The Sustainability of Organic Agriculture in Developing Countries: Lessons from China

By Richard Sanders and Xingji Xiao.

Published by The Sustainability Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Concern over food shortages in recent years has made questions over whether organic agriculture can provide the basis for sustainable agriculture in developing countries ever more urgent. In China, organic agriculture - almost completely abandoned as a result of Maoist grain monoculture and Green Revolution technologies by the 1970’s - is making a comeback, with the Organic Food Development Centre, China’s principal organic certifier, winning full accreditation from the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements in 2003 and organic food being produced in China in increasing amounts, albeit from a low base, for sale in both domestic and overseas markets.
But organic conversion for China’s overwhelmingly poor farmers, as for poor farmers everywhere, is extremely problematic. Not only are there risks of lower yields in the first few years, ignorance of organic techniques, problems of obtaining sufficient organic fertiliser, back-breaking weeding, problems of handling the bureaucratic requirements as well as the monetary costs of certification and finding markets, but owing to the very small size of Chinese farms, farmers need to undertake organic conversion cooperatively. Promoting the necessary conditions for organic agriculture is therefore not easy, particularly in poor, out-of-the-way rural areas. However, the decision by China’s largest and most important state liquor company - Maotai - to source its ingredients, primarily sorghum and wheat, from organic sources has led to the largest concentration of organic farmers in China - in rural Guizhou, one of poorest parts of China - providing farmers with the necessary security to undertake organic conversion with enthusiasm. Our paper will present our research findings, based on visits to Maotai, Guizhou, in 2007 and 2009 and will point to possible lessons for other developing countries who wish to make organic conversion feasible and organic agriculture sustainable over time.

Keywords: Sustainable Agriculture, Organic Agriculture, China, Developing Countries

The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, Volume 6, Issue 6, pp.233-244. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 610.401KB).

Prof. Richard Sanders

Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies, The China, Transitional and Developing Economies Research Centre, University of Northampton, Northampton, UK

Since 1993, when I was employed as an economics lecturer at Beijing Foreign Studies University, I have been researching environmentally friendly initiatives in the Chinese countryside. These initiatives include ecological agriculture, green food and organic agriculture. I gained my PhD. in 1998 with a thesis entitled “Prospects for Sustainable Development in the Chinese Countryside: the Political Economy of Chinese Ecological Agriculture.” Since then I have published widely in the areas of Chinese agricultural and rural development, environmental protection and property rights in China. I have made presentations in these areas at conferences in China, Japan, Australia, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Cambridge, London, Cambridge and Rome, the latter when I was invited by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to talk to its first conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security in May 2007. I continue to carry out fieldwork in the Chinese countryside in the field of organic agriculture as a Research Fellow of the Organic Food Development Centre in Nanjing, China. I was awarded the chair of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Northampton in 2007.

Xingji Xiao

Director, Organic Food Development Centre, National Institute for Environmental Science, Nanjing, Jiangsu, China

I have worked in the development of Chinese ecological and organic agriculture all my working life. I gained an MA in Soil Science in Canada in 1984, one of the first Chinese students to win a state scholarship to study abroad. I have been attached to the National Institute for Environmental Science since the late 1980s working in the area of ecological agricultural development in Nanjing. Soon after the initiation of the Organic Food Development Centre in 1993, I became its director and have remained in the post ever since. I have travelled extensively across the world as China’s representative in the promotion of organic agriculture and I have worked closely with other members of the International Organisation of Organic Agricultural Movements, my centre being a fully accredited member since 2003. I have travelled with Professor Richard Sanders on our field trips to Maotai, Guizhou, in 2007 and 2009.

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