Agriculture: A Comparison Between U.S. and China

  • Print
The following is an excerpt of the Browning Newsletter, a key source of information in describing the relationship between macro weather-related trends and their potential impact upon energy, commodities, and the wider global economy. To subscribe to her montly newsletter, CLICK HERE.

Agriculture: China Ain't No US!

Summary: History and a China/US agricultural analogy map from the 1950s and 60s show that the phase changes of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation are more disruptive for Chinese agriculture than for US.

Since 2006, I have been warning my readers that the Pacific reached a tipping point. From 1976 to 1998, the ocean was in the warm phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). This meant the eastern and tropical waters were warmer than normal. This had important implications. Warm waters heat the atmosphere and warmer air holds more moisture. With warmer waters off the coasts of the Americas, prevailing westerly winds carried the moisture inland. This brought bountiful rainfall to Canada, the US, and Argentina and they were breadbaskets for the world.

On the other hand, regions on the western shores of the Pacific had cooler temperatures. These were the times of Australia’s “Big Dry.”

Then, starting in 1999 and finally tipping in 2006, the PDO started to shift. Now the western and higher latitude waters are warmer than before and the eastern and tropical waters are cooler. This has made major changes in  precipitation patterns. This in turn has created difficulties for agriculture in many regions. Areas are seeing wetter or drier conditions than they have seen in decades.

These conditions are not unprecedented. The last time we saw climate similar to this decade was in the 1950s. Nations can go through past weather records and literally see both the past and their future.

One of the interesting documents from the 1950s and 60s is an old CIA map that showed the climate of China in those days, comparing it to equivalent agricultural areas in the US. At the time it was created, China was a mystery, closed off from much of the world with little document sharing. Experts used these to try to estimate day- to-day existence in China, such as annual crop and harvest conditions.

china us agriculture map
Source data: CIA

Basically, the US and China are two nations of a similar size (China 3.69 million square miles vs. US 3.68 million square miles) positioned along similar latitudes. Their lands include similar agricultural zones. Indeed, some growing regions are “twins” with similar weather and growing conditions. For example, North Texas and Yunnan province are “twins”, with ample rain and good monsoons during El Niños and drought stricken during La Niñas.

Of course, the parallels have limitations. Approximately 40% of US land is arable while only 11% of China can be farmed. So even relatively small weather changes affect a greater proportion of Chinese crop productivity. China’s farmland is in its densely settled eastern provinces while the majority of US farmland is in the relatively under-populated central regions. Still, it gives an insight to see the agricultural parallels of the two nations.

Notice China has no direct analogy for the rich US Midwestern farmlands – no “twin” for Iowa and Illinois, the heart of US agriculture. Their most intensely cultivated lands, the North China Plains and Sichuan, are equivalent in climate to Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, portions of the Southeastern US and East Texas.

Another, important factor, is that there is no region in China equivalent to the Iowa/Nebraska area that remains agriculturally stable during swings of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. As a nation dominated by monsoons, the transfer of winds and moisture between oceans and land, China is much more vulnerable to the water temperature changes in the Pacific. This means the nation’s agriculture is at risk for more disruption when the PDO switches phases, unfortunate for a nation where (according to World Bank statistics) 39.6% of the population is still in agricultural employment. Meanwhile in the US, a large portion of the Midwest is dominated by continental climate and has good rainfall most of the time, even when the Atlantic and/or Pacific change. Even when these areas are disrupted by weather, as they were this year, only 2% of the US employment depends on agriculture.

History shows that while the US and China are agriculturally equivalent in many ways, changes in the PDO are more disruptive and challenging for China.

Weather Notes from Around the World

The rainy season has hit southern South America with a bang. On the third week of September, an extratropical cyclone with 140 km (87-mile) an hour winds tore across the heart of the continent. It killed five people in Paraguay and wreaked havoc in Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia. Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay and Montevideo, Uruguay’s capitol, sustained heavy damage and even the President of Uruguay was injured by flying debris from a twister. Ten percent of Uruguay was left without power.

The hot temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean have created a year of “zombie” hurricanes, storms that just refuse to die. The first such storm was Hurricane Chris, described by Accuweather meteorologist Rob Miller as a zombie because, “the storm is alive, but it should not be.” It developed at a record-breaking northern latitude in June, an area that was supposed to be too cool for a tropical storm. Now Nadine, which started on September 11, has revived and entered the top ten for long-lasting storms as she endlessly stumbles back and forth through the Atlantic. She would have to last until October 11 to outlast the longest Atlantic storm, the Puerto Rican Hurricane of 1899, which lasted 28 days.

The good news is that, with the disappearance of the mid-Atlantic Madden Julian Oscillation and the El Niño conditions, most experts expect the hurricane season to quiet down. However, they warn that the season still has two months to go.

A recent study by the University of Southampton and associates in Venice has shown that sea surface temperatures in coastal waters are warming ten times faster than the rest of the globe. It turns out the “urban heat island effect” where concentrations of people and their use of energy creates local hot spots and is warming nearby waterways as well. Cities as far apart as England and Korea are having the same heating impact. This not only has a profound impact on the local sea ecology but, as this summer has shown, hot waters reheat the land, causing even higher temperatures. Coastal property is roughly three times the global average and currently 1.6 people live along the coast. What scientists are showing is that this movement is not only producing greenhouse gases, it is putting us in hot water as well.

There has not been much coverage of the wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest, but it has been intense. Indeed, by mid-September, they were measuring smoke from those fires drifting over Baltimore. By September 19, the smoke was visible over the Atlantic Ocean, east of Nova Scotia.

September has set two conflicting ice records. In the Arctic, the sea ice had reached record low levels by the second week of the month. The amount of ice was 50% below average and at the lowest levels ever observed since records began in 1979. Part of the reason for these levels was due to the massive August cyclone that shredded records amounts of the ice pack.

Then, two weeks later, scientists announce that the Antarctic ice is reaching or breaking records for largest extent. Data from the University of Illinois Polar Research Group show Antarctic sea ice extent reached 16.22 million square kilometers this week. That is not only the largest extent ever reached so late in Antarctica’s cold season (seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere), but also the second largest extent logged at any time dating back to 1979, when records began. The largest extent on record - 16.23 million square kilometers, which occurred around September 20, 2007 and could be eclipsed soon.

There is good news for polar bears, long the symbol of the perils of global warming, according to Professor Susan Crockford, zoologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Victoria, Canada. In a July article on her website,, Crockford reports that polar bears have successfully adapted to severe climate change many times in the past and will likely adapt to future climate change as well. Ironically, the colder, thicker ice that some people call for hurt the ringed seal populations, which in turn negatively affects the polar bear population even more than periods of widespread melt.

Source: Browning Newsletter

CLICK HERE to subscribe to the free weekly Best of Financial Sense Newsletter .

About Evelyn Browning Garriss