How should China feed itself?

Posted March 17, 2010 by Ben Lilliston   

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Beijing.

“How Should China Feed Itself?” (rather than “Who Will Feed China?”) might have been a good title for the international conference on sustainable agriculture and food that IATP co-hosted in Beijing from March 12 to 15.

Over 100 people attended, including activists and scientists from South and Southeast Asia, the U.S. and Europe. Leading Chinese agricultural research institutions were represented, along with people from industry, government, NGOs, farmers and interested citizens. We gathered to examine the lessons of industrial agriculture and prospects of sustainable agriculture, in China and globally.

To set the stage for the discussions, we started with a pre-conference workshop to introduce the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This major global scientific endeavor, coordinated by the World Bank and UN and comprising over 2,000 pages of analysis, represents the best thinking on where agriculture has been and where it needs to go. IMG_9044

Although many Chinese experts participated and China is one of the 60 official signatories to the assessment’s final report, IAASTD is surprisingly little-known here, even in policy circles. IAASTD co-chair Dr. Hans Herren (who was quoted in the local press) and several Chinese and international co-authors discussed different dimensions of the assessment and its implications for China’s agricultural development path.

Against that background, the conference then delved into both Chinese and international experiences with both industrial and sustainable agriculture. Co-organizer Professor Wen Tiejun, dean of the Renmin University School and Agriculture and Rural Development, said it is rare if not unheard of for a conference in China to seriously explore alternatives to the country’s official agricultural development model, which has kept farm production ahead of population growth, but done so at tremendous costs to the environment, public health and the welfare of rural people.

There waIMG_8926s spirited debate among panelists on several issues. Liu Denggao, president of the China Soy Association, reported on the devastatin g impacts that imported soy has had on Chinese farmers, to which Mr. Hu Bingchuan of the Academy of Social Sciences replied that opposition to free trade is unscientific and  based in “conspiracy theories.” Doubts were raised repeatedly about the productive potential of organic agriculture, despite detailed rebuttals by Chinese an international experts.

A number of speakers pointed to the many opportunities to reform conventional agriculture in China, rather than converting to organic production. China has the highest chemical fertilizer use rates in the world, and professor Zhang Weifeng of the China Agricultural University showed that a 30 percent reduction in fertilizer applications would actually increase yields while drastically cutting water pollution.

While many of the speakers were academics, China’s nascent “good food” movement was also present and very vocal. A student asked an official why he said that government certification would be the most effective way to promote organic agriculture when consumers consider existing labeling schemes to be unreliable. Another audience member asked why organic food is so much more expensive than conventional food in China. And there were several questions about the government’s controversial recent decision to allow experimental planting of genetically modified rice.

We alsoIMG_9012 arranged for the conference to be entirely catered using local and fair trade products. Food was  provided by several small organic farms in the Beijing area, and participants drank 100 percent fair trade organic Peace Coffee, which I lugged all the way from Minnesota! This is the first international conference in China to take this approach, and we have already had inquiries from other organizations that would like to follow suit.

More on the various presentations and discussion to come.




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