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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.

 

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

医疗废弃物用作肥料

1999年我曾经去过广东省西南的荔枝和龙眼的种植区,我发现了在茂名,医疗废弃物和其他城市垃圾混合在一起被用作新栽植物的肥料。这个地区是丘陵地带,水土流失让这些废弃物一览无余,碎瓶子,布料,等,垃圾都露在土地的表面。有一些还被风吹散。我当时向当地领导指出了这种恶劣的行为,他们告诉我说一定会出面制止。2003年,我再次拜访同样的地区时,农业专家告诉我,一些地方已经制止了这种行为,但是在该地区的别的地方还在继续,至少在别的南方省份都还在继续。那年,中国政府制定了医疗废弃物必须焚毁的法规,试图尽快在全中国建立许多焚烧炉来处理这些废弃物。我猜想,农业使用医疗废弃物作肥料的现象应该是绝迹了。2003年以后我就没再回去看过。
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

农民无奈的选择

我想很多农民也明白,化肥和农药不是他们最好的选择,却是他们目前无奈的选择。化肥越施越多,土壤却越来越贫瘠;农药越用越强,害虫却不见少。更何况其价格不菲,相信农民也未必真的情愿选择化肥和农药吧。可是目前他们却没有更好的选择,所以只好继续这种恶性循环。我觉得在这个问题上,政府的主导作用是非常重要的。如果政府能够提供合理(既简单又便宜)的生态农业模型,并且给予政策上的支持,我相信很多农民会愿意尝试的。

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

生态农业

往往“生态农业”仅是一个时髦的名词,体现时代的潮流,而它的迫切性有的时候并没有被大众真正的接受。投资、收益、维护,这些不是一人之力或数人之力可以完成的。如果政府和社会能让广大的农民像相信化肥可以增产增收一样相信生态农业,让生态农业真正为农民认可,而不仅仅是道义上的,相信会有所改变。

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

说到生态农业

说到生态农业,我就想起以前用大粪做肥料的农业生产方式了,这应该算是生态农业的一种吧。不过弄粪肥很麻烦,又臭又恶心,所以农民宁愿选择化肥。更何况粪肥容易传播寄生虫病,不卫生。不知道现在有没有比较好的生态农业方式?

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

生态农业

答4号作者,我听说有的地方在稻田里养螃蟹,不知道这是不是和“稻田养鸭”类似。说起来,以前的农田都靠青蛙除害虫的,根本不用农药。现在因为有很多人抓青蛙卖钱,农田里的青蛙锐减,农民只好买农药了,真是罪过啊。

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

真正的变化

事实上,没有人愿意指出的是,如果想要在中国见到实质性的环境变化,首先要做的是深度政治改革。媒体可以自由报道环境事件,公民能够控告公司和政府相互勾结和破坏环境,领导人回应他的选举人的需求,以及建立一个整体的动态系统允许人民有更多的政治参与以便在政治过程中维护自己的权益,这些是中国所需要的。使这个国家停止那些鼓励不惜一切代价进行“断首”发展的政策,以便预防社会不稳定,这就是一个开始。中国共产党浪费了四十多年的时间从事社会实验和政治斗争,这导致了无尽的灾难,然而想要以环境为代价的发展来弥补这些失去的时间不仅是不可持续的,而且会伤害我们的后代子孙。
(本评论由关晓宇翻译)

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中的错误

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

(本评论由关晓宇翻译)

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

沸石和动物粪便

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]
本评论由周瑜翻译

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

回复:表格1里的错误

Eva你好,非常感谢你指出这个错误,表格已经改好了。实际上,第二栏指的是使用量。数据来自绿色和平组织自己的调查。完整的报告请见这里http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/china/ch/press/reports/taihu-lake-blue-algae-pollution.pdf。祝好,Sam(中外对话)。
(本评论由关晓宇翻译)

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
Best,
Sam (chinadialogue)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

另一个视角(wxai)

分析化学农业污染水资源,讨论一条减轻的出路。我个人建议:一是大力推广滴灌和微灌,政府给于高的补助或补贴,减少农业用水资源,也就减少了化肥流失,当然也就减少了化肥使用量,当然还有农药的用量,因此节省下来的水资源,可以作为饮用水安全的保障,也可以使生态用水量增加,是一个好的良性循环。二是,化肥使用本身不是问题,麻烦的是农药,建议国家搞一个真正的名录出来,鼓励绿色农药的使用,那些毒性大的农药,是不是在工业生产中就该禁绝掉,而不是一呼再呼,起不少什么作用,希望绿色中国搞点这方面的调查数据,提供一点细节

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.