Paving the planet: can China take a different route?

Posted: 18 April 2001

As the new century begins, the competition between cars and crops for cropland is intensifying. Until now, the paving over of cropland has occurred largely in industrial countries, home to four fifths of the world's 520 million cars. But now, more and more farmland is being sacrificed in developing countries with hungry populations, calling into question the future role of the car. Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Insititute reports.

In the United States, where there are three vehicles for every four people, the area devoted to roads and parking lots covers an estimated 16 million hectares (61,000 square miles), an expanse approaching the size of the 21 million hectares that US farmers planted in wheat last year.

In developing countries, however, where automobile fleets are still small and where cropland is in short supply, the paving is just getting underway. More and more of the 11 million cars added annually to the world's vehicle fleet of 520 million are found in the developing world. This means that the war between cars and crops is being waged over wheat fields and rice paddies in countries where hunger is common. The outcome of this conflict in China and India, two countries that together contain 38 per cent of the world's people, will affect food security everywhere.

Floating rice field, Asia© IRRIChina's limited cropland

Car-centered industrial societies that are densely populated, such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan, have paved an average of 0.02 hectares per vehicle. And they have lost some of their most productive cropland in the process. Similarly, China and India also face acute pressure on their cropland base from industrialization. Although China covers roughly the same area as the United States, its 1.3 billion people are concentrated in just one third of the country-a thousand-mile strip on the eastern and southern coast where the cropland is located.

If China were one day to achieve the Japanese car ownership rate of one car for every two people, it would have a fleet of 640 million, compared with only 13 million today. While the idea of such an enormous fleet may seem farfetched, we need only remind ourselves that China has already overtaken the United States in steel production, fertilizer use, and red meat production. It is a huge economy and, since 1980, also the world's fastest growing economy.

Assuming 0.02 hectares of paved land per vehicle in China, as in Europe and Japan, a fleet of 640 million cars would require paving nearly 13 million hectares of land, most of which would likely be cropland. This figure is over one half of China's 23 million hectares of rice land, part of which it double crops to produce 135 million tons of rice, the principal food staple. When farmers in southern China lose a hectare of double-cropped riceland to the car, their rice production takes a double hit. Even one car for every four people, half the Japanese ownership rate, would consume a substantial area of cropland.

Cars or food

The situation in India is similar. While India is geographically only a third the size of China, it too has more than 1 billion people, and it now has 8 million motor vehicles. Its fast-growing villages and cities are already encroaching on its cropland. Add to this the land paved for the car, and India, too, will be facing a heavy loss of cropland. A country projected to add 515 million more people by 2050 cannot afford to cover valuable cropland with asphalt for roads and parking lots. farming, IndiaWomen farm workers carrying home the rice harvest in the Indian state of Karnataka© Jorgen Schytte/Still PicturesThere is not enough land in China, India, and other densely populated countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, and Mexico to support automobile-centered transportation systems and to feed their people. The competition between cars and crops for land is becoming a competition between the rich and the poor, between those who can afford cars and those who struggle to buy enough food.

Governments that subsidize an automobile infrastructure with revenues collected from the entire population are, in effect, collecting money from the poor to support the cars of the wealthy. In subsidizing the development of an auto-centered transport system, governments are also inevitably subsidizing the paving of cropland. If, as now seems likely, automobile ownership never goes beyond the affluent minority in developing countries, this becomes an ongoing and largely invisible transfer of income from the poor to the rich.

A new transport vision

In a land-hungry world, the time has come to reassess the future of the car, to design transportation systems that provide mobility for entire populations, not just affluent minorities, and that do this without threatening food security. When Beijing announced in 1994 that it planned to make the auto industry one of the growth sectors for the next few decades, a group of eminent scientists-many of them members of the National Academy of Sciences-produced a white paper challenging this decision. They identified several reasons why China should not develop a car-centered transport system, but the first was that the country did not have enough cropland both to feed its people and to provide land for the automobile.

The team of scientists recommended that instead of building an automobile infrastructure of roads and parking lots, China should concentrate on developing state-of-the-art light rail systems augmented by buses and bicycles. This would not only provide mobility for far more people than a congested auto-centered system, but it would also protect cropland.

There are many reasons to question the goal of building automobile-centered transportation systems everywhere, including climate change, air pollution, and traffic congestion. But the loss of cropland alone is sufficient. Nearly all of the 3 billion people to be added to the current world population of 6 billion by mid-century will be born in developing countries where there is not enough land to feed everyone and to accommodate the car. Future food security now depends on restructuring transportation budgets-investing less in highway infrastructure and more in rail and bicycle infrastructure.

Lester Brown is Chairman of the Worldwatch Institute.


Worldwatch Alerts World Auto Production and Fleet, 1950-99, data and graphs

Land Area Consumed by the Car in Selected Countries, data