Slideshow: organic overtures

Meng Si visited a project in eastern China that trials natural farming methods. Introducing her photographs of the farm, she says extending its agricultural revolution still seems a distant dream.

In late 2008, reports claimed that pesticide residue in peanuts grown in one county in Shandong, eastern China, were at potentially fatal levels. Official investigations discredited the rumours and peanut-lovers continue to enjoy their snack. But issues in peanut-growing, such as the use of toxic chemicals and agricultural membranes, remain unaddressed.

Peanut farmers know there is a range of factors that can reduce harvests, including pests such as beetle larvae. And, for the majority of farmers, the only way to deal with pests is powerful toxic pesticides, such as the long-banned “666”. In addition, agricultural membranes – thin plastic sheets – are often laid over fields of peanuts and other crops in order to prevent the evaporation or run-off of water and fertiliser and to reduce weed growth. But these membranes are difficult to gather up after use, and are usually abandoned by the side of fields, polluting the soil.

“Our existing agricultural methods cut off ecological cycles,” says Jiang Gaoming, chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany and a columnist for chinadialogue. “We need to restore and make use of those natural cycles.”

Since 2007, Jiang’s research team has rented 27,000 square metres of land in Shandong, eastern China, to use as the Hongyi Organic Farm. The project aims to demonstrate organic farming practices, exploring commercially-viable forms of organic agriculture and attempting to grow the most successful organic crops in China.

The idea of organic agriculture originated in Europe and, by the year 2000, it was being used to some degree in 141 nations. But the amount of farmland dedicated to the practice in Asia remains fairly low compared to Europe, where organic methods are relatively widespread.

However, as living standards and awareness of environmental issues have increased in recent years, China has started catching up with the west in enthusiasm for organic farming, although high prices and inconsistent certification have left many consumers unconvinced about organic products and reluctant to buy them.

Jiang explains: “We have stopped all use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, membranes and additives and we don’t use anything genetically modified; we’re testing the role of organic agriculture in maintaining yields and improving profits. In just three years, we have already seen the power of this approach.”

Jiang is no mere follower of fashion. He believes that, if Chinese agriculture fails to move towards organic practices, the nation’s soil will lose its last remnants of fertility. Like so many other commercial operations that have failed to account for environmental factors in business planning, the farming sector has long ignored the vital role of the soil. As a result, agricultural membranes, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have turned rich, dark earth pale.

But is it possible just to do away with chemicals in farming? What about their role in fighting disease and pests? China uses 7% of the world’s arable land to feed 20% of the world’s people – a miracle made possible by the use of over 1.2 million tonnes of chemicals annually.

“Farmers use 50 yuan (US$7.30) of toxic chemicals for every 667 square metres of peanuts planted but this still doesn’t bring the pests completely under control. Our costs are much lower,” Jiang points out. In one of the team’s small fields, pesticides have been replaced with two lamps that use light of a particular spectrum to attract insects to traps. “It doesn’t catch all of them but it achieves an ecological balance,” says Jiang. “Even if the insects aren’t there, the lights won’t do any harm.”

The lights can attract up to 4.5 kilograms of insects a night. But, due to insect lifecycles, they are only caught on 70 nights of the year. In the last year, the farm has collected over 100 kilograms of insect larvae to use as feed supplements.

The farm also uses manual labour or mowers rather than weed-killer to remove weeds, which are then fed to locusts and freshwater fish. The income from this is enough to employ two farm labourers all year round. A 120-strong herd of cattle is fed using straw and cattle dung is used to produce methane to provide energy for the farm, with the waste products returned to the fields as high quality, organic fertiliser.

According to Jiang Gaoming’s research, up to 70% of fertiliser used in China is wasted and overuse of such chemicals is a serious problem. He believes organic fertiliser could help China’s agriculture move from a sector that is “high cost, high output, high pollution” to one that is “low cost, low output, no pollution”.

Can improving soil fertility and using organic practices result in lower costs than traditional methods? Organic grains and vegetables currently cost three to five times as much as normal equivalents on the market, while leeks and celery from Shandong province sell for 20 yuan (US$2.9) per half kilogram.

One person who believes low costs are feasible is Zhan Peilin, chairman of Rizhao Yikang Organic Technology. His company’s microbial organic fertiliser is made out of sludge waste from kelp processing and bacteria imported from Japan, and trials have shown it is as effective as its chemical equivalents. However, he says state subsidies and preferential policies for chemical fertilisers are reducing the competitiveness of alternatives.

Zhan also believes that Jiang’s farm suffers from a disconnect between production and the market. “As soon as production expands, you’ll find the market is too small, unless you are providing animal proteins for food processors," he says, after visiting the locust-feeding hut. He adds that a single farm running a range of operations will incur higher management and business costs than larger ventures. And, with food safety legislation and monitoring still in need of improvement, only corporations – with their strong management and concern for corporate reputation – can be relied upon to provide accountability.

The farm is currently helping local farmer Jiang Gaoyu raise free-range chickens, using the “organic space” between crops. “In theory, the bigger an organic farm gets, the better the ecological and economic results are; management costs go down and more jobs are created,” says Jiang. His immediate goal is to persuade the villagers to dedicate 67,000 square metres of land to organic agriculture, with a long-term goal of converting the village’s entire 667,000 square kilometres to the practice.

As well as peanuts, the farm grows around 20 types of grain and vegetable, including wheat, corn, soya, green beans, chives, celery, potatoes, onions and garlic. These now carry an “organic” label and are described as high-standard, high-quality products, with no chemicals, fertilisers, additives or artificial compounds used. It seems that, after the excitement of increased yields brought about by such substances, followed by a period of overuse, those at the cutting edge of farming in China have decided to sever links with chemicals after seeing the damage done to the soil.

Despite a disappointing yield from the first crop of corn due to waterlogging, Jiang and his students remain confident. They believe that patience and constant experimentation are essential. It was the urgent quest for immediate results that led the farming industry to ignore soil quality in the first place, and to use fertilisers, chemicals and membranes, creating hard, polluted, infertile and unsustainable soil.

Jiang believes the farm’s role as a demonstration project is more important than commercial success. But farmers need more than faith; they need reliable models and a stable income before they can be persuaded to abandon conventional practices.

Many agricultural experts share Jiang’s views and hope to save the soil – and the farming industry – through organic practices. For seven years, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences has been running a project investigating key technologies for new types of multifunctional microbial fertiliser. Yuan Longping, the 79-year-old “father of hybrid rice”, is hopeful he will see 1,000 kilograms of super-hybrid rice produced per 667 square-metre harvest by the time he is 90. But, for now, eating healthily and eating enough remains no easy task for China’s 1.3 billion people.

Meng Si is managing editor at
chinadialogue’s Beijing branch