Updated July 1997
See also: Environment Specials
Starting the transition to sustainable agriculture and rural development in China will require coordinated actions at national, provincial and local levels that address policy adjustment, strengthening of human and institutional capacity, management of natural resources, and the sound use of external inputs. To achieve these objectives, China's government will have to initiate actions in 4 key areas:
For urban residents, government should provide subsidized grain only to low income households (about one-quarter of the urban population). This could save the government more than 100,000 m. yuan in subsidy costs (procurement, processing, and distribution) and will free the government to re-direct these funds toward developing infrastructure in rural areas, agricultural research and development, conservation incentives to producers, and adopting additional market reforms that favour natural resource conservation.
This has three implications. First, the development of larger scale feeding operations could facilitate the development of renewable energy sources (biogas) for rural development. The processing of livestock waste could create a secondary market for low-cost organic nutrients to replace chemical fertilizer. Second, at the higher levels of manufactured feed use, the demand for corn, wheat, and soybeans will increase and rice will decrease, creating a need to shift crop areas or depend more heavily on trade and transport of grains. Third, grasslands that were brought into cultivation to fulfil grain production targets can return to grazing. For example, in 1960s and 1970s more than 2.7 million ha. in Inner Mongolia was converted into grain crop farming. Grassland in the Northeast such as Lilin was also converted to grow grain.
National grain production and distribution policies have a major effect on agriculture/ environment interactions. Given its low levels of investment in research, technology and information systems, the government's target of producing 500 m.t. of grain by the year 2000 will almost certainly require the continued conversion of marginal land to cropland and intensification of production on existing cultivated land.
The financial and environmental costs will be high. Yet if market forces were allowed to operate, the population would likely demand only about 470 - 475 m.t. of grain by the year 2000, of which about 10 mt could be supplied as imports. This would reduce pressure to convert land and to intensify cultivation, and would permit production of a wider variety of products based on the comparative advantage of agroecological zones and prevailing market conditions. More emphasis could also be placed on improving the management of land already under cultivation, both to increase yields and to mitigate adverse environmental effects.
There is increasing awareness of the importance of food safety. Products that are organically grown and certified by NEPA or use less chemical inputs such as green products and are certified by Ministry of Agriculture are becoming more popular. Consumers are willing to pay higher prices. Market-oriented policies and more systematic certification of these products could promote the production of these environmentally friendly goods.
This also has implications for poverty alleviation. For example, the cultivation
of high value speciality crops in upland areas could increase farmer's income
in the area thus allowing for more investment in conservation.
The required grain for food security reasons should be purchased from the market instead requesting provincial government to turn in at a specified price. This will avoid having the provincial government adopt administrative measures such as trade barriers.
In China, although, grain production often fluctuates less than 5 per cent, market prices in China often fluctuated by more than 20 per cent because of uncertainty of government policy. Much of the price fluctuation in the international market in the last 3 years can be attributed to China's erratic purchasing behaviour.
Governments should review policies relating to the purchase, registration, formulation, application and disposal of pesticides taking into account the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides and incorporate principle of Prior Informed Consent (PIC).
Groundwater charges to farmers cover only the costs of pumping and distribution; there is no "capital" charge for the water itself. Also, because charges for surface water are usually higher than groundwater pumping costs, farmers have an incentive to sink tubewells even when surface water is available.
Self-sufficiency, can be viewed from different perspectives. Traditionally, it is defined as a country's ability to produce the quantity of food necessary for subsistence. Alternatively, it may be defined as a country's ability to acquire enough foreign exchange earnings to purchase necessary food requirements from the world market. With the development of food processing technology, self-sufficiency can be safely achieved base on the above definition. If this approach were adopted, then the strategy would be to strengthen the economic sectors where China would appear to have a comparative advantage. In agriculture this could include higher value food crops and the livestock sector.
Despite its potential for causing environmental degradation, the development of the livestock industry could have a significant multiplier effect on the rural economy and a net positive effect on land quality. Livestock waste management can provide a reliable source of renewable energy for rural industrial development.
Policies that create off-farm employment opportunities, and increase infrastructure investment in rural areas to mitigate urban and rural income differentials. Renewable energy sources are bound to play an important role in providing reliable energy to create off-farm employment opportunities while converting crop and livestock waste into usable products and services to sustain rural economic development.
With the redefinition of food security it could be in China's interest to import some feed grain to develop manufacture feed and meat industry. There is no doubt that the global market can absorb China's increasing demand for feedgrain and wheat. The remaining question is whether China is a reliable market for exporting countries. If so, they will be able to provide agricultural products at competition prices and China can, at the same time, achieve its long-term food security.
Domestic structures and public opinion on environmental issues help to identify preferences and set appropriate land use goals, including the need for access to food, and an adequate diet. Transformation of current and future food production systems requires a land or resource-use planning approach and the formulation of explicit goals for alternative land uses. Planning is also necessary to define incentives for sustainable use, and to promote changes of attitude and values toward improved land use options.
Local and provincial actions will, by necessity, focus on information that is region specific, thus recognizing that environmental and economic problems and then solutions will vary widely from one region of China to another.
A large scale resource survey and integrated agricultural zoning were initiated in the mid-80's aimed at rational and provincial zoning for geomorphology, natural resources, integrated agriculture, commodities, forestry, infrastructure, soil conservation and desertification.
In the late 80's the Integrated Agricultural Development Programme, started as follow-up the land use zoning and planning. The programme has been extended from the plain areas, with medium-low yield farm land or salinized arable land, in North and Northeast China, such as 3H area, to the hilly and mountainous areas of North- and South-Western China.
During the early 90's a comprehensive national agro-ecological zones study was carried using satellite remote sensing, groundtruthing, and geographic information systems.
There is an urgent need to make these data and information available in
user friendly format. Training needs to focus on the integrate GIS and AEZ
approaches into policy analysis to develop a location-specific, holistic
approaches to natural resource utilization which builds-in the flexibility
needed to respond to changes in natural, economic or institutional conditions.
This approach can help to identify land with production constraints, needed
improvements in infrastructure, and soil and water conservation requirements.
It can facilitate the integration of grain and cash crop production, livestock
production, and protective and economic forest as well as fishery processing.
Although there are some environmental monitoring systems in place, it is apparent that none of them systematically analyse the costs of environmental degradation. The paucity of accurate, time-series and comparative data is a major constraint to raising the awareness of decision makers and the public to the economic, social and environmental benefits to be obtained though implementation of SARD.
Biomass plantations are an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide rural people with a diversified source of income and products with multiple uses. To have a significant effect China would have to reforest nearly 5 m. ha. per year for the next 25 years which would increase the amount of forested land to about 20 per cent. Utilizing wood and other biomass and their residues is an effective way to reduce greenhouse gases by substituting for coal and increasing the carbon sequestration. Bioenergy, besides providing sustainable energy in gaseous, liquid and solid forms, can create new job opportunities, improve rural infrastructure and enhance the local and global environment.
Modernization and restructuring of rural industries using cleaner fuels, cost-effective pollution control technologies and, for example in the livestock industry, introducing improved breeding and feed programmes is also needed to contribute to China's overall reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases. Less local air pollution contributes to greater plant productivity and improved human health.
Greater support is needed for the development of low- or non-carbon energy technologies in the agricultural and rural sectors. This means that renewed commitments are needed to applications that are based on energy sources such as solar, biomass, biogas and wind. Financial incentives (with defined beneficiaries and limited duration) can have a major effect on the introduction and diffusion of environmentally sound energy technologies; it also fosters the development of private sector businesses that can produce and service the technologies.
From the 1960s onward, the Government and local authorities have encouraged and financed tree planting to limit soil erosion by wind and water. The practice of planting trees around villages, canals and roads has been successful and widely adopted. China is also in the forefront of agroforestry technology and has developed several successful methods for inter-planting trees with crops. Yet success is yet to be achieved in establishing sustainable supplies of fuelwood.
A larger area of fuelwood plantations is needed to improve the rural energy situation and also to reduce the pressure from fuel gathering. The incentives to maintain such plantations, however, depend upon local land tenure practices and relative fuel prices in the locality. Ideally, fuelwood production should be part of an integrated watershed development programme in which forestry is combined with crops and pasture on appropriate soils and slopes, to maximise conservation of soil and moisture.
Among the activities to be carried such are strengthening the ability of extension networks delivering information to farmers on integrated practices and programmes. Training and information programmes should stress technologies such as IPM, IPNM, integrated crop management, ecological practices. As Chinese farmers begin to rely more on market signals for their production decisions, the extension personnel need to provide essential market and policy information to farmers and educate them on the optimum and safe use of agro-chemicals.
As rural women occupy a key position in the rural economy, training must take into account the feminization of China's agriculture. The significance of women's roles in China's agricultural and rural development must be highlighted. An area in need of improvement is the introduction of women extension workers in extension networks to assist females and female heads of households on improved small farm management and production practices. The information generated from women farmers' leadership research would be very useful for the effective implementation of future technology transfer programmes and rural development projects.
Some of the funds for investment in SARD should be from the State allocation. However, there is an important role for the provinces and, theoretically, the private sector. One relatively easy and quick option would be for China to give incentives to international private (and public) investors requiring that the elements of SARD be reflected in their projects according to rational guidelines established by the government.
For economic, political, food security and other reasons, China will continue to promote policies that are expedient in the short-term, but contribute little to long-term sustainable agriculture and rural development. The transition to sustainable agriculture will take time but there are a variety of policy instruments available.
Change may be accomplished by carrot-and-stick methods which offer rewards or penalties proportional to the environmental damage caused.
Whereas regulatory (command and control) structures often create new problems, fiscal measures to promote environmentally-friendly techniques and economic incentives have been found to be cost-effective in correcting policy and market failures. These include charges for the destructive use of natural resources (e.g. farming on steep slopes, destruction of hedgerows or windbreaks) or for emissions based on the costs of meeting agreed target concentrations (the polluter pays principles).
Policies should provide incentives and through training in adopting technology or practices to improve productivity, If properly done, the intensification of production on land that is already intensively farmed can forestall the conversion of natural ecosystems and create direct environmental benefits.
The "green certificate project" already introduced in 154 countries
(1994) is an example of an incentive to promote sustainable agriculture.
Such programmes need to be carefully expanded. In particular, as the rate
of growth in grain consumption has levelled off to roughly the rate of population
growth, there is actually little economic rationale for converting large
areas to agriculture. The focus should instead be on improving the management
of land already under cultivation, both to increase yields and to mitigate
adverse environmental effects.
their land. The uncertainty and limited transferability of land use rights gives little incentive to improve land productivity beyond one or two growing seasons. The introduction of the household responsibility system for crop production is an example of a policy that has disrupted traditional, sustainable cropping patterns in favour of techniques with rapid, but unsustainable, payoff.
This systems should be reformed taking into consideration duration, fees and procedure for annual contract renewal, transfer of users right with possibility to inherit, and agricultural land zoning.
Resources that remain in government ownership may be used efficiently by relying, in part, on market and pricing signals. For example, full-cost user fees for irrigation water, grazing land, mining, could be used to protect the resource base by serving as a disincentive for over consumption but also generate government revenue. Also, taxes on legal pollution discharges are more easily enforced than are fines for illegal pollution, and promote efficiency in the production process. More research is needed to develop market-based incentives that could yield substantial environmental and economic benefits.
One area where the regulatory framework appears entirely inadequate is groundwater exploitation. At present, the only requirement for sinking a well is money to finance the drilling and the pump. Better local regulation of groundwater use is an urgent priority.
A farmer-based and problem-oriented approach should be promoted to mobilise
farmers' participation and to put their knowledge, experiences and ability
in technology adaptation and dissemination.
More recently, a contract system for grazing has been introduced in Heilongjiang, Jilin, Qinghai, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia. The contracts are from 5 to 15 years and include terms designed to restrict overgrazing and other damage to grassland. In some regions, this introduction of individual responsibility for land has virtually eliminated overgrazing and produced a dramatic improvement in the condition of the contract plots. But in Inner Mongolia the general positive impact of the contract system has been counteracted by increased concentration of the excessive standing stock.
With or without changes in land tenure, the objective should be to balance the stocking rate with the grazing (carrying) capacity of each grassland area. An important element in the disruption of this balance may be the introduction of imported breeds, which require high-quality forage all the year round. This has put pressure on the pasture during the spring and early summer when the new growth is not yet well established.
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