Exploring Sustainable Agriculture in China
Featuring: Isi Siddiqui, CropLife America; Jessica Hamburger, Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA); Roger Blobaum, Organic Agriculture Consultant
By Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner
A Chinese idiom reads: Shutu Tonggui—there are many paths to the same goal. For those engaged in environmental and agricultural issues in China, this is a particularly poignant truism. Domestic and foreign agricultural and chemical businesses, government officials, farmers, scientists, and environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alike champion the value of sustainable agriculture in China, but they each envision a different path of achieving this goal. All agree, however, that China is poised to turn its agriculture production into high gear in order to appeal to a large export market, which will bring great changes and challenges to the country's underdeveloped agricultural sector. One of the major challenges is stagnating growth rates for both rural income and productivity. Promoting sustainable agriculture thus will be crucial to continue China's economic growth and promote a better livelihood for China's poorer farmers.
This meeting of the Wilson Center's China Environment Forum sought to illumine the often ambiguous ideal of sustainable agriculture in China, as well as help the different groups working towards this common goal aware of each other's own unique "path" and give these groups an opportunity to share information and
perhaps even combine forces.
Isi Siddiqui from the biotechnology industry trade group CropLife America, contended that by providing adequate training and implementation of safe use regulations, pesticides can play an important role in balancing sustainable agriculture and economic prosperity in rural communities, while producing a safe food supply for domestic and international markets. Jessica Hamburger of Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) maintained while pesticides offer short-term economic benefits, in the long run an increased reliance on chemicals costs farmers even more money; working with local NGOs, PANNA has begun to promote pesticide alternatives in the search for sustainable agriculture in rural China. Roger Blobaum, reflecting on his work as an organic agriculture consultant in China, was optimistic about sustainable agriculture in China. With the help of domestic and international certification, Blobaum believed that the underdeveloped organic sector in China shows great promise.
Towards Sustainable and Economical Agriculture
When approaching the issue of sustainable agriculture in China, Isi Siddiqui drew an instant parallel with the situation facing his country of birth. India, like China, boasts one of the world's largest populations. Though each country has great prospects for continued economic growth, India and China are facing an uphill battle in feeding their great share of the world's population. Nonetheless, China has had its own agricultural successes in the past twenty years. Dr. Siddiqui related how China has used land far more efficiently than even the United States; with only nine percent of the world's arable land (the United States has 13 percent), China is responsible for the greatest share of agricultural production worldwide, the number one producer of pork, eggs, wheat, cotton, tobacco, and rice. But because China does not produce a significant amount of product for export, this success has often been overlooked.
While Dr. Siddiqui believed China has done quite well with its limited land resources, he argued how sustainable agriculture is China's only option to continue to feed the population and move the agricultural sector beyond just sustenance production and into export-motivated production. Moreover, multinational agro-businesses wish to help move the Chinese "economic miracle" into rural areas and the 64 percent of the population that have thus far not benefited like China's coastal areas. This is not, however, a simple task. To join the United States in the community of great agriculture exporters, China needs to overcome its land handicap—China can count roughly one-tenth of a hectare of arable land, whereas the U.S. ratio is closer to six-tenths per person. And because arable land is a finite resource, China needs to squeeze even more production out of this relatively small area. Dr. Siddiqui considered it crucial for China to use multiple strategies to achieve growth in the agricultural sector including efficient use of water, improved varieties of crops, and safe use of fertilizers and other chemicals.
Isi Siddiqui, as a representative of chemical and biotech companies, acknowledged that many might find the plant science industry to be an unlikely champion of sustainable agriculture. Siddiqui insisted, however, that sustainable agriculture is not in conflict with the interests of the industry—in fact, the industry's future growth is contingent on the many crucial elements of sustainable agriculture, which according to CropLife America's vision includes four key aspects:
- Stewardship involves protecting the land and natural resources (air, soil, and water), conserving wildlife habitat and maintaining biodiversity while managing agricultural production;
- Maintaining and invigorating viable rural/farming communities is crucial to keep quality, trained farmers from migrating to larger, prospering urban centers. This is achieved through rural business and infrastructure development, marketing programs alongside rural financing and land reform;
- Chinese government officials, with cooperation from domestic and international businesses, must strictly enforce preexisting laws to maintain food safety; elevated food quality standards are necessary for developing the domestic and export markets; and,
- Agricultural research and education must be given greater attention. Through private-public partnerships, industries can pass best use practices down to individual farmers, informing producers of GM (genetically modified) options, recycling opportunities, and other scientific information that was previously difficult to disseminate in developing countries.
Certainly, a major product of the plant sciences industry, and touted as an important ingredient in achieving truly sustainable agriculture, is pesticides; CropLife America maintains a rather pragmatic view of crop protection chemicals. Doug Nelson, also with CropLife America, interjected that Chinese farmers use pesticides for the very same reason as farmers in the United States—they work. Pesticide use in China is not without problems, Nelson admitted. A tremendous amount of local pesticide production is done by "pirates," who do not conform to industry codes of conduct—the result is often unsafe and ineffective chemicals. To mitigate these negative elements of pesticides, Nelson suggested the common interests of responsible pesticide manufacturers, public interest groups, and governments could lead to the collaboration. The industry already has engaged in safe use projects, seeking to train farmers on the correct application of pesticides. According to Nelson industry groups like CropLife America would welcome the opportunity to work with outside groups and improve public participation in education and training for safe application of pesticides in developing countries.
While CropLife America has not individually engaged in any sustainable agriculture projects in China, its member companies are actively engaged in various biotechnology projects with Chinese scientists. In the future, CropLife America also hopes to replicate its current partnerships with local NGOs in Vietnam and Cambodia that is promoting the safe use of pesticides.
Diverting from the Green Revolution
Jessica Hamburger discussed how she does not see pesticides as an important element in sustainable agriculture but a barrier preventing it; she was quick to note that while China is indeed the world's number one producer of food, it is also the world's top producer and user of pesticides. PANNA acknowledges the initial benefit of pesticide use to rid fields of invasive pests but is concerned with the widespread long-term health effects of pesticide use and the "pesticide treadmill" (e.g., the growing dependency and increased cost of pesticide use). For truly sustainable agriculture, Hamburger suggests that China should rely on cheaper and safer alternatives to chemical crop protectors such as diversified farming, integrated pest management, and organic cultivation.
The roadblocks to achieving sustainable agriculture in China are numerous. Hamburger traces China's heavy reliance on pesticides to the "green revolution," in which Beijing placed tremendous emphasis on crop yield at the expense of health and environmental concerns. In addition, since the central government no longer strictly dictates what crops must be cultivated, individual farmers are left to make often uninformed planting decisions themselves—consequently, many farmers have planted crops that are particularly susceptible to pest infestation. To counteract the problem, farmers are increasing their use of pesticides. Furthermore, Hamburger contends that the economic miracle in coastal areas has inadvertently led to higher pesticide use: with more comparatively lucrative employment opportunities in urban centers, family farms are losing members that once performed crucial weeding work—to deal with the loss of labor, farmers have predictably reverted to pesticides.
Health effects are perhaps the most well known consequence of increased pesticide use. Lu Caizhen, a representative from Community Development Studies (one of PANNA's NGO partners in China) related results of a survey of 100 rural households in China, which revealed that 18.8 percent of all farming households have severe cases of pesticide poisoning—including symptoms such as skin allergies, dizziness, liver dysfunction, and blood problems. PANNA, and its Chinese partners, report that the vast majority of pesticide consumers do not know how to store, handle or even use the products properly. From an environmental perspective, Hamburger noted that the heavy reliance on pesticides has resulted in severe pollution of lakes and rivers, while farmers have regularly reported finding dead fish, frogs, and waterfowl after treating their fields.
From a financial standpoint, farmers have begun to feel the effects of increased pesticide use. In just three years from 1995 to 1998, the average income of farmers in Li Caizhen's study decreased from 4,000 RMB per year to 800 RMB (in USD: $481 down to $96). While respondents all reported great increases in yield, they also noted that the use of pesticides increased, cutting deep into their net income. As pests grow immune to the current pesticides, farmers expect costs to increase even more.
Even more problematic, both the domestic and international markets for Chinese agricultural products stand to be effected by increased pesticide use. Hamburger reported that in China, the pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables have caused Chinese consumers concern; many seek not perfect produce, but instead fruits and vegetables with holes and spots, evidence that they have not been heavily treated with pesticides. In recent months, Chinese products exported to international markets, like tea, have been rejected because of high levels of pesticides.
China's desire to open its agricultural sector to export markets and the rejection of pesticide-laden products might very well serve as a great motivating factor in reducing pesticide use. The Chinese government has passed numerous laws and regulations pertaining to pesticide use, manufacturing and certification. While some types of harmful pesticides have been successfully restricted as a result of government intervention, Hamburger insisted that overall government enforcement has been spotty. In addition, conflicts of interests abound. For instance, various institutes for control of agrochemicals, which are entrusted to regulate pesticides, also sell the product themselves. In other words, agents enlisted by the government to regulate chemicals and encourage alternative pest control solutions and collect profits from chemical pesticides they sell.
In an effort to mitigate the problems posed by increased pesticide use in China, PANNA has worked with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to create and oversee farmer training schools that encourage farmers to use Integrated Pest Management and control pests by introducing beneficial insects in lieu of pesticides. PANNA's main work in China involves collaborating with the Kunming-based NGO Center for Community Development Studies (CDS) to promote compliance with the World Bank's pest management policy. PANNA and CDS have conducted participatory monitoring and evaluation of the World Bank-financed Anning Valley Agricultural Development Project in Sichuan Province and discovered extremely high levels of pesticide use. The World Bank and its Chinese counterpart offices have agreed to address the concerns of PANNA and local farmers by developing a plan for training in ecological integrated pest management as required by World Bank policy. The joint monitoring project is designed to serve as a model for promoting local empowerment and sustainable farming practices throughout the World Bank's agricultural development projects in China.
Hamburger suggested that to achieve sustainable agriculture, China must also maintain high food standards and protect the health of its community. PANNA advocates for increased enforcement of sufficient laws already passed by the Chinese government. Health departments also must become more involved in monitoring the health issues that are related to increased pesticide use. Most importantly, China must shed the lasting legacy of the "Green Revolution," wean itself off of pesticides and move the agricultural sector into organic-based farming practices.
The Rise and Fall and Rise of Organic Farming in China
Though organic farming is still a cottage industry, Roger Bloblaum was optimistic about its future in China. Political support throughout several government agencies, the promise of export markets keen on organic goods, and previous experience in organic farming may very well be enough to overcome the many roadblocks to creating a large organic agricultural industry in China.
On his first visit to China in the early 1970s, Bloblaum was pleasantly surprised to see Chinese farms successfully integrating organic principals into their agricultural cultivation. Natural pest control and recycling were regular features of the rural communes. In preparation for an agricultural conference over twenty years later, Blobaum authored a paper on organic farming and food. Blobaum was shocked to learn that he was the only one of 94 experts to address the topic. Indeed, he soon learned that since his first visit, China had all but abandoned organic farming, shifting to heavy chemical use, the "green revolution" style of farming.
Blobaum's dismay quickly diminished when the topic of organic farming and food was picked as a main feature of the agriculture conference. His timing was perfect. Just prior to the conference, some officials in Beijing had begun to question the wisdom of the green revolution and already had initiated funding for 1,200 eco-villages and eco-farms that would restart China's experimentation with organic farming principles. Since 1994, the government's embrace of organic farming has been impressive, according to Blobaum.
However, China's new organic farming industry, still in its infancy, has faced a major stumbling block: certification. To prevent farmers from arbitrarily labeling their food "green" in hopes of riding the wave of popularity enjoyed by environmentally sound products, national governments and international organizations have created vigorous certification criteria. The evolution of China's certification process began when the central government created two different qualifications for green foods: "A" food is certified as having been grown with Integrated Pest Management methods whereas "AA" food has been cultivated without pesticides. This "AA" certification was China's version of "certified organic." It was the government's hope that "AA" food can easily enter the international organic food market.
Organic farming experts like Blobaum found a disturbing conflict of interest: By and large, the "AA" food produced in China was cultivated on government-owned land by farmers who were state workers through a government-created Green Food Center. However, this kind of self-regulation is not allowed under international certification norms. In the end, organic farming consultants were able to successfully persuade Green Food to abandon its desire to serve a dual role as industry and watchdog in favor of outside certifiers from Germany, the Netherlands, and France.
China does not rely solely on foreign certifiers. Last year, the International Organic Accreditation Service, responsible for certifying nearly 60 percent of organic food worldwide, signed an accreditation agreement with a local, Nanjing-based government certifier. With this agreement, China finally had created its own internationally approved certification process. The agreement is expected to speed the organic food certification thus encouraging more farmers to move into the industry. However, some observers foresee a problem with this unwieldy approach to certification, suggesting that the two certifying groups (Green Food's international certifiers and the government's own accredited certifier) will be too busy competing with each other to work together on furthering standards and developing protocol.
Despite its clunky system of certification, Blobaum is confident that there will be a bright future for organic farming in China. Though underdeveloped, the domestic market is beginning to join the international community's desire for organic fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs. The opportunities for organic farmers in China are indeed numerous. To take full advantage, Blobaum suggests:
- To facilitate extension of service and expanded research, the central government should formally authorize one government agency to be solely responsible for supervising the organic industry in China;
- Gather more accurate information on the number of farmers and the size of the organic sector in China so the government might more appropriately address its concerns; and,
- Support the organization of smaller organic farmers into collectives because communally they could afford the expensive annual inspections required for certification.
This China Environment Forum meeting substantiated the Chinese idiom that many paths do indeed lead to the same goal. Clearly, businesses, NGOs and government agencies have begun to pursue different strategies to achieve sustainable agriculture in China. At times, many of these strategies appear to conflict and even contradict each other. Yet, in the end, there exists opportunities for the different paths to converge and for the groups to collaborate to achieve their shared goals.