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Sustainable agriculture in China: then and

Food and agricultureNatural resource management

Seth Cook
Blogs, 26 March 2015
The environmental impacts of China's agricultural production affect not just China, but also
the global environment. An IIED and China Agricultural University workshop explored
examples and models that could help promote sustainable agricultural practices in China.

A farmer
in a buckwheat field close to harvest time in Gansu Province, China. The country's
agriculture is currently facing major environmental challenges (Photo: Han Jianping)
It's well known that China is the largest producer and consumer of many crops today. But
China's agriculture also has global impacts. Even as it imports more and more grain,
soybeans and other agricultural commodities, China is also a major exporter of both fresh
produce and processed foods.
Changes in food production and consumption in China and their environmental effects both
domestically and internationally therefore concern us all. With these issues in mind, IIED and
China Agricultural University (CAU) co-hosted a workshop on Sustainable Agricultural
Development and Cooperation in Beijing on 20 March, 2015.
Chinese agriculture currently faces major environmental challenges. Applications of
fertilisers and pesticides are among the highest in the world. Soil erosion, soil pollution and
loss of agricultural biodiversity are widespread. Water scarcity affects many parts of the
country, as shown by plummeting water tables in northern China.

The country therefore has much to gain by shifting to more sustainable production methods.
The benefits include improvements in the environment and public health in China and
beyond. In particular, reducing greenhouse gases associated with the food system would have
global environment benefits.
China's venerable history of traditional and ecological farming practices stretches back at
least 4,000 years. For most of this time, it used no chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
Traditional practices included legume crops for nitrogen fixation, crop rotations and
intercropping, terracing and the use of diverse crop varieties. Human, animal and crop wastes
were systematically recycled to maintain soil fertility.

Agriculture without waste

In his book 'Farmers of Forty Centuries', the American agronomist F.H. King describes many
successful cases of traditional Chinese agricultural practices. The key to 4,000 years of land
fertility was the practice of "an agriculture without waste" with no use of external inputs.
This agricultural system was characterised by small-scale intensive farming designed to
maximise land productivity in a context of high population density and limited arable land.
However, in recent decades the widespread use of conventional agriculture has had negative
environmental consequences.
Concern over these problems has spurred the recent development or resurgence of sustainable
agriculture in China. Improved governance of this system is needed to provide clear guidance
for producers and consumers and strengthen the market for sustainable foods.
Our workshop brought together 30 practitioners, researchers, government officials and NGO
staff working on sustainable agriculture. The workshop had several objectives. One was to
share the results of eight case studies of sustainable agriculture carried out by CAU and IIED
The feedback gathered on the case studies will be incorporated into a research report in
Chinese and English and launched in Beijing this August. The second objective was to
pinpoint obstacles to sustainable agricultural practices in China, and to discuss means of
overcoming them. Lastly, the workshop participants discussed recommendations that will
form part of the report and will be directed at policymakers in China.

Learning from regional examples

The eight case studies were drawn from seven regions all over China, and feature a variety of
different operational models. One of these features Shared Harvest, a community supported
agriculture (CSA) enterprise with 460 members, founded in 2011 and headquartered on the
outskirts of Beijing.
Shared Harvest was started by two PhD researchers from urban areas with no farming
background, and has since grown into one of China's foremost CSAs. It is also an example of
urban intellectuals who were motivated to take up farming from an environmental
consciousness and a passion for sustainable food.

In the context of the large-scale migration of peasants from rural areas seeking better
opportunities in the cities, Shared Harvest represents an interesting counter-trend and has
received wide media attention in China.
Although the farms run by Shared Harvest use entirely organic farming methods, they are not
officially certified. For small farmers in China practicing sustainable farming methods, the
cost of the certification process is prohibitive and a major problem.
A very different kind of case study was represented by Wanzai County in Jiangxi Province,
one of the most successful large-scale examples of organic farming in China.
Wanzai's experiment with organic agriculture began in 1999, when the People's Congress of
the town voted to convert the entire township to organic production and banned all synthetic
agro-chemicals. Not only was the local government the initiating force, but it also supported
the process by training farmers, spreading new technology and marketing produce.

In Gansu Province, China, a farmer harvests

wheat. The country has a history of traditional and ecological farming practices stretching
back at least 4,000 years (Photo: Han Jianping)By the end of 2014, Wanzai had a total of
5,400 hectares of farmland planted in organically certified rice, ginger, soybean, strawberry,
scallions, yam and other cash crops, both for the domestic market and for export. Today,
organic agriculture is Wanzai County's main development strategy, with 17,000 households
participating across 48 villages in 11 towns.

Challenges from within and without

While both Shared Harvest and Wanzai County can be considered successful examples of
sustainable farming, the sector faces many problems. One is the reluctance of the central
government to promote any agricultural approaches which might decrease production, even if
they bring environmental benefits and increased incomes to farmers.
Food security remains the state's paramount concern. Another is the complicated and
overlapping eco-labelling standards for sustainably produced foods; many Chinese distrust
these products due to persistent food scandals and associated negative media coverage.

Other problems include labour shortages in rural areas, low environmental awareness on the
part of enterprises, and the fact that farmers have not always benefited from the adoption of
sustainable practices.
The workshop examples show that Chinese agriculture can successfully address these issues
and return to the sustainability and resilience that characterised most of its 4,000 years of
Seth Cook ( is a senior researcher in IIEDs China and agroecology