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Growing prospects: the future of organic farming in China

Success at an experimental farm in eastern China strengthens the case for investing in organic agriculture as a basis for building food security, writes Jiang Gaoming.

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My team of botanists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has completed test plantings of organic wheat at the Hongyi Organic Farm in the eastern province of Shandong, with exciting results: for every mu of land(around 667 square metres), the farm harvested 480.5 kilograms of wheat. In 2010, the test field produced 547.9 kilograms of corn per mu.That means the plot can produce a total annual harvest of more than one tonne of grain.

Shandong has been gripped by severe drought this year. Where fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides were used, even the best harvests yielded only 250 to 300 kilograms of grain; the worst, a couple of sacks. Some farmers have been left staring at their sparsely growing wheat and wondering if they should just give up.

Some years ago, I proposed that China make efforts to develop its organic farming, or eco-farming sector, but was told that people would starve as a result. Agricultural experts have continued to spread that idea, and many academics and officials have accepted it unquestioningly. As a result, ecologists have shied away from eco-farming, while biotech experts continue to rave that genetically modified crops are the only possible solution to China’s food security issues.

In 2007, my research team started experimenting in a field in Jiangjiazhuang, in Shandong’s Pingyi county. This was the worst land in the village, leased to us for only 110 yuan (US$17) per mu – a plot of the same size on good land near the village would have cost 300 yuan (US$46). The ground was rocky, and the soil only 20-centimetres deep. Thirty years ago, the community had used this piece of land as a threshing ground, since not much could be grown on it.

It was this kind of land on which our team of scientists started trialling organic methods, strictly avoiding the use of man-made fertiliser, pesticide, herbicide, additives (manure from pig and chicken farms are polluted with additives), agricultural membrane and GM technology. Five years later, production has clearly increased. Even the locals find it hard to believe this organic miracle. Zhou Jinglin, secretary of the local Communist Party branch, told a reporter from Shandong’s television network about the changes in detail. And, having seen the trial for themselves, nearby farmers have become more enthusiastic about eco-farming.

The methods used by the Chinese Academy of Sciences experts included: taking straw normally burnt off by farmers and processing it into fodder for cows, saving 1,500 yuan to 2,000 yuan (US$232 to US$309) per head of cattle; using some of the cow manure to make methane, to be used as an energy source, and the rest as quality organic fertiliser for the fields; and tackling pests with “physical and biological” methods – for example, insect light traps were used all year round, and chickens were kept in the field and fed on the insects. Weeds were hoed up and used as organic fodder for geese, fish and locust farming; and appropriate levels of irrigation used to maintain soil moisture. These methods allowed ecological restoration of unproductive land that had been polluted with fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide and allowed production levels to increase.   

In future, it should be simple to make eco-farming profitable – and the method for achieving this is straightforward: simply double the price of truly organic grains to over four yuan (US$0.6) per kilogram. Then the farmers will follow the scientists, and profits from farming will increase from about 1,000 yuan (US$155) per mu today to about 3,000 yuan (US$464) per mu.

If the government passed that increase in price directly on to farmers, China’s food security would be assured without polluting the environment. For an investment of only one trillion yuan (US$154.6 billion), China’s government could prevent farmers abandoning their farms and reduce imports of genetically modified foods. That is only one third of the spending earmarked for pollution and environmental management during the 12th Five-Year Plan period. In highly polluted areas, agricultural nonpoint source pollution (such as agricultural runoff) accounts for 70% of total pollution – much more than emissions from industry. Widespread eco-farming would help to put an end to this kind of contamination, as well as greatly reducing the sector’s greenhouse-gas emissions (it is more energy efficient than conventional agriculture).        

Agricultural experts will pay any price to obtain higher theoretical yields – with large quantities of fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide, they can achieve wheat harvests as high as 700 kilograms per mu in trials. But these kinds of yields are restricted to scientific experiments and, since they make no profit, mean nothing to farmers who simply want to increase their income.

Eco-farming is essential for the future survival and progress of humanity – without it, harmonious urban-rural development is impossible. The United States is blazing a trail in this regard: it has energetically developed eco-farming as a way of boosting health and protecting the environment. Between 1992 and 2008, the number of US government-certified organic farms increased more than threefold, from 3,857 to 12,941.

And, although initial investment in an organic farm is higher than for a conventional farm, the benefits are clear – the average turnover of an organic farm in the United States is US$217,000 (1.4 million yuan) compared to just US$135,000 (873,000 yuan) for all farms. In 2007, US organic farms with sales of US$1 million or above provided the vast majority (73% according to a report by researchers at the University of California) of the country’s total organic produce. While more and more US consumers are eating organically produced food, in China today, less than 0.01% of the population has access to the same: there is a bright future for this market.

Raising food production through the use of organic fertiliser would allow low-yield fields to become medium-yield, and medium-yield fields to become high-yield, while high-yield fields would consistently be able to produce more than one-tonne of grain. Stabilising high-yield fields at this level would mean 600 million mu of good quality agricultural land could produce 600 million tonnes of grain – more than China’s current total production of 500 million tonnes. China has wide areas of land where two crops can be grown in a single year (so-called “double cropping”): all of Henan, Shandong and Jiangsu, in east China, parts of Hebei and Shanxi in the north, as well as Shaanxi further west and the provinces in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, all have the necessary warmth and rain.

Unfortunately, China’s government and scientists are currently placing their hopes for future food security in increasing the yield of a single harvest – planting so-called “super crops”, such as “super rice”, “super wheat” and “super corn”. But in reality, grain-harvested areas are shrinking and farmers are leaving the land due to their losses. If this trend cannot be reversed, then better strains of crops will be of no use.

Currently, the Chinese government’s investment in eco-farming and organic research is, when compared to the 24-billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) budget for developing genetically modified crops, virtually zero. Agricultural resources are rising in price, grain imports are increasing and funds intended to benefit farmers often do not reach them. Moreover, there is a gap between agricultural research and actual yields, and farmers are less and less inclined to plant grain crops.

It is time the Chinese government took another look at organic agriculture. By employing effective methods, boosting farmers’ enthusiasm for grain crops, nurturing the land at the same time as using it and assuring agricultural businesses can make a profit, the Chinese people can bring China’s food supply under their own control.


Jiang Gaoming is chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. 

Homepage image from Hongyi Organic Farm

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生态农业? 这取决于你用什么种子?人口数量是多少?等等

中国的农业发展了几千年,很多落后地区的农业基本就是完完整整的生态农业,产量根本上不去。 传统农业里面无不蕴含了众多的科学道理,以云南为例,如:
1. 多品种稻谷混种减少稻瘟病(Zhu YY,nature 2000)
2. 良好的水利资源利用和生物多样性保护(红河梯田)
3. 良好的保护意识传承。 (版纳傣族龙山)



Ecological agriculture? This depends on what kind of seeds are you using, how large is the population, etc.

Chinese agriculture has developed for several thousand years, and agriculture in many backward regions is completely ‘ecological’, and has shown very little growth in productivity. Traditional, mainstream agriculture incorporates scientific truths. Using Yunnan as an example: 1. Genetic diversity and disease control in rice (Zhu YY, Nature 2000).
2. Good water management and biodiversity conservation (Red River terraces).
3. Protection of traditional knowledge and heritage (for example, the ‘Holy Hills’ of XiShuangBanna region’s Dai minority).
In other words, however many essays you write, your understanding of ‘ecological agriculture’ is one-sided, and many people already practice these techniques. The average agricultural people in Yunnan’s mountainous regions preserve the region’s good genetic resources for rice, buckwheat, chickens, etc, so they are the practitioners of ecological agriculture, but they are also one of the very poorest groups of people. Ecological agriculture, in the context of population growth and change, is not enough for sustainable development.

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Farm-shares and Weibo promotion

First I would like to say that I share many of CD's articles on Weibo. You should really start a weibo account!

It was inspiring to read about the progress being made at this farm in Shandong. Organic agriculture (and eating less meat) is the answer to ensuring food security and protecting the environment. Very few people have a true understanding of the short and long term impacts of chemical-intensive monoculture style of farming.

Just last night I had a conversation about organic food and fair trade products and discovered that many of my Chinese friends and colleagues would pay a higher price for a more socially and environmentally responsible produce and products.

Growing up in a rural area of North America I saw the first hand advantages of organic farming and face-to-face interactions with local farmers, markets of barter or reciprocal exchange rather than using money. Surely this can only happen on a smaller scale, but recently I've heard of "farm shares" of organic vegetables delivering organic produce to "members" within Chengdu. This is a step in the right direction.

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our weibo account

Hi iseastars, thanks for your message. Actually, we already have a weibo account - look us up at weibo.com/chinadialogue



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我工作的地方是一家小型的非政府组织Giving Hand(援手),从西方国家企业进口无法卖出的或剩余产品,然后将这些产品捐献给中国的慈善机构或贫困山区。

我把这叫作全球“freeganism(免费有机主义)”。看到每年有那么多完整的功能性产品被焚烧或者损毁,只是因为这些产品卖不出或者是过季了,真让人嫉恶如仇。很多产品都是在中国制造,运往海外(运输的环境外部经济效果...),然后在仓库内腐烂,从未被使用过。这是全球资本主义的可悲事实,无论“无形的手”规定这些产品的需求在哪里,实际上,那些产出这些产品的人们是可以使用这些产品来改善自己生活的... ...



Pardon me for not searching long enough, glad to see you have 13,000 fans. I think weibo is a great tool, with only 3 weeks of use my followers have already surpassed that of my twitter account.

I work for a small NGO Giving Hand that imports unsold or surplus products from Western corporations and then donates the products to charities or impoverished communities in China.

I like to call it global "freeganism". It is abhorrent at how many perfectly functional products are incinerated or destroyed every year simply because they cannot be sold or "out-of-season". Many products are made in China and shipped overseas (environmental externalities of shipping...) then rot in warehouses and never put to use. This is the tragic reality of global capitalism, the people who make the products could actually use them to improve their lives however the "Invisible Hand" dictates where the demand is...

On the other hand, I had some delicious organic tomatoes yesterday :)

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We need discipline more than encouragement

Thanks for your paper. Firstly, I oppose genetically modified crops. It's true, it's gratifying news if organic farming could produce a high yield. However, due to the limited data and calculation level of this paper, faults and shortage are unavoidable. For example, the selling price of organic framing will be "doubled" and "the benefit of the land will be raised form RMB 1000 yuan to about 3000 yuan". In my opinion, should the cost of organic authentication be included in the calculating process? Should we also consider the study and application ability of poorly educated farmers? Besides, the conclusion may seem no less far-fetched if we easily amplify the boundary of results. Now, we can not check on feasibility and credibility of genetically modified crops from the viewpoint of biosafety technology. More data is needed for a scientific judgment. There is plenty of encouragement here -- what we need is discipline.