Why China is becoming a leader in sustainable and organic agriculture

It’s August and it’s 38°C outside a greenhouse at a fruit farm in suburban Nanjing, China. Inside the farm, customers sample organic grapes and peaches.

Ms. Wang, owner of the farm, carefully lifts the lid off a large bin of worms. She raises thousands of them to produce organic fertilizer for her farm.

Wang is one of a growing number of farmers in China who are reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides and tapping into consumer demand for organic and sustainably grown food.

China’s total grain production has nearly quadrupled since 1961, when the Great Famine ended. But its success comes at a high environmental cost: China uses four times more fertilizer per unit area than the world average and accounts for half of the world’s total pesticide consumption. Overall, chemical use on Chinese farms is 2.5 times the global average per acre of land.

Excessive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has led to soil contamination, algae blooms and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond the ecological consequences of rapidly increasing crop yields, Chinese consumers as well as farmers and farm workers have faced health issues. Excessive fertilizer application has resulted in chemical residues in feed and nitrogen seepage into groundwater.

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But sustainable farming practices and organic food production are booming in China. The total area under certified organic crops increased more than fivefold between 2005 and 2018, to 3.1 million hectares, according to a 2019 government report. China ranked third in area certified organic in 2017, after Australia and Argentina. Total organic sales in China ranked fourth in the world, after the United States, Germany and France. Non-certified organic production is also widespread.

This change initiates a transformation towards a more sustainable food system in China – and globally, given the US$65 billion worth of agri-food products exported from China each year. This transformation provides lessons for the rest of the world, in terms of efforts at both ends of the food supply chain to move from chemical-intensive agriculture to one that is healthier for people and the planet.

Growing interest in sustainable agriculture

Chinese farmers are abandoning chemical farming for personal health, ecological protection and economic reasons, supported by a series of state supports. Chinese consumers are keen to sink their teeth into chemical-free foods, primarily for health reasons.

The demand for organic and so-called green foods is growing rapidly, especially among the middle and upper classes. Japan, Europe and the United States are the largest markets for Chinese organic food exports according to the China Organic Agriculture Certification and Industry Development Report 2019.

Steffanie Scott chats with a vendor at the Beijing Organic Farmers Market.
(Zhenzhong Si), Author provided

Sustainable agricultural practices in China – such as using compost and animal manure instead of chemical fertilizers, cover crops, crop rotations and intercropping (growing different crop varieties on one field) contribute to healthier soils. Ecological farms also avoid the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock.

Top-down and bottom-up efforts

Social movements and organic markets have often emerged in countries with private land ownership, declining numbers of smallholdings, and increasing consolidation of food supply chains. China’s organic and ecological food sector is emerging under a different set of social, economic, cultural and environmental conditions.

This particular context in China has led to the development of a formal organic sector, created by top-down government standards and regulations. At the same time, an informal organic sector has taken shape through grassroots grassroots struggles for safe, healthy and sustainable food.

Through these top-down and bottom-up efforts, China is emerging as a global leader in developing sustainable food systems. A protracted food security crisis has been a driving force to shift to more sustainable food production and to create a domestic market for organic and ecological foods.

In response to food safety concerns, as well as the ecological crisis in China, various levels of government in China now offer a wide range of support for organic farms. These measures are unprecedented in the world. They range from covering the cost of organic certification to finding land, financing on-farm infrastructure and organic fertilizers, training and marketing assistance.

Read more: Lessons from China: Ensuring no one goes hungry during coronavirus lockdowns

Alongside these state supports, the bottom-up efforts of civil society have also been helpful. A group of passionate food activists introduced “community supported agriculture” farms, farmers’ markets and buying clubs. This has contributed to an eco-food and ethical food revolution in Chinese cities.

As our research shows, people have enthusiastically embraced these new community initiatives. They cherish the opportunity to access safe and healthy food, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online sales, especially of ecological and organic food, are booming, especially among the middle and upper classes.

Upcoming challenges

Despite these positive developments, the organic agriculture sector in China faces critical challenges. For example, small farmers generally cannot afford the paperwork for organic certification.

Fake organic certification labels have tested public confidence in organic products, and prices for organic foods can be five to ten times higher than other foods. And state officials are reluctant to promote the model more widely as they remain skeptical that the yields are large enough to feed China’s huge population.

Some of these issues could be addressed by investing in more research and asking organic sector support organizations to provide training and information sharing. China also has few environmental NGOs to educate the public and connect farmers with each other for mutual support.

The world often views China’s environmental record in a negative light. But there is much to learn from political and grassroots efforts in this country. Farms like Ms. Wang’s fruit farm are taking root to reconnect farmers and eaters. And the National Sustainable Agriculture Plan and policies to limit the use of agrochemicals have shed light on the prospects for sustainable agriculture in China.

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