China Tries Alternative to Industrial Agriculture

2012•07•20 Ronnie Vernooy

China’s economic growth in recent years has been extraordinary but uneven. Vulnerable groups, such as smallholder farmers and their communities, are most affected. This unbalanced development has seen widening income gaps between urban and rural regions, unequal government support to industry and agriculture, a focus on the East Coast and neglect of remote western rural areas, and the prioritization of economic growth over protection of the environment.

This is leading to enormous challenges, such as enduring extreme rural poverty and increasing socioeconomic inequality, feminization and ageing of the agricultural workforce, severe environmental degradation and serious erosion of biodiversity.

Ensuring China’s food security has recently been added to these concerns. Food insecurity persists in a number of provinces, mostly in western and central China: 130 million people are believed to be food insecure or undernourished. Most of these people live in the mountainous regions of the northwest and southwest that are characterized by fragile ecological conditions and underdeveloped infrastructure and services. According to a recent study,  about 150 million people continue to live under the poverty line of US$1.25 per day. That number goes up to 474 million if the line is set at US$2 per day.

Uneven and unequal change

At the heart of food insecurity are several problems. Due to the process of rapid modernization, China has lost about 8.3 million hectares of arable land, 6.5 percent of the country’s total arable area, largely in the most fertile coastal regions where urbanization and industrialization have flourished.  Access to water — and its quality, use, and distribution — are all mounting problems that, over time, may become even more serious than issues related to land.

Supply-side-related problems are not the only challenges facing Chinese agriculture. Since the 1990s, rising incomes, especially in cities, have led to significant increases in the consumption of non-staple foods, such as meat, fish, fruits, eggs, and dairy products. Given that the number of higher-income earners is expected to increase rapidly, demand for non-staples will also expand, increasing pressure on the national food supply. Production of non-staple foods has been rising in response. For example, between 1996 and 2007, meat production went up by 50 percent, egg production by 30 percent, and milk production by 200 percent.

This increased demand and production have been accompanied by various problems, including environmental pollution and unsafe foods, for example, tainted milk, which caused the death of babies and children, a global outcry, as well as a huge setback to development of the domestic dairy industry.

Since it initiated reforms in 1978, China has been widely recognized for its major achievements in reducing extreme poverty. However, severe poverty remains high in absolute numbers. Small farmers in the remote upland areas of southwest and northwest China, with an average of less than 0.2 hectares of land, are among the poorest of the poor and the most affected by food insecurity. Although they hold land-use rights, in most cases the land is of such low quality that it is not possible to achieve subsistence levels of production. Many poor farmers have to purchase additional food, but they have been hit hard by increased food prices since the reforms.

Though they hold land-use rights, small farmers in the remote upland areas of southwest and northwest mostly occupy land of such low quality that they can’t achieve even subsistence levels of production.

A major consequence of the reforms has been an overall increase in out-migration from rural to urban areas, especially from poorer areas. Men are the majority of the migrants. This is resulting in the increasing feminization of agriculture in the last decade, most notably in the poor western and southwestern areas, with women constituting 70–80 percent of the agricultural labor force in most rural provinces. They are mainly middle-aged women with limited education.

However, women’s increasing role in rural life is seldom noted by the key decision makers, who mostly live in towns and cities and are responsible for rural development issues, including the areas of health, education, service provision, market regulation (prices and subsidies), and wages. Women’s specific needs, interests and expertise are also largely neglected in technology design, development and diffusion processes, for example, in the development of new crop varieties and alternative agronomic practices. The result has been an agricultural policy that often fails to address the needs of farmers in some of the most deprived areas.

Neglected by conventional crop research

Conventional crop research in China is well organized and has produced very good results, leading to a major decrease in food insecurity and poverty. The past 15 years have seen spectacular results in China’s agricultural heartland from the use of improved crop varieties and agricultural inputs — such as inorganic fertilizers, machinery, and tools — that have been supported by lower agricultural taxes, input and output subsidies, price supports, and market and infrastructure development.

However, less arable regions — including the mountainous areas of Guangxi, Yunnan, and Guizhou in the southwest — have not been served well. This is partly because the prevailing assumptions of plant breeders, in turn supported by decision makers in agricultural development circles, are that farmers are less knowledgeable than breeders, that selection must be done under optimum conditions, that cultivars must be genetically uniform and widely adaptable over large geographic areas, and that landraces (local varieties of domesticated plant species that have developed largely by natural processes, by adaptation to the natural environment in which they live) and open-pollinated varieties (such as those still found in the southwest) must be replaced by high-yielding varieties under all circumstances to ensure national food security.

Agricultural biodiversity, farmers’ diverse livelihoods, and farmers’ contributions to crop conservation and improvement have been largely ignored. Privatization of seed production has led to a focus on hybrids and other modern varieties, with almost total neglect of traditional varieties and underutilized crops. Unfortunately, most hybrid varieties cannot adapt to the conditions in remote mountainous areas, including to increasingly variable weather conditions (e.g., droughts, floods), as experienced in Guangxi and other southwestern provinces. They are also susceptible to diseases and pests. Farmers in these regions have not been able to adopt hybrids and continue to rely on local varieties, though the area under cultivation is decreasing in many communities.

Creating synergies

To address these multiple challenges affecting rural China, in 1999 a novel initiative was started by several groups of women farmers, a number of rural villages, two plant-breeding organizations, and the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP), the country’s leading public agricultural policy research organization.

Research began in Guangxi Province, located in the southwest and a risk-prone area. In the mountains that cover much of the province, farmers planted maize in minute pockets of soil on steep slopes and between rocks in flat fields. The topography makes irrigation water scarce, but rains can flood the land and wash away crops. There are no roads, and access to markets is limited.  Maize is produced for consumption. It is a traditional staple crop in the area, where there is a diversity of maize landraces.

A second research area consisted of relatively better-off communities in the valleys and flat areas, where people tend to be a bit better educated and have livelihoods that are more integrated with the market economy. Maize used to be a traditional staple food, but it is now used more for pig feed. Pig farming is the main source of income for most villagers.

CCAP’s senior researcher Yiching Song developed the initiative, which launched an ambitious agenda that included crop rotation and organic fertilizers. Led by Song — who obtained her doctorate in rural development from Wageningen University in the Netherlands — the team used participatory research to create synergies between the farmers and breeders, searching for innovative ways of using the best of traditional and modern knowledge and practices.

The work of the research team, including the farmers, built on local women farmers’ maize-breeding experience developed over many years, while also seeking the expertise of formally trained plant breeders.

The main aim was to establish cooperative and complementary relations between the formal seed system and farmers’ systems. Cooperation was necessary in order to empower farmers, mainly women farmers. At the heart of the efforts is an approach known as participatory plant breeding, in which professional breeders and farmer breeders join forces to improve crops by blending scientific and traditional knowledge.

The work of the research team, including the farmers, built on local women farmers’ maize-breeding experience developed over many years, while also seeking the expertise of formally trained plant breeders. Crop improvements were made through a number of crossing techniques and variety selection processes by farmers with support from breeders.

Breeders went on to use more complex methods in the fields of the Guangxi Maize Research Institute (GMRI) in Nanning. So far, these trials have led to higher-yielding varieties that are at the same time more resilient to biotic and abiotic stresses, such as pests, diseases, and drought. More than 80 varieties have been used in the trials. Based on ten years of experimentation, four farmer-preferred varieties have been selected and released in the research villages. They have also spread beyond these villages, with similar work started in the neighbouring provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou.

To share the benefits of the new crop products, the research team encouraged farmers and plant breeders to establish a formal agreement concerning the exchange of breeding material and seed production methods.. This sort of collaboration is still very new and requires time and effort by all parties to entrench the practice. It represents novel policymaking and is being followed with interest by both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It is a concrete example of giving meaning to international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Green farming catching on

The initiative is also exploring new efforts at marketing local crops. Two organic or green farming associations, established by local farmers but supported by the research team, are becoming more and more well-known in Hengxian County in southeast Guangxi.

Various forms of green and certified organic agriculture in China have been developing rapidly. In many places, these forms of farming do build on historically developed farming systems that never relied heavily on industrial inputs; in other places, including in the more favourable regions, such as central and coastal China, the new forms have developed as a radical shift from Green Revolution practices.

Government support, financial and technical, has been important in most cases, but there are also examples of mostly farmer-led change. Public research organizations played an important role in the start-up and development phases of supporting farmers technically and administratively, including with the establishment of internationally recognized certification schemes.

The earliest examples of conversion to organic farming date to the beginning of the 1990s. In 2002, organic vegetables started to become available in some of the major supermarkets in large cities. Both domestic and foreign demand continue to rise. By 2005, more than half a million hectares were dedicated to certified products, with over a thousand companies involved. Since then, the areas under production, the total production, as well as the number of crops produced have expanded all over China (including for tea and bamboo).

By 2005, more than half a million hectares were dedicated to certified products, with over a thousand companies involved. Since then, the areas under production and the number of crops produced have expanded all over China.

The first organic products from Guangxi, rice and kohlrabi — produced without the use of industrial inputs — are welcomed by many customers from Nanning, Liuzhou, and even as far away as Hong Kong. In the city of Nanning, a new organic-food restaurant purchases produce directly from the two organic associations that offer only slightly higher prices than for conventional produce. This restaurant, the first of its kind in the province’s capital, is quickly gaining popularity.

The two organic associations, based in the villages of Chentang and Sancha, were established in 2005, after the conversion to organic farming was initiated in a move away from industrialized forms of farming, which were becoming increasingly costly and risky. Starting with only ten farmers, they were soon able to obtain technical guidance and some financial support from Partners for Community Development (PCD), a Hong Kong–based NGO operating in various provinces of south China, supporting poverty alleviation and grassroots development.

In 2006, PCD staff began working with team members from CCAP and GRMI to improve local crop varieties. The organic associations organize regular communications among their members to improve farming skills and give them a deeper understanding of the advantages of organic farming. Small groups of members monitor each other’s planting efforts and make sure that everyone avoids the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As farmers gradually enlarge the area devoted to organic farming, the local supply of fertilizer can no longer meet their needs. Because homemade fertilizer is the best choice, as it allows for strict quality control, the associations have begun to purchase the raw materials — such as bran and bone meal — for their members, encouraging the farmers to experiment to determine the best proportions and the most effective amount of organic fertilizer to use.

The growth of the organic associations has not been without challenges. The leaders, especially the chairpersons (both of whom are men) have invested a lot of time, energy and also their own money, in organizing activities and exploring the market for the benefit of the associations, without receiving any payment. Their voluntary efforts are not sustainable in the long run, as they must also support their families. The associations’ income, which comes from annual member fees and a small percentage of the sales of organic products, is just enough to meet the associations’ office expenses.

Another challenge is how to respond adequately to the growing interest in the associations. As more members join, the associations struggle with adequate and timely provision of training in the basic techniques and skills of organic farming. How to professionalize the associations is becoming an issue, although this challenge can be viewed in a positive light: it indicates that the associations are serving an important function.

The road ahead

A decade’s experience illustrates the successes and challenges of linking community-based research with policy- and law-making processes. While pushing forward rapid transformation of the Chinese economy, many of the country’s policymakers, researchers, and rural development agents have neglected important aspects of rural development, such as the traditional knowledge base and local genetic resources.

This situation has become worse since a market economy was introduced. As a result of large-scale privatization and commercialization, the formal seed system has become increasingly subject to profit-driven practices and fierce competition. Hybrid breeding and hybrid seed production are receiving more attention and effort than ever, from both government and the private sector. Concerns about conservation of biodiversity and improving rural livelihoods have mostly been sidelined.

In marginalized areas, such as in the mountains of Guangxi, farmers’ seed-conservation methods continue to play a major role in meeting their various needs. These systems are evolving and facing challenges, but they still maintain the biodiversity that is necessary to sustain agriculture. Current and future plant-breeding efforts — in the face of climate change and other impacts, such as natural disasters — will depend on these systems.

A dynamic and viable seed-production system is crucial for maintaining maize (and food) production, continuing the process of crop improvement, and developing local adaptations to environmental changes. Organized women farmers, in particular, have taken the initiative to become qualified seed producers and distributors. New organizational forms are emerging to support these efforts, and changes are already occurring in relevant policy domains. Lack of useful information about new technology and markets is one of the key constraints on agricultural production, but organized farmers have established new links to solve the problems they face in these arenas.

As Yiching Song, said in a recent interview, “Our work in Guangxi tells us that we need to work together with scientists from many disciplines, and with multiple stakeholders from multiple levels. … It also shows that concrete action can bring about more profound innovation through better understanding of and dealing with the complexity of rural realities, step by step. It takes a long time, but it is possible.”

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Ronnie Vernooy

Rural Development Sociologist

Ronnie Vernooy is a rural development sociologist with a particular interest in agricultural biodiversity and natural resource management. He has more than 20 years of experience in managing and conducting participatory research in a number of countries, including Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras, China and Mongolia. He has coauthored and coedited several books and articles on biodiversity management and conservation; most recently, with Manuel Ruiz, The Custodians of Biodiversity: Sharing Access and Benefits of Genetic Resources.