A Push for Sustainable Agriculture in China from the Top Down and Bottom Up

Key policy document in China may signal changes in agricultural policy. (shutterstock)

In a country where one word can carry several different meanings, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Number-One Document, carries special weight. The Number-One Document, which outlines policy priorities for the year and is published annually every January, has highlighted rural issues since 2003. However, this year’s 2014 report took emphasis on food security and the environment to a new level. 

For the first time in eleven years, the Number-One Document espoused the need for “reform” in rural agriculture rather using the word for “development,” as it had in the previous eleven years. According to Xinhua News Agency this represents a new urgency at which the Chinese Communist Party plans to implement new policies on food safety and sustainable agriculture. So what are some rural reforms we can expect to see around China from the top down? What is going on from the bottom up?

Li Hong Bin, who works with the Chinese government’s Development and Reform Commission in Sichuan Province, known as one of China’s major agricultural bases for grain and pork production, weighed in on what he saw as the top concern facing sustainable agriculture in China: polluted soils. Mr. Li attributes the intense usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to China’s rural land policies that still reflect communal ownership. Land in China belongs to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) though farmers can rent the land for an up to 70 year lease. Li believes that new policies that would assign farmers with individual ownership over a plot of land and allow them to buy and sell property would encourage farmers to show greater environmental stewardship.

Trickling down to the business level, Shi Yan, who started China’s first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in Beijing after working for six-months at a small CSA in western Minnesota, has noted a shift as well. “Before, the government’s focus was to produce more food, now the focus is on protecting the environment,” said Ms. Shi, referring to government agricultural subsidies.

She noted that one of the major challenges to encouraging sustainable agriculture was the lack of regulation in the market for organic products which can sell at three to eight times the normal market price, a fee consumers are reluctant to pay when they cannot trust its authenticity. Ms. Shi cited a recent Beijing TV report that uncovered conventionally grown tomatoes being re-bagged as “organic.”

While Shi Yan places little trust in the 23 different organic certification companies, 21 of which are privately owned, a young farmer in the rural outskirts of Beijing believes there is hope in consumer education. Chun Jing works for Emerald Bay, an organic farm which sells their produce in China’s growing online grocery shopping market. Through the online platform, customers can order groceries delivered right to their door, access farm updates and information, ask questions directly to the farm staff, and most importantly, see consumer reviews. She believes that as customers become more engaged in the food buying process and have access to greater information about the farm, their purchasing preferences will be the largest instigator for greater sustainable agriculture in China.

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