Jun 6, 2010

China's agriculture growth has been ecologically devastating

Every time the issue of sustainable agriculture vis a vis food security crops up, the mainline economists in India cite the example of China. I have always felt amused with the way the economists play the China card, knowing well that they have little idea about the devastation that faces China from the aggressive policies they have followed all these years in increasing crop yields.

The Indian economist know for sure they will get the support of the political leadership of the left parties -- both the CPM and the CPI, which invariably they get. I am in fact more worried at the way Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has been using the China card to push for the same policies that brought devastation in China.

But is China's agriculture really sustainable? Isn't China's agriculture suffering from severe doses of pollution and contamination of the environment? And is China realising that something is terribly going wrong with their agriculture? All these questions, and more, had remained unanswered as India follows the China route to destroy farming and agriculture. Interestingly, while India tries to blindly ape China in agriculture, China itself is trying to resurrect its agriculture to make it more sustainable in the long-term.

Behind the smile lies hidden a dark side of Chinese agriculture

The interview below, published in March 2010, is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the crisis that China faces in sustaining its farm growth. There are lesson for India.     

Heal poisoned countryside through eco-agriculture

Global Times
9 March 2010

China has had bumper harvests for the last six years. But its overall agricultural picture is not so pretty, as the country faces problems of food safety caused by the overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Premier Wen Jiabao told the ongoing National People's Congress that the government plans to invest 818.3 billion yuan ($119.79 billion) in agriculture this year, while the first central policy document of the year, issued on January 31, highlighted the importance of developing modern agriculture as a major part in the transformation of the Chinese economy. How can productivity and ecological impact be balanced? Global Times (GT) reporter Li Yanjie talked with Wen Tiejun (Wen), dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, Renmin University of China, on agriculturally-caused pollution and agricultural development in China.

GT: You once said that agriculture has become the source of most severe pollution. Why?

Wen: Agriculture used to be a green industry, with very little pollution, but now it is an industry that consumes a lot of energy and also pollutes heavily. The overuse of chemical fertilizers since the 1990s, due to China's shortage of agricultural resources, is the biggest contributor. Excessive use of nitrogenous fertilizers weakens plants' ability to absorb and utilize them. Statistics from Henan Province show that only one-third of over 3 million tons of nitrogenous fertilizers had been absorbed by plants, while the other two-thirds went into the air, soil and water. 

A survey by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences shows that 17 provinces use far more fertilizer than the international standard of 225 kilograms per hectare. Chemical fertilizers also pollute rivers seriously, as China's best farmland is all around rivers. The first national pollution census bulletin, released February 9 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, shows that agriculture is responsible for 43.7 percent of total water pollution nationally. The Liaohe, Haihe, and Huaihe rivers and Taihu, Chaohu and Dianchi lakes are six examples of seriously polluted waters. The land around all of these six, important food production areas, has been populated.

Pesticides are another source of pollution. China has become the largest producer and user of pesticides. Pesticide residue threatens food security. The recent discovery of toxic cowpeas in Hainan Province is a good example. In addition to this, large-scale breeding programs and livestock management are having an increasing influence on the environment. Many large stockyards don't have pollution control facilities and excrement and dirty water are discharged directly into nearby rivers and lakes. Livestock also discharges enormous amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas.

GT: Why do farmers keep using chemical fertilizers even though they cause pollution?

Wen: China is facing decreasing agricultural resources as its population and waste grow. The blind rush into urbanization is also consuming large amounts of land and water. Under these conditions, pursuing high yields naturally leads to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers. This in turn threatens food safety. These basic conflicts can't be solved by government policies or laws.

GT: Many experts warned about the dangers in China's agricultural development pattern, but they weren't heeded. Why?

Wen: First, the scientist and technocracy, closely connected with developmentalism, that were introduced into China in the last century have affected Chinese concepts of agricultural production. People have seldom broken away from these modes of thinking. Second, interest groups formed through such economic growth patterns control policy making. Policies are produced by maneuverings between such special interest groups. Most of China's chemical fertilizer enterprises are State-owned and contribute a large share of revenue. They have been supported by government policies and financial subsidies for a long time. They definitely fight for their interests, and thus affect agricultural production, but the whole of society has to bear the risk.

China's farmers have got used to using chemical fertilizers. Once they use less, they can't get a high yield, as farmland now contains few organic substances due to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers. For farmers, the most important issue is survival. Environmental pollution is not their major consideration.

GT: There is no unified law to deal with pollution in rural environments. How can we treat problems in unsupervised areas?

Wen: Departmental fragmentation has been an institutional problem. Reforming this and establishing big government departments can't be achieved in the near future. The government gives 17 billion yuan ($2.49 billion) in subsidies to chemical fertilizer enterprises every year but gives little support to treat rural pollution. Last year the public expenditure to treat rural pollution was 9 billion yuan, meaning 40 yuan for each farmer. I suggest China change its subsidy policies and support agricultural production patterns that produce no emissions and can absorb carbon.

GT: What's the best solution for agricultural pollution?

Wen: Eco-agriculture. Once we stop over-supporting the interest groups who control the current agricultural production patterns, it's possible to convert agriculture to being eco-friendly. Agriculture can be a green industry again. First, China should cut its subsidies to nitrogenous fertilizer producers and set reduction targets for chemical production and use. In fact, it has been proved that grain yield can be maintained at the current level with only 50 to 70 percent of current chemical fertilizer usage. Second, community supported agriculture (CSA) groups are helpful, too. A CSA group consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation where the growers and consumers share the risks and benefits of food production. When urban citizens realize the damage done by agricultural pollution and desire eco-friendly products, they will be willing to pay more money for healthy food, and farmers will be willing to produce in a green way. CSA has been practiced in Germany, Switzerland, Japan and other countries and regions. The US has 1,210 CSA farms. China's Guoren Green Alliance is an ongoing experiment in CSA.

Eco-agriculture can be profitable. If eco-agriculture and eco-friendly rural areas can absorb a large amount of carbon, eco-agriculture might become a hot item in carbon market, attracting excess financial capital and aiding economic structure adjustment.

GT: Eco-agriculture has a longer production cycle and fewer yields, but China's policy is to increase farmers' in-comes. How can the conflict be solved?

Wen: Any countries practicing market system, especially those with a population over 100 million, can't let farmers get rich only via agriculture. Developed East Asian economies based on small holder farming always offer high subsidies to farmers to ensure their food safety and their farmers acquire a socially average income through benefits from various business areas managed by cooperatives.

GT: What are your ideal new villages? Will urbanization be a solution?

Wen: I can't oppose the major trends of industrialization and urbanization, since it would be like a mantis trying to stop a chariot. But we can't expect that China's 3.8 million natural villages and 600,000 administrative villages will all be industrialized and urbanized. I think the most important thing for new villages is stability, as China resolves its crises each time by using farmers, villages and agriculture as a base for a soft landing. Agricultural policies and national investment should emphasize the role that agriculture plays in environmental protection. Farmers' cooperatives can get national status in market negotiation, and comprehensive cooperatives of different levels should be established and communicate well. The government needs to increase public expenditure to provide more services for farmers. The governments at all levels should support farmers to maintain the diversity of rural culture. If all these five points can be realized, I think farmers, villages and agriculture will develop in a better way, and China can grow sustainably.


abhay said...

I wanted to add afew facts to what you have said Sir.

In India several cities get drinking water that has pesticide residue that is 10 -100 folds higher than permissible level. This is killing the city dwellers only because they compail the farmers use these toxins.

Farmers are not very happy using these toxins for two reasons: 1. they cost. 2. they also affect the farmers who apply the toxins.

Then why the farmers use the toxins?

Just to ensure the livelihood by trying to maximize the production (which is an ecological impossibility).

Why dont we pay 15% extra for toxin free vegetables? To set off this extra cost we may just have to skip one dinner outing a month.

But this will ensure that even our future generations will get good drinking water and envirnment.

Even if 10% of the population of a big city like Mumbai resolves to use non-toxic vegetables tens of thousand of farmers and acres will come under eco-friendly agriculture.

Are we really serious about taking up this challange?

Dr Abay Shendye

Felix said...

Well, isn't this just the prisoner's dilemma? You need a government or a semi-government organization to guarantee that everyone sticks to the rules, thus provinding higher (long-term) returns for everybody.

I'm quite curious about the fate of the Chinese agriculture. How does a country like Japan, that has the same problem as China (high peasant/land-relation) solve this problem?