Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” 

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RALEIGH – One funny thing about catastrophe is that it affects different parts of the world differently on any given day. Climate is a good example. The weather can be lovely in one area while at the same time it is disastrous in another. Last week I was in Washington DC and the weather was fantastic. Today is the first day of June in Raleigh, NC and it is a remarkable 60 degrees F (16 C) and sunny right now. This kind of variation can cause skeptics in the temporarily pleasant areas to discount or dismiss the global effects of climate change.

Meanwhile in China it is a different picture entirely. Here are three things happening in China right now that humanity should be aware of.

A Disaster in China’s Wheat Crop

Every day the human population of planet Earth needs a certain number of calories to survive. Let’s do a very rough calculation. There are approximately 8 billion people on Earth right now. If each one of them needs a round number of 2,000 calories per day, that is 16 trillion calories that farmers need to grow and harvest every day. Or roughly 6 quadrillion calories per year.

Let’s try a thought experiment with this 16 trillion calories per day. If human beings ate nothing but wheat for their calories, how much wheat is that? There are about 1,550 calories in a pound of wheat. That means 3 million calories in a ton of wheat. Therefore, to feed all the people on planet Earth with wheat, we need approximately 5 million tons of wheat.

Obviously, humans eat a wide variety of foods besides wheat – we eat rice, corn, potatoes, oils, fruits, nuts, meats, and so on. But if we simplify it down to wheat alone, we can see the basic equation – farmers need to produce 5 million tons of wheat every day or someone is going to go hungry. If there is not enough wheat to go around – say there are 4 million tons of wheat produced today rather than 5 million tons –  then one of two things happens:

  1. In a perfect world, we would spread out the pain. Everyone on Earth might receive 1,600 calories for the day rather than 2,000 calories.
  2. However, our world can be quite imperfect when it comes to food. The people on planet Earth with plenty of money will get all the wheat they want for the day, and those who lack money might not get any wheat at all. Eventually these poorer people will starve to death.

This video shows one way in which humanity’s imperfection can manifest itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oufp8obsws

Now, with this bit of context in mind, we turn to the situation in China. This week China announced a major failure in their annual wheat harvest:

“Chinese authorities have been stepping up efforts in recent years to ensure the country has enough food to feed its 1.4 billion people, particularly in the face of global turmoil and uncertainties that affect imports, including the Ukraine war. China produced more than 137.7 million tonnes of wheat last year, according to official figures. “At least 20 million tonnes of wheat have been affected” by the recent rain…”

The wheat crop grew normally. Then, right before harvest, heavy rains started. The rain causes mold and can also cause the grain to sprout on the stalk, ruining the crop. Heavy rain can also prevent equipment from getting into the fields.

China is the world’s top wheat producer, growing about 17% of the world’s wheat every year. Now China has lost 15% of their crop. To put it another way, China lost 62 trillion calories of wheat, or enough calories to feed our entire planet of people for 5 days.

You might recall that last year, India (the world’s second most prolific wheat producer) lost a good fraction of its wheat crop in an intense heat wave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBpPpXfeito&t=23s

There will come a year where weather anomalies in multiple regions, exacerbated by climate change – heat, drought, floods – combine so that sizeable amounts of our wheat, corn and rice crops are lost simultaneously. There simply will not be enough calories available to feed 8 billion people, and we will face a mass famine situation.

The May Heat Wave in China

In the month of May, China experienced record-breaking temperatures:

This heat wave is worrisome because it is happening so early. The further concern is what might happen in August. Recall that last year, a heat wave and drought in China dried up rivers, affecting transportation and power generation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeL7tKcaadw

The drought problem is becoming significant for China, in the same way it is becoming significant for the American Southwest. This video can help understand the nature of China’s water situation and China’s proposed solutions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcC2MigiFEI

The Covid Epidemic in China this Year

You might recall that China had a zero-Covid policy in 2020, 2021 and much of 2022. Then, about 6 months ago, China dropped the zero-Covid policy because of public backlash and let the virus spread. Now, with the XBB variant on the loose, Covid cases are spiking in China:

“For the second wave since April, Zhong’s modeling revealed that the XBB variant is expected to cause 40 million infections weekly by May, going up to 65 million in June. This goes against the grain of Chinese health officials’ estimate that the wave had peaked in April. In Beijing, the number of new infections recorded between May 15 and 21 grew four times in four weeks.”

XBB is a less deadly variant. Earlier variants were killing about 1 in 100 people infected with the virus. Now China will be experiencing an extraordinary number of infections. This video helps understand the situation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ANhsnwS7r0


Three catastrophes are hitting China at once:

  • A significant loss in the wheat crop
  • An early heat wave that does not bode well for the summer
  • A fresh Covid epidemic that might cause a significant number of infections and fatalities

We can watch and see how things unfold for China’s 1.4 billion people during the second half of 2023.