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Slideshow: organic overtures

Meng Si visited a project in eastern China that trials natural farming methods. Introducing her photographs of the farm, she says extending its agricultural revolution still seems a distant dream.

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In late 2008, reports claimed that pesticide residue in peanuts grown in one county in Shandong, eastern China, were at potentially fatal levels. Official investigations discredited the rumours and peanut-lovers continue to enjoy their snack. But issues in peanut-growing, such as the use of toxic chemicals and agricultural membranes, remain unaddressed.

Peanut farmers know there is a range of factors that can reduce harvests, including pests such as beetle larvae. And, for the majority of farmers, the only way to deal with pests is powerful toxic pesticides, such as the long-banned “666”. In addition, agricultural membranes – thin plastic sheets – are often laid over fields of peanuts and other crops in order to prevent the evaporation or run-off of water and fertiliser and to reduce weed growth. But these membranes are difficult to gather up after use, and are usually abandoned by the side of fields, polluting the soil.

“Our existing agricultural methods cut off ecological cycles,” says Jiang Gaoming, chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Botany and a columnist for chinadialogue. “We need to restore and make use of those natural cycles.”

Since 2007, Jiang's research team has rented 27,000 square metres of land in Shandong, eastern China, to use as the Hongyi Organic Farm. The project aims to demonstrate organic farming practices, exploring commercially-viable forms of organic agriculture and attempting to grow the most successful organic crops in China.

The idea of organic agriculture originated in Europe and, by the year 2000, it was being used to some degree in 141 nations. But the amount of farmland dedicated to the practice in Asia remains fairly low compared to Europe, where organic methods are relatively widespread.

However, as living standards and awareness of environmental issues have increased in recent years, China has started catching up with the west in enthusiasm for organic farming, although high prices and inconsistent certification have left many consumers unconvinced about organic products and reluctant to buy them.

Jiang explains: “We have stopped all use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, membranes and additives and we don't use anything genetically modified; we're testing the role of organic agriculture in maintaining yields and improving profits. In just three years, we have already seen the power of this approach.”

Jiang is no mere follower of fashion. He believes that, if Chinese agriculture fails to move towards organic practices, the nation's soil will lose its last remnants of fertility. Like so many other commercial operations that have failed to account for environmental factors in business planning, the farming sector has long ignored the vital role of the soil. As a result, agricultural membranes, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have turned rich, dark earth pale.

But is it possible just to do away with chemicals in farming? What about their role in fighting disease and pests? China uses 7% of the world's arable land to feed 20% of the world's people – a miracle made possible by the use of over 1.2 million tonnes of chemicals annually.

“Farmers use 50 yuan (US$7.30) of toxic chemicals for every 667 square metres of peanuts planted but this still doesn't bring the pests completely under control. Our costs are much lower,” Jiang points out. In one of the team's small fields, pesticides have been replaced with two lamps that use light of a particular spectrum to attract insects to traps. “It doesn't catch all of them but it achieves an ecological balance,” says Jiang. “Even if the insects aren't there, the lights won't do any harm.”

The lights can attract up to 4.5 kilograms of insects a night. But, due to insect lifecycles, they are only caught on 70 nights of the year. In the last year, the farm has collected over 100 kilograms of insect larvae to use as feed supplements.

The farm also uses manual labour or mowers rather than weed-killer to remove weeds, which are then fed to locusts and freshwater fish. The income from this is enough to employ two farm labourers all year round. A 120-strong herd of cattle is fed using straw and cattle dung is used to produce methane to provide energy for the farm, with the waste products returned to the fields as high quality, organic fertiliser.

According to Jiang Gaoming's research, up to 70% of fertiliser used in China is wasted and overuse of such chemicals is a serious problem. He believes organic fertiliser could help China's agriculture move from a sector that is “high cost, high output, high pollution” to one that is “low cost, low output, no pollution”.

Can improving soil fertility and using organic practices result in lower costs than traditional methods? Organic grains and vegetables currently cost three to five times as much as normal equivalents on the market, while leeks and celery from Shandong province sell for 20 yuan (US$2.9) per half kilogram.

One person who believes low costs are feasible is Zhan Peilin, chairman of Rizhao Yikang Organic Technology. His company's microbial organic fertiliser is made out of sludge waste from kelp processing and bacteria imported from Japan, and trials have shown it is as effective as its chemical equivalents. However, he says state subsidies and preferential policies for chemical fertilisers are reducing the competitiveness of alternatives.

Zhan also believes that Jiang's farm suffers from a disconnect between production and the market. “As soon as production expands, you'll find the market is too small, unless you are providing animal proteins for food processors," he says, after visiting the locust-feeding hut. He adds that a single farm running a range of operations will incur higher management and business costs than larger ventures. And, with food safety legislation and monitoring still in need of improvement, only corporations – with their strong management and concern for corporate reputation – can be relied upon to provide accountability.

The farm is currently helping local farmer Jiang Gaoyu raise free-range chickens, using the “organic space” between crops. “In theory, the bigger an organic farm gets, the better the ecological and economic results are; management costs go down and more jobs are created,” says Jiang. His immediate goal is to persuade the villagers to dedicate 67,000 square metres of land to organic agriculture, with a long-term goal of converting the village’s entire 667,000 square kilometres to the practice.

As well as peanuts, the farm grows around 20 types of grain and vegetable, including wheat, corn, soya, green beans, chives, celery, potatoes, onions and garlic. These now carry an “organic” label and are described as high-standard, high-quality products, with no chemicals, fertilisers, additives or artificial compounds used. It seems that, after the excitement of increased yields brought about by such substances, followed by a period of overuse, those at the cutting edge of farming in China have decided to sever links with chemicals after seeing the damage done to the soil.

Despite a disappointing yield from the first crop of corn due to waterlogging, Jiang and his students remain confident. They believe that patience and constant experimentation are essential. It was the urgent quest for immediate results that led the farming industry to ignore soil quality in the first place, and to use fertilisers, chemicals and membranes, creating hard, polluted, infertile and unsustainable soil.

Jiang believes the farm's role as a demonstration project is more important than commercial success. But farmers need more than faith; they need reliable models and a stable income before they can be persuaded to abandon conventional practices.

Many agricultural experts share Jiang’s views and hope to save the soil – and the farming industry – through organic practices. For seven years, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences has been running a project investigating key technologies for new types of multifunctional microbial fertiliser. Yuan Longping, the 79-year-old “father of hybrid rice”, is hopeful he will see 1,000 kilograms of super-hybrid rice produced per 667 square-metre harvest by the time he is 90. But, for now, eating healthily and eating enough remains no easy task for China’s 1.3 billion people.

Meng Si is managing editor at
chinadialogue’s Beijing branch


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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Can it make money?

What is the market performance of their products? Can it make money?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous











The technology utopia is in China, there is no market

The crucial point of ecological agriculture is not technology but organization. Due to its innate essence, ecological agriculture is a small man-made natural space modeled after the natural world. It draws some support from some modern technology. In a relatively small and confined space, it shouldn’t be too difficult to simulate the biological food chain. In other words, ecological agriculture is a false proposition, just like a circular economy.

Resolving the issue of publicizing ecological agriculture is the real problem of ecological agriculture. However this problem is even more embarrassing because China has its own special characteristics. The reasons are:

First, the Chinese peasants are allocated barely 3 mu (.2 hectares) per person. (Overall, the government determined that 1,800,000,000 mu (120,000,000 hectares) would be the baseline of protected arable land which cannot be violated.) Since every family makes up a unit, and every family has 5 people in it, one family’s land could only be 20 mu (1.3 hectare) at most. “30 mu per cattle” is easy enough to say, but in China it’s a pipe dream. We have noticed that the ecological agricultural farm in Shandong taken care of by Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is 40 mu (2.6 hectares). This means that their experimental field is fundamentally inappropriate for China’s national conditions. The great majority of Chinese peasant family’s land does not even come close to 40 mu (2.6 hectares).

Some people say that you could have families unite. If the families unite, then their land would be more than 40 mu (2.6 hectares). This idea is easier said than done. Think about our history: the Chinese peasant revolution started with the idea of separating the fields for every family. Why were the fields separated? Because when they were put together, nobody did any work, and then everyone was starving, so the best solution was to separate the fields. Everyone knows that the separation is not conducive to large-scale intensive operations, but even today, people have not found a better collectivization operational model.

Look at the other countries: in agricultural production, the unit makes up a family. In Europe, America, and Japan, it’s all the same. China is not an exception. Therefore, if one can’t put the ecological agricultural intensive farming in a scale that fits a family unit, then the idea is meaningless. But it’s clear that if the ecological agriculture experiment were done on a 40 mu piece of land, it’s out of the question to try to claim that it is effective on some large scale. Therefore the group at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is planning to increase the scale of the project, in the near future using 100 mu (6.6 hectares) and in the longrun using 1000 mu (666.6 hectares). The bigger the operation gets, the more likely it will be successful; however, the bigger the operation gets, the more difficult it is to fit to China’s national situation, and the less likely it can be popularized.

For this reason, one can conclude the following. First, the ecological agriculture cannot be popularized in China; the study done by the Chinese Academy of Sciences is just a technological utopia. It just a game that will waste taxpayer’s money and then end. Besides that, there’s no hope for it.

Second, why not make a more broad assumption, namely that ecological agriculture can be popularized in China, and that is suitable for the vast villages and for every common family? If we do not popularize the common level, then it will be trouble some. But if we popularize the common level, it will be even more troublesome! Why? Because if it’s not at the common level, then the test fields will produce special products, and these special products will nationally have high prices. With a small supply, there will considerable profits. But as soon as one produces at the common level, every family will produce organic food, and the whole street will sell ecological goods, and then the price will drop, which will make it impossible for the peasants to make a profit. The peasants have put their blood, sweat and tears into this work just to “gain several dou of grain more;” who dares to change that and make ecological agriculture common for the whole country?

Therefore, popularizing ecological agriculture in China is unthinkable. You can experiment, but experimenting is the beginning as well as the end of ecological farming.

its place. The Great Northern Wilderness in Northern China and the Xinjiang Construction Corps should try it. Besides that, I can’t think of a place for ecological agriculture that suits China.

Default thumb avatar Reply arrow



Ecoagriculture available in china if properly guided

The western-style intensive agriculture is not necessarily a wise option.China has its own proper way to let farmers attend their own rice paddies.However,the key is to offer them help and guide. Eco-friendly farming used to be the case in my hometown when I was young and all trash was recycled.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Is Such Large- Scale Dissemination Necessary?

After reading the comments above, I have to say two things.

It's true that ecological agriculture is still in the experimental phase in China. However, it has already developed to a certain level in Europe. This, at least, sheds light on the path to ecological agriculture. It's not a utopia, as more people take it, this path will gradually appear. On top of that, there is an emphasised restrictive condition, namely that, given China's present situation, can we take this path? The answer is yes, but requirements should not be excessive.

It is not possible for ecological agriculture to be disseminated widely, and it cannot be permitted to be spread to such a degree, because the safety of foodstuffs has to be considered. However, if we only create a small market? If we take only 5% of the nation's farmland to develop an experimental produce maket as a demonstration? I think this kind of market and these resources could be squeezed out.

Ecological agriculture is green, but it is still essentially an industry. Industries don't run on belief; businessmen want to earn money. People's demands with regard to food safety are increasing by the day, especially among the classes who can afford to support expensive organic products. You need only develop a niche market, and ecological agriculture can be supported.

Perhaps this needs time, but at the very least, you can't say that the situation in China is the same everywhere.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



All In All, A Good Thing

All in all, organic farming is a good thing, but on the other hand, developing it to the point where it is practical will need a lot of effort.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





If organic products are promoted until they are commonplace, there will be more trouble. Why? When not common, the produce of "experimental fields" is considered a "boutique product". Such products naturally have high prices, and low amounts are produced, so there is considerable opportunity for profit. But as soon as they become common, everyone will be able to produce "organic food", and when the streets are full of people selling "organic products", the price of these products can only drop right down, leaving farmers with no profit.

Hah, bookworms!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


认为家庭为单位是中国国情,那还是停留在过去的国情里。 农村土地改革已经让越来越多中型的农场主出现(租其他农民的地),现在问题不是农业集约不起来,而是担心过度的集约。而有机农业是分散的中,小系统工程。

What state of the country is comment no. 2 stuck in?

The belief that China is a country of family units is out of date. Rural land reform has allowed the appearance of more and more medium sized farms (renting from other farmland). The problem now is not of farming being insufficiently intensive, but that it is becoming overly intensive, whereas organic farming is decentralised, medium and small sized systems engineering. (Translated by smc)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Point by point explanation

Aren't mid-size farm owners also single family units? Brothers, you need to understand that family units, when used in measurement, vary in sizes. However much land a farm owner manages, it is still family-based. This kind of social structure and mode of management remains unchanged.

Furthermore, concern over-intensive working of the land is probably more relevant for the deltas of the Yangtze River and Zhu River, which merely account for a small part of the country. How can the broader area of China be discounted?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






Re: Is Large- Scale Dissemination Necessary

1. What works in other places may only work there- don't assume that if it works elsewhere, it will necessarily work in China. In other words, the development of organic farming being feasible in Europe by no means proves that it is also workable in China.

2. Doesn't organic farming produce grain? If it produces grain, why would you be worried about food security? If it doesn't produce grain, of course, it's even less feasible.

3. Dissemination on a smaller scale, taken to an extreme, is the way to exclusivity, and is entirely practical, particularly suited to China's "two- tier" market . It's not just workable in the future- isn't everyone in Beijing giving organic products as gifts over the Spring Festival at present? My advice would be not to say this is impractical. The problem lies in the question of whether organic farming is for the rich few, or the poorer masses? This is what should be discussed.

Establishing demonstrative organic fields at Zhongnanhai would certainly be feasible. Doing so at Tianyun would work too. The problem would be expanding organic farming, which would be troublesome.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







Reply to Comment 8

By what works in other places, I mean that this is nothing like the theory of the perpetual motion machine, which is unworkable even in principle. This proves that organic farming is not a dead end.

The food security problem is like this: Organic farming not only produces grain, but moreover, due to the comprehensive use of photosynthetic products, actually produces more. But the proportion of food contained in this grain is correspondingly lower, and when you take into consideration the alternatives to chemical fertilizer, the amount of food produced should actually fall somewhat. But as a rule, the average caloric production value of the land should be improved. Of course, this needs more real testing. But Chinese people are used to eating rice and wheat, and dietary frameworks are hard to change. If the tonnage of food produced is too low, that can be considered a problem related to food security.

I believe that organic farming is still in a very long period of feeling its way forward, and might tilt slightly towards the wealthy. However, it should not always be a luxury product.

With regard to experimental fields, I feel they shouldn't necessarily result in high prices, as production costs are low in more remote areas, and they could be established if transportation links were provided - would paying for them not be a headache?

Furthermore, how can plans to give the public safer food not be viewed favourably in today's situaton where food safety is being severely threatened? Is it like being a frog being boiled in warm water- you get used to it over time? Perhaps we should deal with it like we do with sports, putting the entire country's strength first into implementing it, and then improving on it afterwards step by step, and eventually finding a better way to solve the problem.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







举全国之力发展体育,在外国人看来,是很可笑的。因为,这违背了西方人奥林匹克精神中最基本的“fair play”原则,即:对方是一个人,你这边是一帮人,甚至整个国家,就算你赢了,也不是什么光彩的事情。


In Reply to Comment 9

Hello up there. I agree with some of your answer. For example the part about what works elsewhere, I agree with your explanation. On the other hand, there are some things I disagree with.

One of them is food security. Chinese dietary frameworks are also changing. Especially in the large cities, and the fundamental target of organic farming must be to begin in the metropoli. All that is needed for there to be no concern about food security is for organic farming to be able to produce food of greater calorific value- how many of the urban white- collar workers and poorer classes eat rice and flour? So the real reason for concern may be that the calorific value produced by organic farming is insufficient.

Second, the question of food safety has nothing to do with organic farming. Which is to say that food safety is not a technological problem, but rather a problem of integrity and ethics. If there are people adding melamine to milk, and adding things to organic products that shouldn't be there, no matter how good the "products" of organic farming are, they won't be any use.

Perhaps you mean that developing organic farming may be a strategy to encourage people, but if you intend to use it as a measure to resolve food safety issues, you have misunderstood the problem.

You brought up sports, so I'll go on a bit myself.

Bringing the strength of the entire country to bear to develop sports is laughable to foreigners. This is because it is against the idea of "fair play", which is the fundamental principle of the spirit of the western Olympic Games, since if your opponent is one person, and you have a gang, or even a whole country, even if you do win, it's nothing brilliant.

It's just like in martial arts; if you want to see who's the best, you have to compete as an individual, in a one- on- one contest. If you fight one man with a big crowd, you haven't proven your skill. Won't everyone just laugh at you?