By Julian Wong Mar.18.2009
In: agriculture, coal, rural development, uncategorized

Small-scale Agriculture: A Viable Solution for China's Food and Environmental Concerns?

A guest post by Heather Chi on the promise (and potential perils) of small-scale organic agriculture in China.

Given the urgent need to reform China’s agriculture and food production infrastructure in the context of rising concerns about the country’s ability to feed its growing population, the need to ensure food safety for locally grown and exported produce, as well as the need to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, promoting small-scale agriculture emerges as a viable option that China’s policymakers should seriously consider.

Firstly, small-scale agriculture has significant potential to lift China’s struggling rural farmers out of poverty. A recent study on fruit farmers in Shandong reveals that at least a number of small and poor farmers have been able to access traditional marketing channels despite the rise of larger industrial farms that are increasingly integrating these supply chains. This is largely on account of the observation that a majority of transactions between buyers and producers are conducted in cash and done on a spot-market basis, rather than by supply contracts. This suggests that increased financial and technological support for small, rural Chinese farmers could be a significant contributor towards boosting rural incomes and narrowing the income gap between traditional and industrial agriculture.

Researchers in Singapore, Vietnam and China’s Yunnan province from the recently formed international research network “Beyond Hills and Plains,” studying the “agrarian, ecological, cultural and trans-border transformations in the Southeast Asian Massif”, have also found that, in many instances within traditional agricultural communities, there was a strong correlation between respect for, and dependence on, the land and the pursuit of practices we would deem as ‘environmentally-friendly’, including maintaining ecosystem diversity, managing natural water systems and soil conservation. For the Tai people in Yunnan, and other communities in the Vietnam highlands whose societies revolve around the fields, agriculture forms an integral part of their culture and contributes to community coherence and cohesion as well.

Aside from rural China, there has also been a heartening rise in organic farms and farm cooperatives on the urban fringes of large cities such as Shanghai. Indeed, between 2000 and 2006, China jumped from 45th to second worldwide in the amount of land under organic management, with the country adding 12% to the world’s organically farmed land in 2006 alone, according to the standards of the Organic Food Development Center of China. Despite worries about the authenticity of food labeled ‘organic’ in China, and food safety concerns, it is encouraging to see the increase in state support for the organic sector, the increase in demand among Chinese citizens for organic products, as well as increasing collaboration between organic farmers in China -groups of farmers are combining parcels of land, switching portions over to organic management and then sharing in the costs and profits.

The Case for Organic Agro

Unsurprisingly, small-scale agriculture has been given the environmental thumbs up in a number of recent international publications, notably UNEP’s latest report “The Environmental Food Crises: Environment’s role in averting future food crises” which stresses the importance of organic farming practices, which include growing a diversity of crops that provide critical ecosystem services such as managing rainfall to maintain water supply, creating a diversity of habitats for local flora and fauna, and controlling pests. Another important feature of such organic farming practices is inter-cropping – growing two or more different, but complementary, crops in the same place at the same time – which minimizes dependence on external inputs like artificial fertilizers and pesticides.”

This is critical given the extent of agricultural pollution in China at present. A recent investigation by Greenpeace China (published in Chinadialogue) from March – November 2008 revealed that, despite the Ministry of Agriculture’s year-long efforts to prevent algal bloom in the Tai Lake (Wuxi), Wu Liangsuhai Lake (Inner Mongolia) and Chao Lake (Anhui) through encouraging ecological farming and recycling bio-waste – measures amounting to 100 million yuan in 2007, water in these lakes is still not fit for human use by national standards. The pollution has been largely the result of an increase in fertilizer usage in recent years, from 43.4 million tonnes in 2002 to 51.0 million tonnes in 2007, an increase of about two million tonnes every year. A shift from chemical-intensive agriculture to eco-farming is imperative.

Jiang Gaoming, vice secretary-general of the China Society of Biological Conservation, also writing for Chinadialogue, highlights the potential of small-scale agricultural practices to boost organic soil content and carbon storage (see also previous post “Soils & Sustainability: Tales from the Loess Plateau”).

According to Mr. Jiang:

There are 1.2 million square kilometers of farmland in China, with an average carbon storage capacity of 1.2 tonnes per square meter. Raising organic soil content by 1% would be the equivalent of absorbing 30.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even if this were to take three decades, one billion tonnes of carbon could be fixed in the soil each year.”

Clearly, this could contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and mitigating climate change on top of improving the soil’s ability to retain water and nutrients, and resist pests and droughts, thus promoting agricultural sustainability in the long term.

Mr. Jiang has several recommendations for moving towards an agriculture that promotes carbon sequestration:

  • Developing a straw-fed livestock industry, with straw collected at the same time grain crops are being harvested
  • Encouraging new rural energy sources, including livestock dung, which would also serve to reduce competition for fossil fuels between rural and urban areas
  • Reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and increasing the use of organic fertilizers, such as livestock dung
  • Differentiating the prices of agricultural products for different buyers (with urban residents paying a premium and hence increasing rural incomes, thus promoting organic production practices)
  • Promoting the use of traditional agricultural techniques that combine raising ducks and fish with rice farming, or poultry with grain cultivation

Excellent examples of the traditional farming practices mentioned in the last point are in Keisen, Japan, where a 2-hectare farm (with 1.4 hectares of paddy and 0.6 hectares of organic vegetables) was found to yield 7 tonnes of rice, 300 ducks, 4000 ducklings and enough vegetables to supply 100 people in an entire year; and in Yixing, Taihu (Wuxi), where some 200 mu of paddy fields are farmed with an army of ducks that eat pests and weeds and also paddle around the paddies, thus stirring up nutrients and also adding nutrients from their excrement.

The Other Side of the Story

However, it must be cautioned promoting small-scale, organic agricultural practices in China is not without its shortcomings.  One of the crucial concerns remains ensuring the standards of organic produce, both in terms of the authenticity of products labeled organic – with many farmers putting organic labels on conventional products or else mixing the two types of products, as well as the actual safety level of foods grown without fertilizers and pesticides, which may thus be more susceptible to disease. China’s food regulation infrastructure had been severely criticized in recent months following the tainted milk scandal and other food scares, and is already hard-pressed to ensure that food is fit for local consumption, much less meet the stringent standards of foreign organic importers and distributors.

In addition, with the widening income gap between rural and urban areas in China, and the rapid development of China’s cities as centers of economic opportunity and cultural exchange, it will be difficult to stem the flow of migrants away from traditional agriculture and into these cities in search of better jobs. Despite the monetary support, training programmes, and subsidies on organic fertilizer given by local governments such as Shanghai, it remains to be seen how popular the organic farm industry will truly become in the years ahead.

Low prices, such as those enabled by conventional production processes,  may be important for an increasing population of urban poor whom rely solely on the market for their food supply. Most of the arguments supporting conventional agriculture tend to focus on the inability of organic and small-scale agriculture to grow enough food for increasing populations but this has come into question in the context of research done by the Institute for Science in Society, which has numerous research pieces in Food Futures Now drawing from a wide range of sources, about the greater productivity of organic, small-scale agriculture and its benefits for the soil and water table in the long term.

While conventional agriculture does enable food to be produced and sold relatively cheaply simply because of the bulk of produce grown and processed, market prices rarely take into consideration the environmental costs of production and are also highly distortionary due to the  presence of oligopolies in retailing and distributing food. Hence, a comprehensive agricultural policy that looks into ways of producing and distributing a large quantity of food efficiently and equitably in China needs to address both concerns about the environmental capacity of existing farmland, as well as unjust and unsustainable power structures within the food industry.

* * *

The author, Heather Chi, is a second year Geography major at the National University of Singapore and freelance writer/researcher with a keen interest in the issues of food security, uneven development and social entrepreneurship. She is currently director of an anti-hunger initiative, Food for All, as well as a socially-oriented undergraduate research initiative, WeSearch! and has been involved in a number of environmental and social causes, including ethical consumption, recycling and anti-waste campaigns, human rights, mental health awareness and interfaith dialogue.

Comments (5)

  1. Flora Kan Mar.30.2009@10:32 am Reply

    ‘ There are 1.2 million square kilometers of farmland in China, with an average carbon storage capacity of 1.2 tonnes per square meter. Raising organic soil content by 1% would be the equivalent of absorbing 30.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even if this were to take three decades, one billion tonnes of carbon could be fixed in the soil each year.” ‘

    I am surprised by the amount of additional 30.6 billion tonnes of CO2 absorption estimated.

    1.2 million km2 = 1.2 billion m2
    If storage capacity is 1.2 tonnes carbon/m2

    1.2 million km2 farmland in Chine will have an absorption capacity of 1.44 billion tonnes of carbon.

    If a conversion figure of 2.5 is used, the 1.2 million km2 farmland has an absoprtion capacity of 3.6 billion tonnes of CO2.

    I think there could be a typo in the article, as 1% of 3.6 billion tonnes is 36 MILLION tonnes of CO2.

  2. Organic Fertilizer Oct.28.2009@3:24 pm Reply

    Great article Heather. Our environment is a system, if one of the pieces fail, the other will not function as well as they should. You are right in terms of traditionally grown food is “cheaper” because is not considering into the valuation the damage we are doing to our environment, our health, our wildlife. I believe that if organic trends become massive it will push de price down. There are also other alternatives that have been quite successful in the US, like the community gardens to support small farmers, grow your own food to do so, you don’t need huge spaces, you can even do it indoors. I disagree with you about the organic produce being more susceptible to diseases because when you nurture the soil with products that have no chemicals and are promoting the organic matter, it will result in plants being stronger. Is like if you have a good and balanced diet, you are not as susceptible to suffer colds, or any other disease.

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