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Cleaning up Chinese agriculture

Eighteen months after chemical fertilisers helped create a devastating algal bloom in Tai Lake, have Chinese farmers changed their habits? Greenpeace China presents the results of an investigation.

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In 2007 about two million people were affected by a massive algal bloom that spread across Taihu, or Tai Lake, in eastern China. The government earmarked 100 million yuan (US$14.6 million) to clean it up.

The residents of Wuxi city, which straddles the lake, have a vivid memory of that hellish summer. Gallons and gallons of pollution from farms and factories – and even human sewage – had been pouring into the lake and triggered the giant bloom of blue-green algae. Drinking water turned green and fetid. The main source was fertilisers from farms. Billions of yuan have been spent to try to clean up the lake so far.

After the nightmare of 2007, was the lake any cleaner in 2008? Greenpeace went to investigate.

We were sad but not surprised to find that the lake was still smothered in algal blooms. In fact, the bloom began to appear even earlier than before.

And it is not just Tai lake. All sorts of water sources in China are being polluted this way. In Inner Mongolia in northern China, Wu Liangsuhai Lake is plagued by a serious yellow algal bloom. That bloom is also mainly caused by chemical fertilsers that are washed into the lake via irrigation. Chao Lake in Anhui province is also poisoned by this kind of pollution.

The government has made some effort to tackle pollution by encouraging ecological farming and recycling bio-waste. Since 2005, the Ministry of Agriculture has been promoting a nationwide reduction in fertiliser use and has been running a soil-testing program, where it advises farmers on what fertiliser is needed according to the state of the soil with the aim of preventing overuse. In the three years of soil testing from 2005 to 2007, some 90 million mu (60,000 square kilometres) of farmland has been tested.

From March to November 2008, Greenpeace ran tests on the water in Taihu to see if there had been any reduction in the amount of fertiliser pollution. We collected water samples from streams that run from nearby fields into the lake. We also interviewed farmers and recorded how much fertiliser they were using, what kind of fertiliser and when they used it. We tested the 25 water samples for nitrogen, nitrate and phosphor content.

Our investigation reveals just how polluted the water still is despite three years of government efforts.

The concentration of total nitrogen (TN) exceeded the national standard V in 20 of the 25 samples and exceeded the national standard IV in the remaining five. All of the samples are not fit for human use, drinking or otherwise. Water samples that do not meet standard V cannot even be used for industrial or agricultural use.

Nitrate – which comes from fertiliser – was also found in high concentrations. The results indicate that chemical fertilisers are still a major source of pollution in the Tai lake. Farmers also told us that over the past 10 years they have increased their use of fertilisers.

Agricultural pollution is a huge challenge for Wuxi and for many other parts of China. In the three years of national soil testing from 2005 to 2007, the total amount of fertiliser use in China increased by about two million tonnes every year (see Table 1). At the same time, fertiliser production also increased.


Table 1



Year Chemical fertiliser production (millions of tonnes) Usage of chemical fertiliser (millions of tonnes)
2002 37.91 43.394
2003 38.813 44.116
2004 48.048 46.366
2005 51.779 47.662
2006 53.451 49.277
2007 52.486 (Jan~Nov) 51.078(whole year)
2008 44.74(Jan~Sep)  


While the government has been pouring money into cleaning up Taihu, little has been done to solve the problem at source. The solution is a major move from chemical intensive agriculture to eco-farming.

A perfect example of how eco-farming can work well in China is in a beautiful village in Yixing municipality, just west of Taihu. There, some 200 mu (133,300 square metres) of paddy rice fields are farmed with the help of an army of ducks. The rice-duck system is a very successful eco-farming method. Ducks eat pests and weeds, meaning little or no pesticides or herbicides need be used. By paddling around the paddies, they help to stir up nutrients in the water, helping the rice plants grow stronger without the use of chemical fertiliser. Organic fertiliser and duck waste can also add nutrients.

There are many other eco-farming methods which can help farmers grow a successful harvest without using polluting chemicals and poisoning the environment.

The soil testing program, which still recommends chemical fertilisers to farmers, eco-farming promotes the use of organic fertilisers including the recycling of agricultural “waste”, such as straw and animal manure.

The government has drawn up policies to promote eco-farming, but we believe these should be strengthened. More money and greater support should be offered to help farmers switch methods.

The government should also review its soil testing program, as it still relies on chemical fertilisers. We also urge the government to limit the amount of chemical fertiliser produced in the country including the removal of subsidies to this sector.

We also believe that more policies are needed to encourage recycling, the production and efficient use of organic fertilisers.

There is no time to waste. The pollution of China’s water systems has reached a crisis point. China needs change.


Homepage photo by kongharald

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


W. Parham
[email protected]
本评论由 夏婷婷翻译

Medical waste as fertilizer

I visited the extensive litchi/longan plantings in southwest Guangdong in 1999 and found that near Maoming, medical wastes mixed with other city wastes were being used as fertilizer for newly-planted trees. This is a hilly region and water erosion had exposed the waste -- shot bottles, cloth materials, etc.-- leaving this litter on the soil surface. Some of the waste also was scattered by the wing. I pointed out this hazardous practice to local authorities and was told that the practice would cease.

I visited the same area in 2003 and was told by trusted agricultural experts that the practice had been stopped at some sites but that it was still practiced in the area and even in at least one other southern province. That year China's government established regulations requiring all medical waste be incinerated. The intent was to have numerous incinerators in operation throughout China as soon as possible. I assume that the agricultural use of medical waste had ended. I have not visited those sites since 2003.

W. Parham
[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Farmer’s non-alternative choice.

I believe many farmers know as well that the chemical fertilisers are not their best choice, but they have no alternative. The more fertiliser, the poorer the land is; the more pesticide, the more the pest is. Considering the high price of fertiliser, I believe the farmers are not really willing to those them. But they don’t have better choice but to keep this vicious circle. I think government’s guide on this issue is very important. If government can set reasonable (simple & cheap) ecology farm model, and provide policy support, I believe many farmers will be like to try that.

Translated by Fangfang CHEN

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Ecological Agriculture

Oftentimes “ecological agriculture” is just a fashionable word, expressing a trend of the times, and its urgency is not really accepted by the masses. Investment, earnings, and safeguards—these are not things that one person or a handful of people can accomplish on their own. If government and society can make an extensive number of peasants believe that fertilizer will increase production, then in the same way, they can also make peasants accept that ecological agriculture is more effective. If the peasants only believe that ecological agriculture is a moral method of production, they will only make slight changes instead of a full transformation.

(Comment translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Speaking of ecological agriculture

Speaking of ecological agriculture makes me think of earlier agriculture production methods that used night soil as fertilizer. This should be considered as a type of ecological agriculture. But since using manure is troublesome, smelly as well as nauseating, peasants would rather use chemical fertilizer. Not only that, but manure can easily spread parasites and diseases, and can be unsanitary. I don’t know myself, but are there any better ecological agricultural methods?

(Comment translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Ecological Agriculture

In response to comment number 4, I heard that some places raise crabs in rice paddies. I don’t know if this is similar to “raising ducks in rice paddies.” Speaking of which, farmers used to rely on frogs to get rid of pests; farm chemicals were not at all necessary. Now that many people are catching frogs and selling them for money, frog populations in farmlands are in steep decline. Peasants are forced to buy farm chemicals, it’s a sin.

(Comment translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Real change

The fact of the matter, that nobody seems to want to address is that in order to see real environmental change in China, there first has to be a significant level of political reform. Freedom of the press to report on environmental incidents, the ability of citizens to sue companies and their governments for collusion and environmental offenses, leaders that are responsive to the needs of their constituents, and an overall more dynamic system that allows the population greater political participation so as to vindicate themselves through the political process is what is needed. Allowing the country to cease policies that encourage break neck growth at all costs, in order to prevent social instability is a start. The Chinese Communist Party wasted more than forty years with social experiments and political motivated campaigns that led to untold disasters, yet trying to make up for all the lost time with development at the expense of the environment is not only unsustainable but will harm generations to come.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


表格1中的数据很有趣,不过,我想第一栏应该读作“农用化肥使用量”(而不是生产量)。如果能注明这些数据的来源也会对读者有所裨益。Eva Sternfelf


Mistake in Table 1

I found the data in table 1 interesting, however, I guess column 1 should read "chemical fertilizer use" (not production). Would also be useful if you could quote the source for these data.
Eva Sternfeld

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


回应评论4: 虽然猪的粪便是一种很好的肥料,但是很多农民不愿意用它,因为使用猪粪的操作不便而且气味难闻. 沸石是中国拥有的一种天然且质地细密的矿石, 把沸石与动物粪便混合在一起能去除粪便里的铵和水分从而减少气味并使粪便干得更快, 这样就使动物粪肥更方便使用.加工和使用沸石很简便.农民就可以方便用干的沸石和粪便的混合物给农作物施肥. 沸石使粪便中的铵释放出来供农作物吸收,同时也增加了土壤的肥力. 干燥的粪便还能为土壤提供其他营养和有机物.这样动物粪便造成的水质污染问题就大大减轻了. 华南农业大学(广州)进行了关于沸石应用于农业的研究.联系华南农业大学李华新(音同)院长: W. Parham [email protected]

Zeolites and animal waste

In response to comment no. 4:

Although swine manure is a rich fertilizer, many farmers avoid using it because of its undesirable handling properties and unpleasant odor. Zeolites are natural, fine-grained minerals that exist in China. When they are mixed with animal wastes they trap ammonium and water from the wastes thus reducing the odor, accelerate its drying, and improve its handling characteristics. Processing and application of zeolites is simple.

Because the final product is easy to handle, farmers can use the dry zeolite-manure mixture to fertilize their crops. The zeolites release the ammonium for the crop’s use and also improve the soil’s ability to hold needed plant nutrients; the dried manure provides other nutrients and organic matter to benefit the soil as well. Pollution of streams with raw animal waste is reduced significantly. Work on zeo-agriculture is carried out at the South China Agricultural University (SCAU) in Guangzhou. Contact Dean Li Huaxing at SCAU.

W. Parham
[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Re: mistake in Table 1

Hi Eva --
Many thanks for pointing out the mistake: the table has now been corrected. Column 2, in fact, referred to usage. The data is from Greenpeace's own investigation. See the full report here
Sam (chinadialogue)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Another perspective

Analyze the pollution of chemical agriculture to water, and discuss an approach to improve the situation. My personal suggestions are as following: firstly, promote drip irrigation and micro-irrigation for which the government could offer high grants or subsidies. This would reduce the usage of water in agriculture, then decrease the loss of fertilizers, thus would cut the usage of chemical fertilizers as well as, of course, pesticides. Therefore the water saved would guarantee the safety of drinking water, and increase ecological water consumption. This is a good virtuous cycle. Secondly, the usage of pesticides, instead of chemical fertilizers, is a problem. I suggest the country make a real directory, encourage using green pesticides, and decice whether pesticides of high toxicity should be banned in industrial production. Repeated appealing does little use. Hope Greenpeace China could do some investigation in this aspect and provide some data.