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An Unlikely Champion of Organic Farming

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[Photo of Organic Farming]Long criticized for prioritizing productivity over quality, China
is turning over a new leaf for low-yield, high-profit farming

It’s accurate to say that the evolution of China’s farming techniques is contingent on demand.

Domestic and international markets have forced China’s agriculture sector to review a production strategy notorious for compromised quality and a lack of social accountability. China’s shift away from its volume-driven mindset is an attempt to strike a lucrative balance between productivity and quality improvements.

The organic farming revolution has proven highly profitable for China and its farmers. In 2007, revenues for the world’s organic industries reached some US$46 billion and is expected to grow by US$5 billion in the years to follow. China has a significant cut of that pie and true to its inherent capitalist nature, it’s a safe bet that China sees no greater motivation to go into sustainable agriculture than profit.

Economics of Survival

China’s transition from a ruthlessly mechanized and pesticide-plagued agricultural strategy to one that trades volume for environmental sustainability warrants the question 'what gives?' Bluntly, it isn't because China’s capitalist players have finally developed a conscience.

The international community gave an ultimatum: either do business according to our standards or risks losing billions of dollars in exports.

The efficiency with which China has managed overwhelming domestic demand while supplying the world's commodity markets has long been a concern for food safety regulators and labor agencies. They fear that China may be compromising safety in favor of productivity. The world’s legion of environmental advocates has already hurled accusations—some steeped in propaganda—of excessive compromises in food safety, quality, and humane practices.

Those that risk human lives threaten the reputation of China’s organic industry the most. In 2006, supermarket chain Walmart had to pull out stocks from China because of consumer sfaety concerns. Items removed from their shelves included produce treated with pesticides, toothpaste doctored with anti-freeze, fish pumped with mercury and antibiotics, tainted infant formula, and eggs treated with a poisonous dye.

Another controversy involved the contamination of 40,000 ha of farmland resulting in losses amounting to 24.89 million kilograms of agricultural and husbandry products. This led to a direct economic loss of US$32.5 million.

A more recent case involved meat dumplings exported to Japan that contained a highly toxic pesticide called methamidophos. Chinese authorities cried sabotage and denied responsibility for the incident.

Of equal gravity is how, despite Chinese farmers' efforts to abide by international standards for organic production, toxic runoff from neighboring farms and chemical toxins from past planting seasons could leave residual and possibly permanent traces in the air and soil. Because of China's heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers in the past, contaminated soil and air may no longer be conducive to organic farming.

Even discounting that the switch to organic farming is profit driven, China’s enviable rise as one of the world’s top suppliers of organic produce has been and is still fraught with industry-damning crises.

The End Justifying the Preemptive Means

To understand China’s deplorable approach to productivity at all costs, it's best to look at why it is driven to increase productivity in the first place. It is easy to conclude that China, in possession of one of the world’s largest farmland, does not have to worry about food security. But when taking population growth into account, things are not so simple.

At 0.092 ha per capita in 2008, China’s limited arable land has not been a source of solace for its policy makers. China has consistently fallen below the world’s average arable land per capita and this is a frightening reality that affects the country's agriculture policy. Survival, which in China’s case means beating the constant threat of food scarcity, is the rationale for its rigorous push to harvest more produce per hectare of land.

Roots of China’s Organic Revolution

Organic farming started to permeate the minds of local farmers in the 1990s and the decade saw the establishment of  ‘Chinese Ecological Agriculture’ alongside 1,200 pilot ecological agriculture villages.

[Photo of Organic Farming]Further development in the field included the launch of the substandard yet pivotal ‘Green Program’ administered by the China Green Food Development Center (CGFDC) under the China Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). The MoA was itself established in 1990 in answer increasing pressure from importing countries to subject agriculture produce to quality control by testing for pesticide residue and toxicity.

But the Green Program provided only the minimal assurance that products were chemical pesticide-controlled, not chemical pesticide-free.

As an intentional pilot program to impose stringent methods for high quality organic produce, the Green Program highlighted how China’s farmers could adopt sophisticated operations. Aside from increased awareness of the need to implement quality control to preempt consumer health scares, small farming communities also saw the potential of the low-yield-high-profit nature of organic farming. In China, premiums on organic produce can reach up to 700% more than non-organic goods.

In the years after the Green Food Program and the OFDC, greed became the highlight of the organic revolution. Blatant disregard for the consequences of faulty labeling started to permeate among industry players. The existence of two congruent certifying bodies with different labels and the hordes of local agencies claiming competence in certifying organic produce increased consumer confusion, not confidence.

To remedy this, the Certification and Accreditation Administration of China (CAAC) started issuing the first national standard for organic produce in 2005. The objective was to halt the increasing cases of irresponsible labeling of products as ‘organic’.

As proof of the governments’ confidence in the readiness of the organic industry to comply with international standards, China’s State Environment Protection Administration (Sepa) set up the Organic Food Development Centre. By 2002, it was granted full accreditation by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. This authorized Sepa to grant organic label certifications to agriculture produce leaving China and ensuring the market credibility of commodities from China.

Home Grown Organic Success

Between 2005 and 2006, China accounted for 63% of the world’s increase in land dedicated to organic farming. From China’s perspective, this meant an equally impressive eleven-fold increase in land under organic management—from 298,990 ha to 3,466,570 hectares.

From 2000 to 2006, China catapulted itself to become the world’s second in terms of hectares dedicated to organic cultivation, a feat that was indicative of China’s ability to preserve double-digit economic growth despite yield limitations inherent to organic industries. By 2007, China had 128,233,100 ha devoted to organic farming and  accounted for 11% of the world’s organically managed land. During the Sustainable Consumption and Alternative Agri-Food System Conference in 2008, it was reported that 28% (34 million ha) of China’s arable land is devoted to environmentally-sustainable farming methods.

All Signs Point to the North

In an effort to highlight its dedication to sustainable farming methods, Shanghai has built an artificially designed organic village known as City Farm. Located in the northern suburbs of Shanghai, a town traditionally named DongTan is an endearing spectacle of neatly aligned and uniform houses with backyards displaying the fruits of each household's horticultural efforts.

Reminiscent of a Stepford Wife-tilled backyard, the residents who tend these crops have had the privilege of being trained and schooled aimed at proper organic crop cultivation. Their products are sold in exclusive organic retail stores across Shanghai.

Farther north in Beijing, visitors can take a walk in China’s first eco-village,Liu Min Ying, which won a United Nations Environmental Protection Award (UNEP) in 1987. The village people and their decently preserved housing and small farms epitomize the lucrative nature of venturing into organic production—it is still one of the more affluent villages in Beijing.

There is a lot of optimism for the potential of organic agriculture to alleviate poverty and improve life in China’s farming communities. Maintaining the farms is also vital to food security for China’s ever untenable population growth. In June 2008, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization highlighted the need for major agricultural countries to focus on world food security by maintaining bio-diversity—an objective that can only be achieved through the environmentally-sound practices inherent in organic farming.

Print ed: 09/10


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