Nurturing the shoots of China's sustainable agriculture

A growing trend towards sustainable food offers hope for addressing environmental, social and food safety concerns associated with China's food system.

Seth Cook's picture
Insight by 
Seth Cook
Seth Cook is a senior researcher in IIED's China and agroecology teams
23 March 2016
Women harvesting vegetables in Shanggula village, Guangxi province, China, can share lessons on sustainable farming with the rest of the world (Photo: Simon Lim)

Women harvesting vegetables in Shanggula village, Guangxi province, China, can share lessons on sustainable farming with the rest of the world (Photo: Copyright Simon Lim)

Chinese agriculture currently faces major environmental challenges, including overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, soil erosion, soil pollution, water scarcity and the loss of agricultural biodiversity. Food safety is also a source of great public anxiety – driven by a series of well-publicised incidents such as the 2008 milk-melamine scandal.

However, there is a growing interest in sustainable food production in China. We have been working with Chinese researchers to explore this and have identified valuable lessons for China and the rest of the world.

China's agricultural practices have important global ramifications. China is among the world's top importers and exporters of agricultural goods. Imports of commodities such as soy and corn have become an increasingly important driver of global agricultural production and trade.

A shift towards more sustainable production methods would benefit China's environment and public health within China and beyond, as well as agricultural productivity in the long term. 

It could also have positive ramifications for the global environment – particularly if it reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the food system.

The growth of sustainable farming

There is a small but growing trend towards sustainable food production and consumption in China, as shown by the rise in farms using environmentally friendly practices, organic farmers' markets in major cities, and an increasing emphasis on sustainability in Chinese policies related to agriculture. 

For instance, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) – a relatively recent arrival in China – is growing rapidly, with over 300 CSA farms scattered throughout the country. Agribusinesses focused on organic and green foods are increasingly common.

This trend is being driven by burgeoning demand for 'safe' and healthy food, which is reflected in the rising market share of organic and 'green' products, both from domestic and imported sources. 

This emergence of sustainable agriculture is captured in 'Multiple pathways: case studies of sustainable agriculture in China'. A collaboration between researchers from the China Agricultural University, the Chinese Centre for Agricultural Policy, and IIED, it draws out some key lessons and recommendations of wider relevance both for China and other developing countries through a series of case studies from seven provinces.

The report was launched at a recent workshop in Beijing, which brought together 50 practitioners, researchers, academics, government officials, donors and NGO personnel to discuss issues arising in the development of sustainable agriculture and how to address them.

Panel discussions covered key topics from the report such as the role of cooperatives, the efficacy of sustainability certification and who will till the land in the future.

A desk-based study also explores the historical evolution of agriculture in China with a focus on sustainability – economic, environmental and social. It asks how China's modern development is affecting the sustainability of farming and the rural environment, and looks in detail at the influence of policies and measures to transform agricultural production systems in more sustainable ways.

Lessons from China's experience

China can be seen as a laboratory for development in many respects. Its agricultural experience, which includes different scales of production, different technologies and different types of agricultural model is relevant for other countries and contexts.

The lessons emerging from IIED's research with Chinese scholars provide insights for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers into how sustainable agricultural practices can be better supported, both in China and elsewhere:

  • There are multiple pathways towards sustainable agriculture, shaped by the tremendous variety and complexity of local conditions which demand context-specific approaches. Policy needs to preserve and foster a range of farming models, including CSAs, family farming, cooperatives and agribusinesses. A diverse food system will be more resilient, and there is no blueprint model that works everywhere.
  • Sustainable agriculture can be practised at a small, medium or large scale, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. The scale should match the circumstances of the individuals and the landscape where they farm. Policies should foster a range of farm scales, rather than prioritising large-scale farms and one-size-fits-all approaches.
  • There is a vital role for the state – particularly local government – in promoting sustainable agriculture initiatives. This can take a variety of forms, such as providing financial support for certification and organic inputs, attracting investment, mediating between farmers and enterprises, and providing training in marketing and ecological methods.
  • Collective organisation is key to the viability of sustainable agriculture and the livelihoods of smallholders. Collective organisation – e.g. through cooperatives or through CSA – opens up a whole range of resources and services to farmers. Policy on cooperatives needs to be flexible, particularly by allowing for multi-product cooperatives.
  • Certification can be an important marketing tool, but this depends partly on geographic location, the nature of local markets, and the extent to which farmers are integrated into wider commodity chains. In some cases, certification may not be necessary.
  • In light of the ageing rural population in China and in many other countries, it is crucial to attract young people back to rural areas, or to prevent them from leaving in the first place. Enabling farmers to earn higher incomes in rural areas is the key. Our research found evidence that sustainable farming can boost incomes.
  • More resources should be devoted to 'participatory research' (ie integrally involving farmers) on sustainable agriculture, particularly those approaches that are viable in the context of labour shortages and difficulties in accessing markets. Modern approaches and local knowledge should be integrated into research on specific technologies.
  • Awareness needs to be raised of the multiple benefits of sustainable agriculture. These benefits include not only food security and food safety, but also higher incomes, reduced rural-urban migration, increased biodiversity and environmental health.

Seth Cook ( is a senior researcher in IIED's China and agroecology teams.