Few experts in the field would deny that there is a global grain crisis. Rising prices have provoked unrest in many countries, including Egypt, Haiti, the Philippines, Thailand and Cameroon. Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt and India are restricting rice exports and Thailand is considering it. It has become customary to apportion some of the blame on the booming economies of China and India, with their rapidly expanding middle classes and growing taste for a western diet. However, a growing chorus of mainland agricultural specialists and commentators argue that it is western policies and consumption patterns that are fuelling the crisis. They point to the enormous consumption of meat and grain by the western consumers and their pets, rampant waste, large subsidies paid to farmers and aggressive export policies, particularly of the United States, that are aimed at preventing poor countries from becoming self-reliant. Over the past year, global grain prices have risen 40 per cent, while stocks have fallen to their lowest level in 25 years. As one of the world's biggest producers and consumers of grain, the mainland has not been spared. In April, its consumer price index rose 8.5 per cent from a year earlier, with food prices up 22.1 per cent. The heavy snowfalls in southern China in January will affect this year's crop. It has become commonplace for commentators, particularly in the west, to blame food inflation on the switch of Chinese and Indians to an American-style meat diet, which is driving up the prices of meats and the grains needed to produce them. Mainland analysts reject this explanation. 'The most important reason for the grain crisis is the mistaken policies of the United States and Europe,' said an angry commentary two weeks ago in the Global Times, a daily paper published by the People's Daily. 'These mistaken policies provide subsidies and encourage grains to be used as fuel.' Zhou Li, an associate professor at the Agriculture and Rural Development College at Renmin University, goes further. 'The US has become a food imperialist. It uses food aid and free trade in farm goods to expand its food system. It uses grain as a weapon to control the political, economic and social development of developing countries. The global grain crisis is the result of this food imperialism.' Professor Zhou argues that the greatest single cause is the more than US$20 billion in subsidies paid by the US government each year to its farmers, including hundreds of millions of dollars to many to grow nothing. 'The poorest farmers in the world are forced to compete with the ministry of finance of the world' s richest industrial country,' he said. 'One third of the arable land in the US is kept idle as a matter of government policy. It could in a short time raise grain output by 30 to 50 per cent and could double production within 10 years or more. The aim of the food imperialist is to spread its food culture all over the world.' This means a meat-based diet that requires intensive breeding of livestock, animals that in turn eat large amounts of feed grain. It is a form of agriculture in which the US has no rival. Professor Zhou says the US has successfully replaced the food system of many countries. 'If countries were self-sufficient in food, that would not suit the interests of the US grain industry and the US strategic interest. Free trade in agriculture is a way for the US to make countries dependent on it.' Mainland economists point to North America and Europe as the biggest consumers and spoilers of grain. Last year, for example, the average American consumed 1,046kg of grain, compared to less than 400kg by a Chinese and 178kg by an Indian, according to figures released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. The average American ate 124kg of meat last year, compared to 89kg by a European, 54kg by a Chinese and even less by an Indian. Of this 124kg, 42.6kg was beef, the most inefficient meat to produce. Production of 1kg of beef requires consumption of 8kg of grain, while 1kg of pork requires 3kg and chicken only 2kg. Of the 54kg of meat eaten by a Chinese consumer, 64 per cent was pork, 20 per cent chicken and only 10 per cent beef. Each year Americans consume 20 billion hot dogs - enough to circle the equator 26 times. Last year they fed US$15.2 billion worth of grain to their dogs and cats. In Germany, one third of households has a pet - 25.2 million animals, who consume Euro2.32 billion (HK$28.49 billion) worth of grain a year. A survey by a German television station in April found that the average German family throws away one third of the food it buys, because prices are the cheapest in Europe; it could eat half of this waste. The mainland economists argue that if Europeans and Americans consumed less grain and meat, especially beef, and wasted less, there would be no global shortage. Professor Zhou's solution is to stop the globalisation of the food industry and replace it by local food culture and national self-sufficiency. This would mean encouraging people to consume natural food grown at home, rather than industrial and packaged food that is imported. Agricultural products should not be treated like consumer goods, when the playing field is so unfair thanks to the US and European Union food subsidies that put thousands of farmers in developing countries out of business. Speculation in commodities is another reason for the crisis, says Yi Bocheng, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. 'There are natural disasters and famines in Africa but there is no global shortage of grain. The high prices are in part created by speculators and traders,' he says. The mainland is better placed than many countries because it is largely self-sufficient in grains, with imports and exports accounting for less than 1 per cent of consumption. Production has risen from 305 million tonnes in 1978 to 502 million last year, with an increase of 16.4 per cent between 2004 and last year. 'The domestic and international price rises do not threaten our food security or mean a new Malthusian reality,' says Lu Feng, a professor at the China Economic Research Institute at Peking University. Nonetheless, the mainland has joined Japan, South Korea, Libya and Saudi Arabia in seeking to grow food abroad, as an insurance against future poor harvests and higher consumption at home. Mainland firms and individuals have invested in growing grains and vegetables in countries such as Russia, Mongolia, Laos, Mexico and Sudan, to export back home and sell to the domestic market. For the past 10 years, a mainland company has leased 1,400 hectares of land in Mongolia to grow rapeseed. Since it does not require pesticides or fertiliser, the production costs are low and the profits high. The success of the venture has encouraged other mainland farmers to diversify into rapeseed, which is used to make vegetable oil, feed grain and by the chemical industry. In 1996, the New Heaven International Economic and Technology Co-operation Company of Xinjiang invested US$50,000 to grow rice in Cuba, with yields superior to any produced by domestic farmers. In 2006, it invested US$3 million to grow rice on 1,050 hectares in Mexico. Several mainland companies are negotiating agreements with Sudan to grow grain for tax-free export to the mainland: they are being offered land with low rents and leases of 60 years. Fan Chuanjian, from Shandong , has been growing vegetables in Sudan for four years, to supply the local market. But, he says: 'Agriculture is a long-term investment, with a slow return. Grain prices in China are basically stable and market demand is not so strong.' The mainland is a latecomer to the fight for overseas land. Japanese companies manage millions of hectares abroad, more than the area of arable land in Japan, while South Korean firms manage farms in Argentina, Russia, Mongolia, China, Australia and Southeast Asia. Mainland efforts to secure land abroad are still at an early and experimental stage, says Li Guoxiang, deputy director of the Macroeconomic Research Institute at the Rural Development Centre of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'Results so far have been poor. Companies have been to African countries where land is easier to buy or rent. But problems arose, like security, a poor climate or grain shortages in those countries, making it impossible to export,' Mr Li says. In 2004, the government of Brazil invited mainland companies to buy or lease land and develop agriculture. Several firms responded by sending teams to consider investment, but few projects materialised. Brazil's interest in such investment waned with the increase in global grain prices and the growth of biofuels for motor vehicles: it could earn more profit cultivating the land itself. 'There is much undeveloped land in the world, but there are many restrictions on it. Some countries keep the land in reserve. And you need substantial capital. To ensure food security, China cannot rely on production overseas,' Mr Li adds.