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Going Organic in China

USDA_sust_farm_China.jpgWhile the popular image of agriculture in China may be the rural peasant tilling his field using methods differing little from those of his grandparents, in reality Chinese agriculture is one of the most heavily-dependent upon chemical fertilizers in the world. According to the World Resources Institute database, in 2003 China used an average of 227.6 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of arable and cultivated cropland; by comparison, the US used 110.7 kg/ha and Europe an average of 73.4 kg/ha. But this is starting to change, as Chinese consumers begin to appreciate the nutritional value of organic products -- and Chinese farmers begin to appreciate their export potential.

The quick summary: over the last six years, China has increased its organic farm acreage nearly ten-fold -- and is well on its way to becoming the number one organic food producer in the world. Read on for a survey of where organic farming stands in today's China.

According to the WRI, in 2003 China had a bit more than 300,000 hectares, or about 1% of its total agricultural land, under organic management (compared to 950,000 ha./~2% for the US and 5.7 million ha./3.5% for Europe). More recent figures for Europe suggest that its total was up to 5.9 million hectares at the beginning of 2005 -- decent growth, to be sure -- with a good 18% coming from Italy, the #3 country in terms of organic acreage (Argentina's #2 with 2.8 million ha. in early 2005, and Australia's #1 with 11.3 million hectares!).

But organic farming growth in China seems to be exploding. TriplePundit pointed me to an article in a recent Beijing City Weekend English-language magazine entitled "Going Green in China is Possible." Although the article barely disguises its disdain for organic products (strongly implying that it's all just a momentary fashion for bored Chinese yuppies), it included an interesting tidbit of information:

Green supporters in Heilongjiang earlier this year claimed that the province had already converted 500,000 hectares of its fertile soil to organic methods, producing US$800 million worth of organic crops each year.

It turns out that Heilongjiang is China's center of organic food cultivation, and its rate of growth in organics has been dramatic, to say the least. At the end of 2004, according to the China Daily (PDF), land under organic management in Heilongjiang alone was up to 1.59 million hectares; 00615.net, the website for the Chinese-government-sponsored Harbin trade fair, reported last month that

Organic farming and production in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, China's major grain producer, currently covers 2.32 million hectares. [...] Heilongjiang will expand its organic food acreage to 3.33 million hectares by the year 2010.

Even taking these figures as somehow exaggerated, we're still looking at China easily becoming at least the #3 spot for organic farms, becoming #2 either now or very soon. Given that China had barely 200,000 hectares under organic management in 1999, this is a remarkable achievement.

Some of this growth comes from foreign demand, although how much is hard to pin down (I couldn't even find two sites to agree roughly on the value of organic food produced in total, let alone for export). Some claims are interesting, though. Organic Monitor states that

Chinese companies supply over a third of the organic soya beans used by European food processors. The high market share is partly due to poor harvests in South America, especially Brazil. However there has been a large rise in quality of Chinese soya beans in recent years. Organic food companies in Europe also favour Chinese soya beans because of GM concerns about soya beans from North America.

It will be interesting to see how the organic vs. genetically-modified struggle plays out as the global production of organic foods grows.

Organics for export have to meet relatively tough European and US standards; domestically, the situation is more lax, and the China Daily reports that a recent consumer survey of organic foods in Beijing found that nearly 10% of the items sampled were counterfeit.

The rapid growth of organic farming is one bright spot in the picture of China's increasing oil use. As organic farming practices expand, the amount of fertilizer used correspondingly declines. As long as chemical fertilizers use petroleum as a feedstock (commonplace but not required), a less fertilizer use means less oil consumption. It may be a small fraction of China's overall hunger for fuel, but every little bit helps...


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Going Organic in China:

» Pointers from Andrew Johnson's Weblog
Fast Company: The Wal-Mart You Don't Know. A dismal tale of cheap pickles and a company that would eat... [Read More]

» Pointers from Andrew Johnson's Weblog
WorldChanging has a post with some great links to high-quality climate change and international development... [Read More]

Comments (2)

If they process organic wastes from farms and human settlings (anaerobic digesters) they get biogas for energy, compost for fertilizer, food for fish AND less risk of inter-species viri transmission (flu pandemic included).

Getting more money with less work may make it even more acceptable.

I know how the biogas and compost (liquid fertilizer from digesters) comes about, and I can see how the anaerobe cultures would kill or consume pathogens, but what's this about fish food?


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