Lack of information and incentives keep Chinese from pursuing sustainable agriculture.

Why Chinese farmers have no clear path to organic farming

As the home of a majority of China’s ethnic diversity and natural riches, Yunnan offers residents a bounty of choices in terms of flavors, cuisines and ingredients. Located in south China and bordering Laos and Myanmar, the province, whose name means “south of the clouds,” boasts a tropical climate that delivers year-round food production. Much of the food raised here is sold throughout the rest of the country.

Yet all this lovely food and agricultural diversity is changing. First the Communist Partys 12th five-year plan announced this year is focused on developing the country’s interior by supporting economic growth via mechanization, industrialization and increasing trade. Relatively poor interior provinces such as Yunnan are seeing the downgrading of small-scale farming methods, some of which are chemical-free, and markets oriented toward local suppliers and consumers. Instead, polluting chemicals and mainstream commercialization of food production is being encouraged.

Yunnan farmers, pesticide experts and nongovernmental organizations committed to promoting sustainable agriculture describe a complicated set of problems that keep producers from embracing organic and healthy practices. The government, otherwise ever-present, is conspicuously absent when it could be providing support, such as offering information and training for farmers about non-chemical approaches, standards and certification processes.

Feng Bolin is a young farmer studying at Hao Bao Qing Organic Farm in Tuanjie Town, on the outskirts of Kunming city proper.

“Farmers don’t stop using pesticides because, among other reasons, they don’t know how,” he said. “And if they even have heard of [organic], they don’t know what [organic] is exactly.”

One of the key obstacles farmers face is a lack of knowledge about how to obtain organic certification in China, which is a cumbersome, cost-prohibitive, bureaucratic procedure (similarly true in Brazil). This lack of information is particularly apparent in rural areas where farmers need it, according to Sun Jing, program manager and Asia Pacific coordinator at the Pesticide Eco-Alternatives Center, an organic agriculture nongovernmental organization in Kunming with a decade of experience dealing with chemical pesticide farming.Rows of vegetables, Hao Bao Qing organic farm, Tuanjie Town, outside of Kunming, Yunnan Province.

“All the big companies that manage farms are based in Beijing, as are the certification bodies,” Jing said.

Lack of training

As a result, opportunities to learn about alternative techniques are minimal, increasing the burden on NGOs and universities to circulate information about non-chemical approaches. It’s also a time-consuming process. It has taken two years for Yan Mei, a researcher and policy advisor at the Centre for Mountain Ecosystem Studies based in Kunming  Botanical Gardens to get organic accreditation for a farmer cooperative in southern Yunnan that gathers organic wild walnuts from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements .

As with any other business proposition, the price incentive is key. If a farmer can make additional money by selling crops without chemicals, he will switch to those methods.

Fang Jing, a professor in the Institute for Health Sciences at Kunming Medical College, researches the health impacts of pesticides on farmers in Yunnan’s Yuanmou County.

“To persuade farmers to diminish [pesticide] use … the No. 1 way is the economic incentive, since they can sell [goods] for a better price,” Fang said. “Even after health scares, they don’t stop using pesticides because they don’t see why, unless they experience a good price personally, by selling ‘green’ products.” Yan similarly believes “organic regulations work so well because in addition to creating a controlled quality and product system, it’s linked to customers who pay more.”

The absence of such a system is precisely what prevents farmers from consistently receiving a better price at market, further undermining non-chemical farming methods. Like consumers around the world, the Chinese are increasingly concerned with the source of their food, especially because safety scares have made eating some foods a potential life-or-death situation.

Lack of incentives

A trusted food certification authority would be ideal, yet China’s food-safety regulation systems are fragmented. This is partly a legacy of stop-and-go changes in legislation and institutional reforms, that  has generated short-term market uncertainty. Farmers deal with new policies continually created and inconsistently implemented or enforced, so they’re never clear what products will bring in more money, nor which laws are relevant. For Feng, even on the relatively large 110 mu (equivalent to 7.33 hectares or about 18 acres) farm on which he works, planning is everything.

He worries that “the market keeps changing; we can’t see the future or plan ahead. For each crop, we produce seven or eight vegetable varieties to meet customer demands. In the winter when we produce fewer varieties, it’s even harder to meet customer desires. For us to keep the farm, we need to always look to expand the market, find new customers.”

Evidently, stability is key. “Farmers want a stable trader, they don’t want to change prices,” Yan said.

Farmers will do anything to keep prices constant, even keep using pesticides, admits Fang.

“Since the distribution system is missing and, as a result, green products don’t consistently bring a better price, why should farmers give [pesticides] up?” he asked.


Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com. This article originally appeared on ZesterDaily on Thursday, December 8, 2011.

Photos, from top:

Feng Bolin, organic farmer at Hao Bao Qing organic farm.

Rows of vegetables, Hao Bao Qing organic farm, Tuanjie Town, outside of Kunming, Yunnan Province.

Credits: Manuela Zoninsein

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