Improving soil fertility and increasing yields of China’s agriculture

Submitted by Daniel Gilliéron on 17. September 2011 - 16:59
Gilliéron, Daniel

Improving soil fertility and increasing yields of China’s agriculture

Daniel Gilliéron

The key to accelerating organic agriculture development in China lies in education, training, extension and awareness raising in the general public

This paper constitutes a first attempt at drafting a blueprint leading to an accelerated and coordinated development of organic agriculture in China. It is hoped that many people will contribute their ideas or constructive criticism and that some limiting factors in the expansion of organic agriculture can be identified and subsequently be removed. The author of this paper hopes to generate an awareness of the potential for paradigm shifts and subsequent quantum leaps in agricultural produce quality, diversity and quantity while at the same time securing a fulfilling and meaningful occupation for millions of Chinese.

Currently, China is undergoing deep transformation, as its economy develops rapidly and its social landscape is being reconfigured. China’s social and political environment is very complex. China needs to create its own developmental path. Likewise, it needs to define its own agricultural trajectory and identity. The industrial and technological breakthroughs achieved by China are breathtaking indeed. In the twinkling of an eye for example, China has become world leader in high-speed railway technology and network expansion. However, that kind of achievement should not distract our attention from the paramount importance of agriculture. Agriculture, indeed, is the foundation of society. In the long-term, an economically and socially successful society depends on a prospering and sustainable agricultural system.

If sustainable development is the goal, agriculture must become a key issue and not considered solely as an economic burden to be downsized. It is undeniably clear that agriculture is not immune to outside evolution in the socio-economic and natural environment, such as change in peoples’ dietary habits, effects of climate change, extremes of poverty and wealth, energy generation modes, modes of transport, cultural habits, education, literacy, equal access to information, rural/urban rift, bureaucracy, corruption, lack of transparency and many others. The author of this paper is well aware that the universe - agriculture and we are part of it - is inextricably inter-connected. To include all these issues and analyze their quantitative or qualitative impact on organic agriculture would go beyond the scope of this paper.

Outline of some of the challenges facing agriculture in China

  • Consequences of climate change: desertification, droughts, floods, unpredictable and extreme weather events
  • Drop in soil fertility due to unsustainable agricultural practices
  • Loss of biodiversity; loss of its regulating mechanism
  • Urbanization and land loss to the built environment
  • Agriculture less attractive to young people
  • Acidification of the soil
  • Lack of sustainable agricultural practices and knowledge
  • Loss of useful traditional knowledge (largely but not exclusively due to the Cultural Revolution)

Requirement for large-scale implementation of organic agriculture

Organic agriculture thrives in an environment of unity, harmony, reciprocity, truthfulness and a collective sense of ownership. It requires a diversity of approaches and an intact ecosystem (it also contributes to restore ecosystem diversity and health). Organic agriculture can best be promoted by co-operation between the state/government, the economy/entrepreneurship, civil society (individuals and NGO’s) and foreign agencies and institutions specialized in organic agriculture or closely related areas.

The awareness must be created that organic agriculture is particularly suited to the socio-economic situation of China: a huge and cheap workforce, hard-working, industrious, ingenious and innovative people, growing awareness of the need for environmental protection, a government that unlike some other governments of this world is fully aware of the crucial importance of agriculture for harmonious socio-economic development, a rich agricultural heritage, a vast territory with different climate zones and soils, and steadily deteriorating productivity of conventional agriculture. However, some major institutional, attitudinal and socio-economic obstacles need to be overcome on the path to large-scale adoption of organic agriculture.

First case study: acid soils

Acidification of soils is a serious agricultural issue in China. The Agricultural University of Beijing has just recently released the results of a study of soil acidity. It has found that many areas suffer from too acid soils. The pH drops, which means that the yields also drop, in some areas as much as 30 – 50 %. The report also notes that if pH drops to 3, nothing will grow any more. Organic agriculture – by renouncing synthetic inputs such as inorganic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and by relying on humus-building measures, such as green manure, compost, manure, crop rotation, mulching – helps to combat soil acidification. Sound organic agricultural practices also increase the humus content. Increasing the pH and the humus content are two measures that can reduce the thriving and occurrence of slugs (the disliked brother of the grapevine snail) that thereby prevent damage to slug sensitive cultures, such as vegetables. For soils that are very acidic and difficult to remediate, other solutions can be envisioned: for example growing organic berries. Many berries tolerate acidic soil. Using effective microorganisms (EM) can help to recover the soil’s fertility and its socio-economic viability.

Permaculture practitioners have also been able to rehabilitate soil that has been severely damaged by intensive agriculture. Permaculture however tends to require some substantial initial investments and needs skilled and highly-qualified experts to make it a success. If successfully implemented, permaculture projects improve the soil’s fertility quite dramatically and are associated with low maintenance costs and high yields, once a self-sustaining system has been put into place.

Second case study: pests and diseases

The fear of pests and diseases is a major reason to hesitate to convert to organic agriculture. This indeed is an issue to be taken seriously. However, there are measures that can successfully address this problem.

First of all, it is necessary to choose disease and pest-resistant varieties. These varieties must be suited to local conditions. If one wants to introduce a new variety, therefore one needs to make sure it is suited to local conditions. A good idea is give a new lease on life to forgotten local varieties. This is an area that demands more research and attention.

Second, plants must be protected from pests by fellow plants that have a repellent effect on pests. More research is required in this area. Intercropping and allelopathy are a highly interesting area that can offer subjects of research to agricultural universities and research institutes. As to diseases, it is important to create conditions that are unfavourable to the occurrence of diseases, such as sufficient aeration, removal of diseased plants, good hygiene practises. Plants are more resistant against pests and diseases if the soil is fertile and healthy. That’s why organic agriculture methods put soil fertility at the centre of their preoccupations. A fertile soil constitutes the capital of agriculture. The soil is the source for prosperity for a nation. If you deplete your capital, from what source will you derive your income in the future, once your capital is exhausted and spent? That’s where conventional agriculture goes wrong. It slowly depletes the capital on which it relies for its long-term survival.

Third case study: agroforestry and the merits of trees

Hunger and famine are a spectre that is threatening socio-economic development. China is not exempt from this threat. However, we can affirm that the world could feed many more people than it does today. The key to solving the hunger problem is to cover the earth with the most productive eco-system per surface area: woods and forests. There are innumerable food trees. Some have fallen into oblivion. You can have fruit, nuts, berries, mushrooms, even vegetables (some trees have leaves that have vegetable like qualities, with much higher nutrient content) in much larger quantities than we have today. An agroforestry system, based on sustainable management practices, can increase food production by several orders of magnitude. For many people fruit and nuts are not easily available and quite expensive to buy. If we look at the primal forests (for example in Australia), we see huge quantities of fruit and nuts. You can find the most delicious food. Europe too used to be covered widely by forests. In earlier times Europeans used to make cookies and bread with chestnuts, for example, not wheat flour, as they do today. It was mostly for war purposes and providing fuel for the initial stage of industrialization that most forests were cut down. However, people who knew how to manage forests and with their abundant food supply never suffered famine, and they were anxious to preserve agroforestry and encourage it.

Growing trees has many advantages. Not only are they a source of abundant food, but they also positively influence the micro-climate. They stop the advance of desertification, and arid land can be reclaimed by lush vegetation. Water is becoming scarce. Trees, if planted widely and in great numbers, can help to restore clean water availability and make dried up water sources flow again. They also help to raise the water table. Indeed, each of us could with agroforestry practises produce so much food that an entire village, town or area may be fed. With skillful practises one can plant productive food trees where they would not naturally grow. Sepp Holzer, a proponent of permaculture, plants exotic fruit trees and less exotic ones on raised beds containing a decaying tree trunk or wood, that will release heat for years and keep the feet or roots of the tree warm, thereby allowing the tree to evolve in an otherwise hostile climate, such as a high altitude location in the mountains.

One of the first champions to defend trees and engaged in large-scale reforestation projects around the world was Richard St. Barbe Baker. He was a pioneer of the international environmental protection movement starting in the 1920s. He was well ahead of his time, responsible for planting billions of trees, and he taught us how to respect nature and encouraged us to become stewards of the earth. At 34, he was introduced to the Baha’i teachings and subsequently embraced the Baha’i Faith, which was to greatly influence him in his environmental endeavours. He was one of the earliest persons to recognize the crucial importance of the forest ecosystem in the water cycle and the trees’ protective role against natural catastrophes.

Honour the spirit of organic agriculture

Organic agriculture cannot be shielded entirely from corruptive influences and the danger that it will get to resemble industrial farming. It is clear that organic agriculture must put tremendous emphasis on ethics and moral integrity. The real spirit of organic agriculture transcends mere concern with environmental sustainability. Organic agriculture must be based on values such as truthfulness, a sense of justice, stewardship for nature and for future generations, service to society, responsibility toward fellow men, cleanliness in production and handling processes as well as storage, unity and solidarity with fellow producers and supporters of the organic movement, obedience and loyalty to government, courage in the face of economic incertitude, pursuing organic agriculture through conviction and not uniquely because of the lure of profits. It is clear that such values cannot be imposed from the outside. They must be generated through an organic process involving both the individual and society at large. Certification and inspection, albeit useful to some degree and certainly necessary in the present world, cannot replace a morally sound inner motivation. The organic agriculture movement needs to attract people with an innovative outlook on agriculture and an idealistic disposition that will allow them to surmount the difficulties and hardships they are likely to encounter in the beginning of their endeavour. Organic agriculture is potentially an area of activity that can attract people looking for meaningful employment safeguarding the environment. Organic agriculture can also promote social cohesion by exploring new paths such as community-supported agriculture (which tends to strengthen the links between producer and consumer), internships and on the job training or vacation/holiday offers. Organic agriculture must offer a venue of expression for the spiritual nature of man.

Paradigm shift in the generation of knowledge – inclusiveness

An erroneous belief views education and the passing on of knowledge as a one-way (unidirectional) process. The teacher is viewed as possessed of knowledge and the students are viewed as being empty vessels that need to be filled up with his or her knowledge. Such an approach cannot but fail to deliver best results. Indeed, the educational process must come to be viewed in a different light. Effective knowledge generation requires an approach based on cooperation, equality, caring nurture and a respectful environment. Every participant in such a process needs to be considered as endowed with hidden jewels. It is the responsibility of the teacher (I prefer to use the term of facilitator since the concept of teacher may invoke wrong associations in the mind of the reader) to create an environment and a process that allows these hidden jewels to be unveiled, so that the whole group may benefit thereof. This is not to say that everybody is endowed with the same kind of jewels. The purpose of this statement is that if we want to achieve maximum knowledge-generation, we need to review the axioms on which education is based, draw the wisdom and experience from all involved actors, and look in each of us for hidden treasures. We all have them, we just need to delve for them. Organic agriculture is an extremely complex and diversified subject matter and requires ideally the collaborative effort of many actors. It is only by developing a culture that encourages a mode of thinking, investigation, action and practice in which all view themselves as treading on a common path of service to society – supporting each other and advancing together, respectful of the knowledge that each one possesses at any given moment and avoiding the tendency to divide the involved actors into categories such as adherent of organic, bio-dynamic, permaculture, bio-intensive or other methods – that the organic agriculture movement will be put on a solid foundation.

Also, some traditional agricultural practices constitute sound organic agricultural methods. It is important to draw on the knowledge of farmers who have never shifted to conventional farming. The “Green Revolution”, imported from the West, has allowed massively increased production in the short and medium term. However, it has also contributed to an impoverishment of traditional agricultural knowledge and to massive environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity and soil fertility. More disastrous still has been the Cultural Revolution, wiping out a big part of the past agricultural heritage. It may be possible for some of the good practices of former times to be recovered, and be combined with modern state-of-the-art organic agriculture practices to be developed in dedicated organic agriculture research centres in co-operation with farmers and practitioners.

Shift research to organic agriculture and co-operate closely with farmers

A fair and impartial observer must be amazed that historically all countries have allocated their research resources almost exclusively to conventional agriculture, to the detriment of alternative agriculture systems, most notably organic agriculture. Most organic research institutes and initiatives get little if any public support. Nay, it can be stated boldly that if organic agriculture had attracted only a fraction of the financial means allocated to conventional agricultural research in the past it would have made great strides ahead. It is my hope that in the future this situation will change. It would be unrealistic and unwise to clamour for parity of treatment, but at least it would be fair to allocate to organic agriculture a research share that is proportional to the produce volume organic agriculture generates with respect to the total market. Especially, given the nature of organic agriculture and its heavy reliance on research and extension it should be allocated a higher level of priority in publicly funded research. While it is low in external input, it is intensive in knowledge and manual work (sometimes replaced by mechanization). Organic agriculture would definitely benefit from more research endeavours and resources.

Organic agricultural research should not be carried out in isolation from real farming conditions. It is important to make on-farm research. Researchers should be in constant interaction with organic farmers and vice versa. All research must be focused on real world conditions and benefit the practitioners of organic farming. That is not to deny the importance of fundamental research. However, the most fruitful research is that which is the result of joint endeavours between researchers and practitioners/farmers.

Understanding the many facets related to organic agriculture - both in terms of the interconnectedness of life processes, the dynamic interface between environmental, social and economic sustainability and in terms of enhancing the holistic integrity of the agricultural production system - increases considerably if research, study and practice are carried out simultaneously. In the arena of practice, research outcomes and knowledge are tested, questions and suggestions for additional research topics arise, and new levels of insight, comprehension and competence are achieved. An approach of that kind has allowed to Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) to become world leader in its field. More research endeavour should go into produce categories where organic agriculture is underrepresented or almost absent, such as fruit, nuts, berries and the like.

It is hoped that funds can be invested in dedicated Organic Research Centres spread all over China or in a centralized Research Centre. Also, dedicated Organic Research Extension Centres could help to share the insights gained by research with farmers and practitioners all over the country. Research brings improvements and innovation. Without a proper focus on research, organic agriculture cannot realize its full potential. If organic agriculture wants to achieve sustained quantitative gains, it must put as much emphasis as possible on qualitative progress.

Up-scaling of organic agriculture

Organic agriculture’s advantages must be made known to a wider public. Many people still do not know what organic agriculture is about. Its benefits should be communicated to the mass of people. People have different motivations. Therefore, a large range of arguments in favour of organic agriculture should be presented: its health benefits, its diversity and soil fertility safeguarding characteristic, its significant contribution in the fight against global warming, its better resilience in view of extreme weather events due to better soil structure, its aesthetic appeal (no dull monoculture landscape, but diversity of landscape), its better working conditions (no danger of poisoning, more varied work), its growth prospects (worldwide organic agriculture is growing in an otherwise stagnating food market), positive externalities to society (no or little ground water pollution, erosion, health costs,…) and certainly some more advantages that may cross your mind.

If organic agriculture is to be put on a fast track development path, it needs the active support of many institutions and actors. Government, business, retailers, distributors, universities, researchers and practitioners need to work hand in hand. Young people must be motivated to consider a career in organic agriculture, be it as farmers, researchers or promoters. Many marketing options need to be developed. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) needs to be further reinforced.

Retailers could begin coherent and systematic promotion of organic agriculture products. In Switzerland, the two major retailers’ entry into the organic produce segment has pushed the development of organic agriculture by many orders of magnitude. Before, organic produce was only available to a small segment of the population via small specialized organic shops. The price was very high. However, the two major retailers’ entry into the organic food market has driven the market share of organic food to about 10 % and almost 6000 farms converted to the organic agriculture production method. They now represent about 11 % of all farms in Switzerland. This has been possible through the retailers active co-operation with organic research institutes and funding of organic research. In China, sadly, until now no retailer is engaged in such an intensive and systematic effort (supported by heavy educational advertisement and clear branding) of promoting organic agriculture produce and market share. Whereas in Switzerland organic agriculture produce is more expensive too, the difference of price between conventional and organic is often less compared to that current in Chinese retail chains.

If Switzerland, with its high labour cost, can achieve such fast development of organics, China, with its much lower labour costs (comparative advantage) and agricultural heritage should be able to do at least as well, if not much better, especially given that the Chinese are getting more affluent in the wake of industrialization and economic growth as well as more concerned with its negative effects such as environmental degradation. The market for organic produce could be expanded by including clothes made from organic textiles and cosmetics made from organic raw materials.

Empowering women and enhancing their status

Women traditionally assume the bulk of agricultural work. They play a major role in agricultural production, especially in rural areas. It is of utmost importance to make sure that any programme geared at promoting organic agriculture (whether training, education or extension) provides them with fair access to its services. Organic agriculture suits the needs of women particularly well. Women assume a key responsibility in promoting organic agriculture development in China and must be given all the tools and knowledge enabling them to discharge their job to their fullest satisfaction. As principal care-takers of the family they tend to be better or more sensitive stewards towards the eco-system and to better grasp the need for an ecological transition in agriculture.


Organic agriculture needs an environment that is conducive to its development. It is not enough to rely on exports. A thriving internal market must also be developed. Organic agriculture can fulfil needs that transcend merely economic aspirations. It has the potential to become an area of human activity full of promise and dynamism. It can help to mitigate some of the problems encountered by current modes of socio-economic development. If it is linked to deeper inner aspirations of the majority of people involved in it (in whatever form, as producers, customers or supporters), it can bring happiness and meaning to many people. It is however not a miracle remedy for all of society’s problems. It can however, if promoted in a healthy and harmonious way, provide positive impulses to other areas of human endeavour. I hope organic agriculture will be steadily more strongly recognized as a sustainable method of producing food and of creating socio-economic value. It has the capacity to offset some of the negative effects of fast industrialization. Organic agriculture’s future lies in combining different approaches, such as traditional organic farming, bio-dynamic agriculture, permaculture, traditional farming practices (since none of them are totally perfect in isolation) and merging them together into a comprehensive agricultural method, covering each dimension of the agriculture system and optimizing the whole system. Of course, such a holistic approach is very complex and definitely out of the author’s grasp. A unified agricultural system with infinitely diversified expressions will emerge as human civilization matures, as humanity will allocate more resources to its refinement and as it will constantly be enriched by new insights gained in this process of the coming of age of humanity. China could become a pioneer in this vast endeavour driven by historical forces and help propel agriculture to its high destiny.

Last updated 17 September 2011