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China Edges US to Become World's Biggest Consumer


A new report says China is now the world's leading consumer of basic agricultural and industrial goods. The news highlights China's economic growth and global reach.

According to a report issued this week by the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, China consumes more coal, steel and grain as well as more refrigerators, television sets and mobile phones than any other nation.

Min Tang is the chief economist for the Asian Development Bank in Beijing. He says China's new middle class is behind the growth in consumption.

"Because in the last 10 years income more than doubled and so purchasing power in China is increasing," said Min Tang.

But China's total consumption rate fails to tell the entire story, with per capita consumption still far below developed countries such as Japan or the United States.

The Earth Policy Institute report claims China's 1.3 billion people ate almost 64 million tons of meat in 2004, nearly double the total U.S. consumption. However, the report also points out that per capita, Americans ate nearly three times as much meat in 2004 as the Chinese.

Bob Broadfoot is the managing director of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong.

He says China's enormous appetite for raw materials is - at least in part - the result of waste and inefficiency.

"[In] none of those cases is it a matter of excessive consumption," said Bob Broadfoot. "It's a matter of inefficient production and inefficient use. Really some of those numbers are extremely discouraging. For example the wastage rate in coal is over 70 percent. That's a lot of resources wasted."

Whatever the cause, Mr. Broadfoot says China's consumption rates have a global impact. From coal to steel to oil, Chinese demand for raw materials helps drive up global prices and puts pressure on limited supplies.

Environmentalists also warn of the local costs associated with enormous consumption.

The World Health Organization says that seven of the world's 10 most polluted cities are now in China.

And the environmental organization Greenpeace says the country could face an ecological disaster unless it limits pollution and protects its natural resources.