On a more cheerful note, although I take your point that building villages takes up valuable crop land and the same with giving people permission to return to their native villages and build homes for seasonal use, there is a bright side to it.  In America the best land now lies under immense cities.  You could probably feed the world with what is under American pavement.  And there is a story that the Seminole Indians of Florida, when they won a court case that gave them some money, opted to build high rise apartments rather than homes in the Everglades.  They wanted to keep the Everglades as untouched as possible. 

The bright side depends on an observation.  As you point out, the population of China will reach a maximum in about twenty years.  Then it will start down.  The question is when it will stop falling.  Stop it must.  There is a saying in surgery, “Bleeding always stops.”  Of course it would stabilize at any desired level if the birth rate were to cooperate.  But in a couple hundred years of statistics over some hundred countries no country has ever had its birth rate fall below replacement and then recover to a survivable level.  None.  Not once. 

The birth rate in China is below replacement, and if the future follows the past, it will stay there.  When I point this out to my peers, they shout, “It’s the one-child policy.  Take that away and the birth rate will go back up.”  I don’t believe it for three reasons.  The first is that the policy was not introduced until the birth rate had already fallen, so it is idleness to expect the birth rate to go back up with its removal.  The second is that in places where the restriction has been relaxed there has been no change.

The third reason has to do with the cause of the fall.  Here are some references: 
R. Sibly et al., Science 309 607 (2005). 
A. Helgason et al., Science 319 813 (2008).
R. Labouriau, A. Amorim Genetics 178 601 (2008).
R. Labouriau, A. Amorim Science 322 1634 (2008).

As you can see they are good sources.  We can all agree that excessive inbreeding can be a problem.  What these papers show using multiple independent studies, is that as kinship decreases past the point where inbreeding is an issue, fertility falls very rapidly until it is below replacement. 

The moral is clear.  If you wish to have a population in the long term, you must have an adequate number of people marrying those who are adequately close relatives. 

It’s that or die out.

There are two ways to assure adequate consanguinity.  You can be royalty and have a college of heralds keeping track of everybody.  Or you can have villages. 

So those villages are your life blood for the future.  Without them your country, like most others, will be lost.  I cannot even promise you that what is being done will even work.  But it is the only thing that can work and so far as I know China is the only place even making an effort.

So carry on.  Keep up the good work.  Feed those folks and flourish.  But do not bemoan the fact that villages are not going away altogether nor begrudge them what they need to survive.  Without them you will not even be a memory. 

Let me know what you think.  I have a great deal more evidence. 


M. Linton Herbert MD

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