WITH 22 per cent of the world's population and only seven per cent of its arable land, China has a big problem: how to feed itself without draining resources from other countries increasingly wary of a global food crisis. It is a question gaining increasing currency amid worrying signs that the world is becoming desperately short of food. The tremors have been felt everywhere. They may presage disaster. The world - where 35,000 children die every day from hunger-related diseases even in years of good harvests - may be on the brink of starvation. 'In the coming era, food supplies will be limited and the effects of shortages will be felt everywhere,' warned Lester Brown, an optimist turned prophet of doom, who heads the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. Europe's surpluses have shrunk at bewildering speed. Two years ago, 33 million tonnes of grain were in store; now there are 51/2 million. Worldwide grain stocks, which cushion against serious shortages, have slumped to their lowest-ever level, well beneath the two months' supply which the United Nations reckons is 'the minimum necessary to safeguard world food security'. The stocks are disappearing because, for the third year in succession, the world has produced less food than it consumed. Latest figures show that this year's grain harvest, some 1,891 million tonnes, is three per cent lower than in 1994, itself a bad year. Less food has been produced per head of population than at any time since 1975. Major aid agencies, the European Commission and several governments gather in Brussels tomorrow to meet meet hundreds of representatives of the world's small farmers to discuss what averting a global food crisis. The small farmers may hold the key. Much of Lester Brown's anxiety is based on his belief that food production will fall far below demand in China, causing it to import grain massively. This is hotly contested by the Chinese Government. However, the international economic body, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, forecast earlier this month that China would need net grain imports of between 20 and 50 million tonnes by the year 2000. In the event of a crisis, Hong Kong would be seriously affected because of its almost total dependence on China and overseas for food. The problem is one which China's leaders are keenly aware of and are determined to address. Vice-Premier Li Lanqing said last month that China had a duty to rely on its own resources to feed its population, otherwise 'it will cause enormous problems for the entire world'. However, with China already a net importer of grain (16 million tonnes last year), many economists doubt whether Mr Li and the Government can live up to their word. China's spectacular economic growth and greatly improved standard of living over the last decade have placed a huge strain on food supply. No matter what policies the government has introduced to bolster food production, consumer demand has always stayed one step ahead. The impact of the policies adopted by China will be felt around the globe. As the OECD pointed out, the choice of market liberalisation or protectionism - and the readiness of farmers and local authorities to release grain stocks - 'will affect international markets and hence the rest of the world'. China expects to see a record grain harvest this year of 450 million tonnes, up from last year's 444.6 million tonnes, but even that will not be enough to satisfy demand. Chinese agronomists have predicted the balance between grain supply and demand will remain 'fragile at best' unless urgent action is taken. The increasing demand for grain does not stem primarily from China's rising population. Demand for a more varied diet, including beef, pork, poultry and eggs, has increased dramatically over the last five years, forcing more grain to be used as feed for livestock rather than for human consumption. Central government has taken extensive measures to increase investment in agriculture and keep costs to grain farmers down so as to meet the demands of its increasingly affluent population. But Chinese researchers say provincial and local leaders have all too often given scant regard to such measures. Local leaders are still more concerned with developing industry than improving agriculture. Huge tracks of arable land, particularly in the fertile southern and coastal regions, have been turned over to industrial production with the result that the rice crop has declined by seven per cent since 1990. Although industrial growth has declined from the heady days of 1992 and 1993, analysts say there is still more money to be made from industry than farming and arable land will continue to be lost to the manufacturing sector. The Chinese Government's emphasis on car production and infrastructure development will place even greater strain on scarce land resources as arable land is transformed into roads, service stations and car parks. More than 95 per cent of the pork and beef in Hong Kong's markets originate in Chinese provinces ranging from Heilongjiang, Shandong, Hubei and Liaoning in the north to those closer to the territory such as Hunan, Guangxi, Jiangxi and Guangdong. A spokesman for China-backed sole distributor, Ng Fung Hong, maintains that China has a policy of guaranteeing its meat supply for Hong Kong even if disaster strikes. Other importers are not so confident. William Yuen Tze-fai, a senior manager at leading foodstuff importer Dah Chong Hong, notes that China has stopped exporting maize because of its shrinking output. The OECD expects China to be a small net important of maize in the years ahead. Dah Chong Hong now orders maize from the United States. Prices for the company's major products, including vegetable oils, sugar and other agricultural products such as soya bean and cereals, have also gone up by between six and 10 per cent in the past two years because of diminishing supply. 'There could be a food crisis in 20 to 30 years,' Mr Yuen said. 'But, in a few years' time, when governments become better aware of the food shortages, they will take action.' Hong Kong is heavily dependent on farmers in southern Guangdong, who supply 80 per cent of its vegetables, according to Kwok Kam-man, senior manager of the Vegetable Marketing Organisation under the Agriculture and Fisheries Department. Local output has been on the decline over the years, now making up only about 16 per cent of the 228,448 tonnes in supply last year, which was down from 234,595 tonnes in the previous year. The mainland's supply cannot be guaranteed. The amount of farmland in Shenzhen has shrunk due to property development. Fewer mainlanders are willing to work on the land. Many have flocked to cities for more profitable jobs. Last year's floods in southern Guangdong also cut vegetable supply. The bulk of the fish eaten in Hong Kong comes from the South China Sea. But the area is already experiencing a depletion of stocks due to over-fishing, according to a fishery marketing official. To keep up with demand, fish farming in neighbouring countries is likely to increase. The oceans are being depleted faster than the land. Every one of the world's major fishing areas has now reached or exceeded its natural limit of exploitation, and about half of them are already in serious decline. After growing twenty-fold since the turn of the century, the world's fish catch fell sharply in 1990 and has not recovered since. Scientists may develop new 'miracle crops', like those which ushered in the green revolution in the 1960s. Researchers at one of the powerhouses behind this revolution, the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines, are working on a new 'super-rice' which they hope will boost yields by 25 per cent. But the institute is warning of the danger of widespread hunger early next decade, and that financial aid to crop research institutes is falling. 'The nightmare of world hunger that was stopped by the 'green revolution' may return to haunt us,' warned the institute's director, Professor M S Swaminathan. He blames what he calls 'the greed revolution' as well as population growth. As people become more affluent they eat more and move up the food chain, consuming more meat, which takes vast amounts of grain to produce. Thailand is the key source of the territory's staple, rice, providing 70 per cent of the 328,500 tonnes imported into Hong Kong last year. Rice from China makes up just 12 per cent of total consumption in Hong Kong and this may shrink further because of limited demand. TANGMERE Airfield, a windswept collection of rundown runways in Sussex, England, is not the first place you would look for dramatic evidence of an impending world crisis. Each of its three hangars, which housed Britain's contribution to the European Union's (EU) grain mountain, was packed with food only a year ago. Now there is only the occasional grain of barley missed by the sweepers. It is the same all over the country. There are 36 such stores scattered across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland - and all are empty. 'The cupboard is bare,' says the Intervention Board, Britain's official manager of surpluses. 'There is nothing in store. There is no skimmed milk, no butter and virtually no beef and grain.' The Ministry of Agriculture agrees. 'I do not know what the appropriate geological simile is,' says a senior official. 'But it is as if there had been an enormous earthquake. Not long ago there was a chain of mountains; now all that is left is a level plain.' The scorching summer - the hottest recorded across much of the northern hemisphere - devastated crops in the US, Canada, and parts of the former Soviet Union and Europe. The US had its worst harvest for four years; Russia its worst in three decades, producing only two-thirds of the amount in 1992. Spain, with its fourth consecutive year of drought, harvested little more than half as much wheat as in 1994. Nor has the southern hemisphere escaped. Argentina, one of the world's great grain exporters, is suffering its worst drought in 40 years. With Australia also producing a disappointing harvest, all of the world's traditional generators of surpluses have had a bad year. As food got scarcer, food prices soared to record levels. European prices, kept artificially high for 20 years, have been overtaken by the world market. For the first time in two decades, the EU has stopped subsidising food exports to make them competitive. Such is the extent of the turnaround that it is preparing to tax exports to stop its relatively cheap grain being gobbled up by the rest of the world. Next year, courtesy of cuts brought in by the Republican majority in the US Congress, food aid is expected to slump to 7.6 million tonnes, less than a third of what will actually be needed even if the world escapes a severe famine of the kind that gripped Ethiopia 10 years ago. The likeliest candidate for a fresh catastrophe is southern Africa where 10 million people need emergency food aid after drought cut the harvest in half. Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe are in particular trouble. Millions more in the Horn of Africa desperately need help. There are serious shortages in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Tajikistan and many other countries. With stocks reduced and margins of safety gone, everything depends on good crops next year. But the world is, literally, losing ground. Every year 24 billion tonnes of topsoil are blown or washed away by erosion resulting from overuse. At least a quarter of the world's land surface has been degraded in this way: some estimates put it nearer 40 per cent. Increasing food production has relied on ever-increasing doses of fertiliser; its use grew tenfold between 1950 and 1989. But the law of diminishing returns is now at work. Each tonne of fertiliser applied in the US corn belt or Indonesian paddy fields now boosts yields by only half as much as it did 20 years ago. Indeed, global fertiliser use has fallen heavily over the past six years as more and more farmers have realised that their jaded soils can take no more. So can there be any hope? Can the world produce enough to feed itself at present levels and eliminate the monstrous death toll among children that takes place even in good years? And can the produce be grown in the developing countries where it is needed, without accelerating environmental destruction? Despite the pessimists, the answer seems to be 'yes' as long as the problem is addressed from the point of view of poor farmers in developing countries. Study after study shows that small farmers tending tiny plots of land produce far more food per hectare than richer ones with bigger holdings. They have to; they need all the food they can produce. Given help, they can dramatically increase production two or three times over with simple, affordable techniques.