Promising Trend Towards Sustainable Agriculture in China


Dear Friends and Colleagues

Promising Trend Towards Sustainable Agriculture in China

Chinese agriculture currently faces major challenges. China’s use of fertilisers and pesticides is among the highest in the world. Soil erosion and soil pollution are widespread, as is the loss of agricultural biodiversity as high-yielding hybrid crop varieties replace traditional landraces. Water scarcity is widespread and the rapid pace of urbanisation has led to a mass exodus from rural areas, with major implications on the availability of agricultural labour.

There is a small but growing trend towards sustainable food production and consumption in China, witnessed by the rise in ecological farms, organic farmers’ markets in major cities and an increasing emphasis on sustainability elements in Chinese agricultural policies. A report from IIED presents eight sustainable agriculture initiatives from seven provinces in China. The case studies include cooperatives, companies, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives, and government-led and farmer-led initiatives. The report views sustainability in all its social, economic and environmental dimensions.

The conclusion is that adopting sustainable agriculture in China is quite achievable from a technical standpoint. The major bottlenecks for moving forward are economic and social. Key challenges include how to ensure an adequate market for the products of sustainable agriculture; how to ensure that market returns reflect the environmental, social and health benefits of more sustainable modes of production; how to ensure that smallholders benefit; and how to find sufficient labour to carry out sustainable agricultural practices in rural areas. The case studies showed that collective organisation was essential to the viability of sustainable agriculture and that external actors and the government played a crucial enabling role in supporting a diversity of pathways to sustainable agriculture.

Policy recommendations include: strengthening policy support to cooperatives; simplifying and systematising certification procedures; increasing farmer training and consumer education on ecological agriculture; and supporting innovative ways to attract farmers back to the land.

Chapter 9 of the report on Lessons and Policy Recommendations is reproduced below.

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International Institute for Environment and Development

Chapter 9: Towards a Viable and Sustainable Chinese Agriculture: Lessons and Policy Recommendations

By Seth Cook, Lila Buckley, Qiao Yuhui and Qi Gubo

Chinese agricultural policy in recent decades has focused on increasing crop efficiency and output through ‘modern’ inputs of agrochemicals, large-scale irrigation, mechanized farm management, and market incentives for developing industrialised food chains. The widespread dissemination of technical innovations and the entrepreneurial energies of Chinese farmers have enabled food production to keep up with rapid population growth—a major achievement for a developing country with the world’s largest population and limited arable land. However, this linear approach to food security has had significant social and environmental costs—as well as creating economic inequalities.

The eight case studies contained in this book paint a rich picture of the diverse alternative models of agriculture with which communities, local governments and companies are experimenting throughout China. From small community-led farmers’ associations and remote sheep-rearing societies with targeted local urban consumers, to large certified organic companies with national distribution, they illustrate the wide range of interpretations and manifestations of ‘sustainable agriculture’ in China.

This research report views sustainability in all its social, economic and environmental dimensions – each case study has shown us the complex interconnections among these three aspects. Furthermore, we have used the term ‘sustainable agriculture’ to reflect a continuum rather than an endpoint: from less rigorous systems such as the hazard-free standard, to the very stringent organic standards. In this conception, emerging attempts to reduce applications of chemical fertilisers and pesticides are seen as the first step towards more sustainable forms of agricultural production. To have focused solely on organic farms would have missed the panorama of initiatives emerging in the country which merit exploration and support.

While these case studies offer many lessons on sustainable agriculture for China and other countries, their central insight is into the value of and need for a diversity of models. Individually, none of the case studies contains all of the answers to the challenges of how to make sustainable agriculture viable for Chinese farmers and consumers. Taken together, however, they offer a wealth of potential solutions. This is one of the values of the case study approach used in this report; one case study can answer some of the questions raised by another. Through the diverse cases discussed here, we see that there are many different pathways towards sustainable agriculture. These are shaped by a tremendous variety andcomplexity of local conditions which demand context-specific approaches. Small, medium and large-scale farms all have a place. Initiatives spearheaded by farmers, cooperatives, companies, local governments and urban intellectuals have all proved to be viable in different contexts.

Similarly, we have seen how the different certification systems create space for a variety of sustainable agriculture approaches to capture value in the market. Hazard-free, green food and organic certification systems have their advantages and disadvantages, but each of them can be avenues for communities and companies to garner greater economic value for their products. Likewise, several of the case studies demonstrate that non-certified systems can also be viable. Policy therefore needs to preserve and foster a range of models: a diverse food system will be more resilient and in any case there is no blueprint model that works everywhere.

Just as these case studies present a spectrum of models, they also encompass a variety of motivations for adopting sustainable agricultural practices. For some, economic motivations were primary. In the case of Wanzai (Chapter 3), for instance, the local government spearheaded the promotion of organic agriculture for the export market in order to raise farmers’ incomes and promote development in a poor county. In Shuanghe village (Chapter 8), in addition to economic factors, villagers were motivated by the health and environmental benefits of eschewing agro-chemicals. For villagers in Guangxi (Chapter 4), the establishment of an ecological cooperative was driven by a shared concern for the environment, for the conservation of agricultural biodiversity, and for the maintenance of local culture. In Ningxia (Chapter 7), many traditional practices such as land fallowing, the integration of livestock and crop production and use of animal manures as fertiliser have persisted because of their efficacy – here villagers had more pragmatic motivations for continuing sustainable agricultural practices.

In the context of an overall trend towards conventional and industrial forms of agricultural production, it takes real leadership and vision to chart alternative pathways. In this sense, these case studies are also about the catalytic role played by pioneering individuals. In the case of the Bishi Ecological Farm in Huantai county, Shandong (Chapter 6), it was the owner who played the leading role, inspired to establish an ecological farm by his strong environmental ethic and backed up by his capital accumulated in the construction industry. For the nearby Xincheng Chinese Yam Cooperative, the cooperative’s founder was the prime mover. Distressed at the decline of Chinese yam and the negative impacts of agrochemicals in the area, he resolved to promote the sustainable production of this local speciality. For Shi Yan and Cheng Cunwang of Shared Harvest (Chapter 5), Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) was a means to simultaneously address problems of food safety, out-migration, the decline of rural areas and the environmental damage caused by conventional agriculture.

These cases also emphasise the many challenges to the practice of sustainable agriculture in China today. Some of these challenges are agronomic in nature, such as declines in yields during the conversion period to organic production, disease control in vegetable production and animal breeding, avoiding pesticide contamination, finding sufficient land for the crop rotations mandated by organic standards, and the need for regular maintenance of biogas digesters. However, the technical problems encountered in these case studies are dwarfed by marketing and social issues.

Adopting sustainable agriculture in China is quite achievable from a technical standpoint, particularly given China’s longstanding traditions of ecologicalagriculture, its formidable research and dissemination apparatus and its resourceful and enterprising farmers. The major bottlenecks for moving forward are economic and social. For example, how to ensure an adequate market for the products of sustainable agriculture, and to ensure that market returns reflect the environmental, social and health benefits of these more sustainable modes of production? How to ensure that smallholders benefit? Finally, how to find sufficient labour to carry out labour-intensive sustainable agricultural practices in the context of widespread out-migration from rural areas?

9.1 Lessons

It is not possible in this brief conclusion to discuss all of the insights and lessons emerging from these case studies. Further details are provided in the conclusion section to each case study. What follows here are some of the most salient findings that have emerged from our research. The chapter then concludes with policy recommendations for how to promote sustainable agriculture more widely.

9.1.1 Scale depends on context

Our case studies show that sustainable agriculture can be practised at a small, medium or a large scale, and that there are advantages and disadvantages to each. The small scale of the Guangxi case, for example, enabled farmers to retain a large degree of control over their resource base (land, water, labour, seeds), even as they struggled with marketing. The larger scale of the Bishi Ecological Farm (Chapter 6), on the other hand, meant it could integrate all aspects of the production chain, although this entailed some degree of risk for farmers who transferred their lands to the company.

At the same time, cases of collective action for some activities—such as planting and harvesting, or processing and application of crop residues—illustrate that certain aspects of agricultural production are best done at a larger scale than the household level in order to increase efficiency. Similarly, the cases from Shandong demonstrate how it is easier to construct and maintain biogas facilities at a collective level; it is also far easier to make use of biogas slurry and residues with machinery, which individual farmers may not have access to. At every scale, these cases highlight how marketing is also best done on a collective basis in order to maximise bargaining power while saving labour and time. Thus from these cases, it seems that as long as there are structures in place such as CSAs or collectives which enable farmers to amalgamate their efforts, sustainability can be pursued at any scale—and indeed is best pursued at the scale that matches the circumstances of the particular actors and geographies involved.

Some sustainable agricultural practices once prevalent in traditional Chinese smallholder farming systems have not yet been adapted to larger-scale operations. For example, the practice of combining pigs, chickens and other animals in addition to growing crops is being rapidly replaced by the type of large-scale feedlot production practices prevalent in developed countries. This presents problems for sustainable agriculture in several respects. First, animal husbandry is separated from crop production, preventing recycling of resources and resulting in vast amounts of biological waste. Second, this can pollute the surrounding environment and pose health threats to local communities. Yet as Bishi Ecological Farm demonstrates, crop production can be combined with animal husbandry at scale in a way that addresses these problems.

Though sustainable agriculture is increasingly supported in principle in China, policies normally focus on large-scale and high-efficiency production models, and ecological aspects are mostly related to building demonstration parks, processing industrialised resources, and scaling up institutional construction. In the meantime, smallholders such as those in Shuanghe village are practising ecological agriculture using methods adapted to small-scale landholdings and family operations. Efforts to promote sustainable agriculture in China would benefit from a closer look at the benefits of operating at different scales according to the specific needs and circumstances of different systems.

9.1.2 Collective organisation is key to the viability of sustainable agriculture

For all the diversity in approaches, geographies and scales seen in these cases, none of the models of sustainable agriculture lend themselves to individual smallholder farmers operating independently.

The cases highlight a number of factors that make collective organisation essential to increasing farmers’ incomes and enabling them to derive more benefits from farming. First, smallholders acting by themselves often lack market information and marketing channels – as illustrated by the Guangxi case – just as they have difficulty garnering better prices for their produce. Second, they may struggle to adopt technical innovations, such as biogas (Nanmazhuang village, Chapter 2), mechanisation (Shuanghe village), or agroecological practices (Wanzai). They often lack sufficient inputs such as organic fertiliser or have difficulty getting it to their fields, as in Shuanghe village. Whether the challenges are technical, social or economic, they are difficult to overcome at the household level. Third, collective organisation opens up a whole range of resources and services to farmers. For instance, as shown in Wanzai county, cooperatives can provide seeds, organic fertilizer and bio-pesticides, training, and technical guidance to their members. At the Bishi Ecological Farm in Shandong, the company employed farmers at far higher incomes than they had previously earned, while giving them access to training and new skills. Farmers involved in Shared Harvest and the Guangxi CSA benefitted from reduced risks, higher incomes, as well as the camaraderie of being part of a joint effort for ecological agriculture. In the case of Shared Harvest, farmers didn’t have to think about marketing, as this was taken care of by the CSA. For individual farmers, marketing can be burdensome. All of these examples demonstrate the importance of a diverse set of channels for collective organisation for smallholder farmers to achieve sustainable agriculture—particularly in the context of markets that are increasingly dominated by larger players.

Collective organisation can be accomplished in a number of ways. One way is for farmers to form cooperatives, as in most of the case studies. A second model is Community Supported Agriculture, which can either function as companies, cooperatives or both. A third model is for farmers to transfer their land to enterprises, such as the Bishi Ecological Farm, which then hire them as workers.

The cooperative emerges as the dominant approach, present in six out of the eight case studies. Even in Zengjipan – where there was no registered cooperative – the group operated very much like a cooperative, but faced real obstacles for its lack of formal cooperative status. The evidence here suggests that cooperatives have been extremely beneficial in enabling smallholder farmers to come together and achieve much moresustainable and vibrant food systems than they would have been able to achieve acting individually. Cooperatives can bring myriad benefits to farmers, including higher incomes. For instance, the average annual incomes of Xincheng Chinese Yam Cooperative members were 36% higher than those of non-members from the same village. In Wanzai county and Nanmazhuang village, cooperative members also enjoyed higher incomes than non-members.

Moreover, the benefits of cooperative membership are not simply higher incomes. Prior to the establishment of the Xincheng Chinese Yam Cooperative, small farmers managed the production and sale of Chinese yam themselves. Technical and environmental constraints meant their yields were low and farmers sold their Chinese yam at the local market at a low price and on a small scale. Since the establishment of the cooperative, both infrastructure and brand awareness have improved and the market for Xincheng Chinese yam has gradually begun to expand. This illustrates the power of cooperatives to address the technical and marketing constraints facing individual smallholder farmers.

In Guangxi, the formation of the cooperative allowed for much stronger information, technology and labour exchanges, and also for common trust-building and collective bargaining in the sale of their products to the restaurant. In Nanmazhuang, the cooperative has played a critical role in responding to and mitigating price fluctuations, in providing a platform for sharing ecological knowledge and raising awareness among members, and in creating opportunities for villagers to access external resources. For instance, the cooperative helped the households raising ‘Happy Pigs’ to obtain contacts with marketing companies, as well as making linkages with enterprises interested in the processing factory for ecological produce. The cooperative also organised eco-tourism, bringing in visitors from outside, as well as facilitating collective social activities. By contrast, the absence of a formal cooperative for sheep production in Zengjipan village in Ningxia restricted the ability of villagers to market their products and gain access to subsidies and other services.

The cooperative is a singularly powerful tool for sustainable agriculture in China precisely because of its flexibility, which allows it to support a wide diversity of models. The cooperatives described here are led by a wide variety of people, exist at different scales, and have different focus activities and benefits. Policy on cooperatives needs to be flexible enough to reflect this diversity, particularly by allowing for multi-product cooperatives.

9.1.3 External actors and local government can be catalytic

These case studies emphasise the important role of various outside actors for promoting sustainable agriculture pathways in China. Over and over, we have seen key contributions by idealistic urbanites, university professors, scientists and local NGO workers with easy access to information and strong commitment to preserving cultural heritage and environmental protection. Their role has been as diverse as their job titles: from introducing new concepts, facilitating information sharing and building bridges among various actors, to obtaining policy support and developing marketing channels for the products of ecological agriculture.

The ideas for creating a cooperative and applying for hazard-free certification in Nanmazhuang, for example, came from China Agriculture University researchers; they planted a seed which was then nurtured and developed by local people. Likewise, the promotion of Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) in Guangxi is a particularly powerful example of outside actors valuing and enhancing local knowledge. PPB allows farmersand plant breeders to participate equally in decision making at every stage, from identifying desirable traits and parent lines, to evaluating the resulting varieties. In Guangxi, this approach has enabled the use of resilient local varieties in developing new high-yielding varieties with greater resilience. It has also allowed crop breeding to be tailored to diverse local environments, greatly improved technology adoption rates and generated incentives for agrobiodiversity conservation (Song and Li, 2011; Swiderska et al., 2011).

In each case, outside involvement has been about finding synergies between local knowledge and needs, and the ideas, market linkages and technical knowledge that outsiders can bring. These cases thus illustrate how agriculture is embedded in specific localities and socioeconomic contexts, and how outsider input needs to complement this local knowledge in varied ways.

Another key lesson emerging not only from these case studies, but from China’s experience with agricultural development more broadly, is the essential role of the state. These cases confirm the government’s crucial enabling role in supporting a diversity of pathways to sustainable agriculture—a role that can take a variety of forms depending on the context. In Wanzai, for instance, it was local government that successfully spearheaded the adoption of organic agriculture, which has since spread to other neighbouring counties in Jiangxi province. Both the township and county governments in Wanzai were deeply involved in this process, including providing technical training to farmers; giving financial support for certification and organic inputs; guaranteeing a market for organic products; attracting investment in the organic sector; mediating between farmers and enterprises; supervising organic production; and providing overall direction to the development of organic agriculture. Wanzai is proof that sustainable agriculture can be done at scale, and that local government is indispensable in such upscaling.

While Wanzai is the most dramatic example of government contributions to the development of sustainable agriculture, there are many others. In Ningxia, the government has devoted substantial resources to promoting the Yanchi Tan Yang sheep brand, helping to create new linkages between Zengjipan village and outside markets. In Guangxi, the county government now showcases the Rongyan Cooperative as a model woman-led cooperative, and also as a model for ecological farming. In addition, the provincial government’s biogas project provided a solid support base for ecological farming practices. There is also policy support for sustainable agriculture in provinces such as Henan, driven by specific targets for hazardfree, green food and organic products.

9.1.4 Certification is one important marketing tool, but not the only one

Marketing is a critical factor in the success and failure of sustainable agriculture efforts in China. These case studies illustrate the diverse approaches that people are experimenting with, from hazard-free and organic certification to CSAs and geographic origin schemes. Of the eight case studies, four had some level of sustainability certification, while four had none. Whether and what type of certification makes sense for a given community depends partly on geographic location, the nature of markets in that area, and the extent to which the community is integrated into wider commodity chains. In the Ningxia case study, none of the three marketing channels used by villagers recognises green food products; hence there islittle incentive for villagers to obtain green food certification, even though the Party Secretary in Zengjipan is keen to get the village’s buckwheat certified as a green food in order to augment its market value. For some rural communities with distinctive regional products, geographical branding is a potentially good option. In Zengjipan, sheep sold to large enterprises via middlemen in the township market can use the geographical brand ‘Yanchi Tan Yang’. However, this geographical brand does not distinguish between conventional and ecological production, so free-range sheep produced in the village are marketed under the brand in the same way as sheep from large feedlots in the area. This is a serious limitation to the market’s ability to reflect the superior husbandry practices in Zengjipan.

Organic certification can be prohibitively complicated and expensive for small farmers. It can also be expensive for cooperatives and CSAs if there is no subsidy or other support available. One of the reasons that the Xincheng Chinese Yam Cooperative abandoned its pursuit of organic certification is that its costs (at least 10,000 yuan per year) would undermine any economic benefits. It also lacked sufficient personnel to handle the paperwork required for certification. Similarly, Shared Harvest were facing costs of about 150,000 yuan per year to get their farms and produce organically certified. In fact, as Shi Yan of Shared Harvest points out, certification is not essential in the CSA model. As she puts it, ‘The consumer’s belief in you is more important than certification.’ The CSA model is built upon trust between producers and consumers fostered by bringing consumers to visit the farm that supplies their produce.

On a larger scale, however, and with more complex supply chains, sustainability certification can be important for verifying claims of good environmental practices. One of the most important contributions of the local government in Wanzai county has been to cover the costs of organic certification, which obviates the need for farmers to shoulder this burden. While Wanzai also has some green food and hazard-free certified areas, organic farming is being practised on a larger scale and is the main priority for the local government. Today Wanzai is a national organic agricultural demonstration area – one of about 30 nationwide – and is one of the most important organic agricultural production zones in China. Organic certification has been an engine of economic development and has contributed to improved livelihoods for many farmers in the county. On the other hand, small-scale farmers in Wanzai have benefitted less from organic certification than larger-scale farmers. These findings are in line with those of Blackmore and Keeley (2012), who found that sustainability certification does not necessarily benefit the poorest farmers.

A diversity of sustainability certification models is not always a good thing. There are some benefits to giving consumers and producers a choice of labels and to gradually phasing in higher standards, rather than insisting that farms meet the highest standards (e.g. organic) at the outset, which is not realistic for a developing country like China. However, the proliferation of standards makes it difficult for consumers, producers and even officials to understand the exact criteria for each certification system. Moreover, the diversity of certification schemes that exists today was neither intended nor planned.

Another ongoing challenge reflected in these cases is the fact that certification systems do not fully or accurately represent the extent of sustainable agricultural practices in China. For instance, a village’s lands may be certified hazard-free, but the village may actually be undertaking more rigorous practices than those required by the hazard-free standard.

Certain crops, such as rice in Nanmazhuang village, may actually be produced organically, but for various reasons are not organically certified.The inability of the market to fully reflect the social, economic and environmental values of sustainable agricultural production – and to compensate farmers accordingly – is a recurring theme in our case studies. At the same time, the case studies do point to a number of pathways beyond certification for overcoming this problem, at least to some extent. Social media has changed the way many goods are marketed and can be a huge asset to practitioners of sustainable agriculture, as Shared Harvest can attest. Much of their marketing is done via WeChat and their new social media platform called Hao Nongchang, which is designed to link sustainable food producers and consumers. The Xincheng Chinese Yam Cooperative markets its yams directly to consumers in nearby cities, as well as selling online, and a local charity is helping them to link to The operation of Bishi Ecological Farm encompasses the entire commodity chain for its products, including agricultural production, processing, sales and catering. Food processing and catering add value to its products and this is one possible approach for other larger operations.

Shared Harvest has also established its own restaurant, which is another effective marketing channel.

Branding can also be a means of augmenting the value added of sustainably produced foods, as demonstrated in Nanmazhuang. The Ningxia case is another example, as the local government has put a lot of investment into the Tan Yang brand. Even investment in high-grade packaging can reap rewards, as the Xincheng Chinese Yam Cooperative has witnessed. Publicity has made a big difference for several of the case studies for enhancing brand popularity and reputation. However, it can often be a long and arduous process to build a strong brand and branding can only be done at a collective level; it is not feasible for individual farmers to undertake by themselves.

Just as our case studies underscore the need for a diversity of models, they also point to the need for a diversified marketing strategy. Initiatives such as Shared Harvest which have multiple avenues for marketing their produce have fared better than those such as the Guangxi case where farmers are overly reliant on a single marketing channel. Closely related to this is the need to find ways to distinguish sustainably produced foods in the market. Where this is lacking, these foods may be sold at even lower prices than conventional products due to their imperfect appearance. This has been the case with vegetables from the Bishi Ecological Farm and Shuanghe village in Sichuan.

9.1.5 Labour is a key constraint

The availability of labour is another critical issue in China today. Labour shortages are a major obstacle for the promotion and expansion of sustainable agricultural practices, which tend to be more labour-intensive than conventional practices. While there are no easy answers to this dilemma, these cases offer a variety of possible ways forward. For example, scarcity of labour can sometimes be compensated for by mechanisation. For instance, crop residues in Nanmazhuang are generally processed and applied to fields mechanically. This is possible due to the flat terrain in China’s Central Plains. It is less feasible in mountainous areas such as Sichuan and Guangxi. For example, in Shuanghe village, older and female residents form the bulk of the permanent population in the village. They have difficulty transporting animal manure and biogas residues by hand to the hillside fields where it is needed, and the mountainous terrain makes mechanised transport of materials difficult.On-site food processing, such as in Wanzai county, creates jobs for local people and decreases incentives for out-migration. It also facilitates the expansion of organic agriculture in remote areas where the transport of perishable produce to urban areas is not feasible. Another potential solution is highlighted by Nanmazhuang village, where the number of local marketing jobs is expanding as the Nanmazhuang brand gains currency.

The two CSA cases were not challenged by labour shortages. This is primarily because the CSA model itself aims to create jobs in order to reverse the out-migration trend. While in both cases, out-migration was an issue prior to the establishment of the CSAs, these CSAs are now drawing people back into farming through higher wages and better marketing arrangements. While this reverse migration is a trickle compared to the flood of rural workers moving to urban areas, it is significant nonetheless.

While CSAs may be the most successful example of the potential of sustainable agriculture to reverse out-migration, albeit at a small scale, interviews with local officials and farmers in Huantai county indicate that young people there have begun to return to the villages to engage in agricultural production as the income from agricultural sources reaches parity with off-farm work (particularly considering the higher costs of living in urban areas compared with rural areas).

The cases of Nanmazhuang and Shared Harvest point to increased opportunities in commerce and eco-tourism – spurred by the practice of ecological agriculture – which could be another way to attract young people back to rural areas. Thus we see through these cases that though labour shortages are an obstacle to the pursuit of sustainable agriculture in China, there are a variety of approaches to overcome it—despite the relatively higher labour input requirements of sustainable practices. These include innovations in farming techniques, as well as bringing new actors into agriculture itself through the higher market value and greater appeal of sustainable food production.

9.1.6 Awareness of the value of sustainable agriculture is vital

A final key lesson is that we cannot use a purely economic lens to evaluate agricultural systems, particularly those involving sustainable practices. As agriculture provides the very basis of a healthy human existence, as well as a variety of social and ecosystem services, its significance vastly exceeds any economic returns. There are many examples of this from our case studies. For instance, the Xincheng Chinese Yam Cooperative is helping to ensure that the traditional local yam variety can be maintained, which is an important contribution to preserving agrobiodiversity. In Wanzai, villagers have observed a marked resurgence in local biodiversity after abandoning the use of agrochemicals. In Guangxi, villagers have experienced improvements in their health after switching to sustainable agricultural methods; an added benefit has been the greater social cohesion that the cooperative has brought to the village. In Shared Harvest, farmers expressed satisfaction with being able to find work in their own villages rather than commuting to urban areas for off-farm work.

The demand for sustainably produced foods hinges upon well-educated consumers, and these case studies show a variety of ways that this can be achieved. In Guangxi, a restaurant reaches out to urban consumers, educating them about where their food comes from as well as increasing their awareness of local agricultural heritage. In Zengjipan, urban ‘tourists’ visited the village and became dedicated to the quality of free-range meat raised in a clean, natural environment. One of the greatest assets of Community Supported Agricultureas practised by Shared Harvest is that consumer education is integral to its operational model. By giving members and non-members a chance to visit their farms and participate in activities, CSAs connect consumers directly with the production process, giving them a new appreciation of what it means to grow, market and distribute food in a healthy manner. This aspect is increasingly being lost in the modern food system. Today social media offers huge potential for consumer education and outreach.

Difficulty marketing cosmetically imperfect produce is also related to consumer expectations, which reinforces the need for educational efforts. Only once consumer awareness is raised can a market for sustainable food develop, in turn stimulating farmers to grow these products. Hence, supporting the types of measures developed within these cases for raising consumer consciousness is key to the development of sustainable agriculture.

9.2 Policy recommendations

These case studies have demonstrated that sustainable agriculture can be approached using a variety of different models at a number of different scales. There is value in preserving and fostering this diversity for several reasons. First, encouraging diversity will lead to more robust and resilient food systems. Second, as agriculture is embedded in specific local contexts – each with their own unique history, culture, society, economy and ecology – agricultural models need to reflect that complexity rather than attempting to simplify it. Hence agricultural policy in general, and specifically policy on sustainable agriculture, needs to support different models and different scales. In this final section we offer recommendations drawn from our research findings for how this can be achieved.

9.2.1 Strengthen policy support to cooperatives and revise the national cooperative law

Cooperatives require more support from the government if they are to fulfil their role of balancing economic benefits with the provision of public services (Song et al., 2014). This is especially true of farmer cooperatives involved in ecological or organic farming. The national cooperative law currently requires cooperatives to be ‘professional’ (zhuanye) entities, which according to local authorities means that they should focus on only one agricultural activity. Even if the cooperative has several activities, it cannot be registered as a comprehensive entity. However, ecological agricultural practices necessarily encompass both farming and animal husbandry – they cannot be limited to only one crop or animal.

The multiple benefits of ecological agriculture need to be presented to government at various levels. These benefits relate not only to food security and food safety, but also to social harmony and other less tangible but equally important elements. In cooperative support policies, this type of cooperative should be considered as making a dual contribution to both agricultural development and environmental protection, and receive support for its initiation and development accordingly. Therefore, the national cooperative law needs to be revised to allow for greater flexibility in the registration of cooperatives.

9.2.2 Simplify and systematise certification procedures

Certification is an important means to connect products with the market, but the application procedures are relatively complicated. The skills required to set up the necessary management and documentation systems are in short supply in rural areas. More attention needs to be directed towards simplifying the required procedures and documentation.

The plethora of certification standards in China today (hazard-free, green food, organic, good agricultural practice), as well as branding measures such as geographic labelling, can be confusing for consumers, farmers and government officials alike. There are also areas of overlap in some cases, and gaps in others. There is no comprehensive system for certification, covering the range of possibilities for sustainable agriculture in an efficient way—and thus no means by which to accurately signal value in the market. Several standards such as hazard-free and green food could be unified. In addition, definitions should be clear, certification procedures should be simplified and traceability should be improved. Certification fees need to be covered by government, not by individual farmers or cooperatives, as this burden acts as a disincentive to applying for certification.

At the same time, China’s strict standards for organic agriculture require effective supervision and monitoring, but this is difficult to achieve given the large numbers of farmers involved. Revision of the organic standards should include consultation with all stakeholders in order to incorporate their experiences. Long-term development plans and appropriate subsidies are needed to reduce risks and increase the willingness of farmers to comply with standards.

9.2.3 Ecological agriculture research needs to be better resourced and participatory

The agricultural research and development system in China prioritises commercialization and modernisation, with the aims of achieving higher productivity and food security in the short term. However, it is also important to devote resources to research on ecological agriculture methods, particularly those that are viable in the context of labour shortages and difficulties in accessing markets. Modern approaches and local knowledge should be integrated into research on specific technologies, as was the case with Participatory Plant Breeding techniques used in Guangxi. The evidence from these case studies points to the efficacy of conducting participatory action research together with villagers to support ecological agriculture.

Research foundations could support participatory action research (PAR) projects in which researchers, local people and companies with related interests collaborate to examine local needs for ecological agriculture technologies, and sponsor activities for sharing existing adaptive practices. The joint achievements of the Dongxi Township Agricultural Technology Service Centre, the Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Shuanghe villagers are a good example of the effectiveness of PAR in ecological agriculture (Chapter 8). National policies under which researchers or officials from relatively developed areas assume official positions in counties, townships or villages in less developed areas (e.g. guojia ganbu guazhi duanlian) offer untapped potential for replicating the types of rich collaboration occurring in Nanmazhuang.Since farmers often lack expertise in organic farming, a more effective agricultural extension system and information network are vital for the further development of the organic sector.

Similarly, indigenous methods developed by farmers in specific areas tend to be localized and poorly-known; networking and information exchange for farmer leaders are important for sharing such knowledge and empowering farmers’ cooperatives for collective actions in ecological farming and market access. Setting up a network at national or regional level for information and techniques exchange would be one way forward.

Biogas, combined with crop and livestock production, plays an indispensable role in circular agriculture. While central and local governments have invested substantial resources in building biogas digesters, many of them fall into disrepair soon after construction. Biogas could benefit from more research with local involvement in order to understand how people actually use the technology, and to uncover the obstacles to its maintenance. The government should also increase technical support for the operation of biogas digesters and improve the subsidy system for biogas production. Subsidies could reward farmers for their output of biogas per cubic metre instead of for the number of digesters they build. This would ensure that digesters are used. At the same time, social service organisations should be established to maintain biogas projects at the county level.

9.2.4 Increase farmer training and consumer education for ecological agriculture

Raising awareness of food safety and environmental protection is crucial in order to increase demand for ecological products. Consumer education should be an important component of environmental and food safety policy implementation. This could be accomplished through a number of avenues, such as organic restaurants, advertisements, television and radio programmes, training courses and government supported projects.

For producers, training and extension in ecological agriculture is vital in order for them to understand its benefits and to be able to effectively implement agroecological practices. Training in marketing is also essential. A related issue is the need to cultivate leadership on ecological agriculture among local officials, cooperative directors, and other influential people at the grassroots level. Given the vital role that local leaders have played in our case studies, this is crucial.

Introductions to ecological agriculture could be integrated into the education system, which already includes some social education components. Nanmazhuang, Wanzai and other areas could serve as educational sites for students at various levels to demonstrate how ecological agriculture works in practice. They could also serve as learning centres for communist party members in various organisations who normally take part every year in collective activities (dangyuan huodong).

As a major part of cooperatives’ operations, marketing and its concrete regulations should be integrated into cooperatives’ operational plans. As marketing is quite a different activity from farming, the marketing capacities of cooperatives need to be supported and developed. Marketing operations require very professional capacities and modern sales knowledge, which are not often found in traditional farming societies. While some guidelines on the marketing of organic agriculture enterprises online and field guidance from universities or other enterprises can provide information for this type of activity, there is an ongoing needfor sustained, supportive guidance and consultation, formal training, and even involvement of individuals from enterprises with these professional capacities.

9.2.5 Support innovative ways to attract farmers back to the land

These case studies have highlighted the need to attract youth back to rural areas, or to prevent them from leaving in the first place. This is crucial in the light of the country’s ageing rural population – the average age of farmers in China is 55. Doing so will require enabling farmers to earn incomes which are attractive enough to keep them on the land. From our surveys, it was clear that many farmers would prefer to stay in rural areas if they could earn similar net incomes as they would working outside their villages. Joining CSAs and cooperatives, or working for large farms, are several possible avenues to achieve this in the context of sustainable agriculture. Hence policies should support all of these initiatives in order to attract more young people to stay in rural areas.

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