Agriculture and Food in China

The agriculture and food system in China faces critical challenges that hinder its future sustainability. This is true for both conventional and organic agriculture and food. For 2 local local and organic farming is of particular interest. There is only limited research available on organic production techniques in China. Most of the literature on organic food and farming relate to North America and Europe. In a recent book published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group ‘Organic food and farming in China, top-down and bottom-up ecological initiatives’ of Steffanie Scott and others attention is paid to developments in China. This Blog is mainly based on this book.

Situations in China are not easy to understand without looking at historic developments. An historic overview is necessary to understand the top-down and bottom-up approaches. There has been a tumultuous development of the agrofood system in China during the last 70 years. Think of the famines in the 20th Century and during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ between 1959 and 1961, the rapid growth of agricultural productivity in the 80s after the process of de-collectivization, and the huge agricultural modernization program in the early 90s. This vertical integration and industrialization process, executed by dragon-head enterprises and farmers’ cooperatives, led to increased production, but also to different challenges. To understand this food security driven, market-oriented, large-scale, supply chain, specialized production of higher value goods it is illustrative to go back to the basis of Chinese philosophy for over 2000 years. Securing the food supply, protecting against famine and maintaining harmony are essential for the state to maintain political legitimacy as Mencius already demonstrated in his ‘Mandate of Heaven’.

Boosting Chinese production has serious consequences and resulted in huge environmental challenges: overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, land and water pollution and soil erosion, loss of nutrient and organic matter, heavy metal contamination of soil, and social challenges. China’s food policy is centred on national food security, which in China means sufficient grain productivity: governor’s responsibility for grain production and mayor’s responsibility for vegetable productivity. As in western countries this ‘modernization’ led to several food safety scandals, which started in 2008 when 40 000 infants had to be hospitalized because of contamination of milk powder with melamine, to boost its apparent protein content cheaply. These food scandals resulted in generalized distrust that still continues, despite various measures.

A top-down approach to ecological and organic sector development, originally initiated for export, was set up because the state couldn’t deny the food safety concerns. Compared to other countries, where individual farmers mainly have initiated organic agriculture, the Chinese government has played an important and strong role in its development there. Organic food is only available in large urban centres and is consumed especially by upper- and middle-class individuals. There is little concern among consumers about environmental conservation and social justice. There was a growing domestic market since 2000, with co-existence of contract farming, private companies land leasing and independent farmers’ professional cooperative models. Strong rules and food quality certifications were applied to green food, hazard-free food and organic agriculture. The Chinese government established a supportive environment. However, this support has been disproportionally channelled towards larger farms.

Simultaneously with the growing public anxiety around food safety a bottom-up movement started, initiated by Chinese activists derived from practices in North America and Europe. There were tremendous opportunities of diversified ecological agriculture to address these concerns as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Other activities involved achieving certifications or selling uncertified products directly to consumers and establishing organic farmers’ markets and buying clubs. Expressing democratic concern about food safety, as we see in North America and Western Europe is not possible in state-controlled China. It is interesting to look at the economic, ecological, political and cultural conditions of the bottom-up alternative food networks (AFN) that are emerging now in China and compare them with their counterparts in the West. In China, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and farmers’ markets have a strong desire to promote ecological, social justice and political values to customers, while the customers are mainly driven by food safety and health concerns. In several large cities farmers’ markets have become a new alternative food venue that attract large numbers of middle-class consumers. The Chinese countryside suffers from the loss of farm labour, the stagnation of rural livelihoods, and the deterioration of rural culture. The New Rural Reconstruction Movement (NRRM) is the most prominent initiative, referring to the values and sentiments of the Rural Reconstruction Movement of the 1920s and 1930s with key components of civilian education in contrast with elite education, cultural activities and capacity building for self-organization.


The top-down and bottom-up movements walk past each other, but there are indications that they grow towards each other. There are emerging opportunities for NRRM to connect with state development agendas and the expectations of the masses. The National Sustainable Agriculture Development Plan (2015-2030) specified tasks for sustainable agricultural development that accord with what the NRRM has been working on. Likewise there is little discussion about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), of which many are closely connected with food production following agroecological principles.

These developments fit in well with the ideas of 2local. Enliven the rural livelihood is one of the main goals of 2local. The Chinese state has chosen to embrace blockchain technology, which also is the second pillar of 2local. Unfortunately the Chinese state tries to limit cryptocurrencies as much as possible, which is the third pillar of 2local. Therefore, we have to wait until China is convinced of the robust and safe use of cryptocurrencies in the field of trade and prosperity.

Harry Donkers
8 February 2020