A speech on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture in Asia | 1996

By Roger Blobaum, October, 26, 1996

In a 1911 book entitled ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries,” F.H. King, retired chief of USDA’s Division of Soil Management, described how farmers in Asia had farmed the same fields for 4,000 years without destroying their fertility. L. F. Bailey, in the preface to this agricultural classic, said the book’s greatest contribution was reminding Americans that the first priority of farming is caring for the soil:

“We in North America are wont to think that we may instruct all the world in agriculture, because our agricultural wealth is great and our exports to less favored peoples have been heavy; but this wealth is great because our soil is fertile, and new, and in large acreage for every person. We have really only begun to farm well. The first condition of farming is to maintain fertility. This condition the oriental peoples have met, and they have solved it in their way. We may never adopt particular methods, but we can profit vastly by their experience.”

I read King’s book before going to China in 1974 with the first U.S. agricultural delegation invited to tour farm and rural areas closed to Americans for more than 20 years. The most moving experience was seeing, as King had seen, land that had been farmed more than 4,000 years and was still producing two or three crops a year. I walked through the kind of terraced fields and saw the kind of green manuring and waste recycling and composting that King wrote about. This experience made a deep and lasting impression because I had come from Iowa, where it was being reported that a bushel of topsoil was being lost for every bushel of corn produced, and that half of our topsoil had been washed away in less than 100 years of farming.

I have made a number of agriculture-related trips since to Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, and China and have been dismayed to see the rapid spread of so-called Green Revolution farming methods to most of Asia. What has happened in agriculture throughout this region in recent years is similar to what began happening here and in most other industrialized countries in the West in the 1950s. The pendulum in Asia has swung in a very short time from the kind of agriculture that King wrote about to a Western industrial monoculture model with expensive external inputs. The region was invaded by multinational companies peddling pesticides, fertilizer, hybrid seed, irrigation pumps, and farm machinery. Almost overnight China became the world’s largest user of manufactured fertilizers and Korea and Japan were not far behind.. Pesticide and fertilizer subsidies and other support from national governments throughout the region helped speed this change.

Although millions of small farmers with marginal land and little or no access to credit or markets were bypassed by this new technology, the per capita increase in food production in Asia since the 1960s has far exceeded the 7 percent increase for the world as a whole. Regions with large areas of good irrigated cropland had impressive yield increases. Countries like China, with 22 percent of the world’s people and only 7 percent of its arable land, became almost totally self sufficient in food. India, the world’s second most populous country, overcame highly publicized hunger problems. Even Vietnam, still recovering from decades of war, has become a major rice exporter.

Lately, however, the agricultural pendulum in Asia, much like in America and other industrialized countries, has begun to swing in the other direction. The Green Revolution is receiving bad reviews, consumers are complaining about water pollution and pesticide residues, and there is growing official concern about the long-term viability of modern industrialized farming. The large amounts of chemicals being used are increasingly seen as too costly for farmers and a danger to human health and the environment. Asian scientists are conceding that the high-energy cost of farm chemical inputs made from nonrenewable resources probably cannot be sustained. The result is a new emphasis on sustainable agriculture systems that are ecologically stable and conserve the natural resource base for future generations.

Even though China has an immense, still expanding, and increasingly well-to-do population, it was one of the first Asian countries to respond to these concerns and begin a critical review of its agricultural policies. Emerging from this re-examination is the concept of ecological agricultural development that blends selected Western methods with traditional organic production technologies and practices. More than 1,100 village-level eco-agriculture projects, many with solar and biogas components, were established throughout China in the late 1980s to demonstrate this new approach.

A paper published in 1992 in World Development, an international journal, concludes that China’s new government-sponsored ecological agriculture approach has much in common with the sustainable agriculture approach gaining ground in the West. “Both have a very definite holistic systems orientation. . . are concerned with the short-term economic viability of producers and the long-term environmental, economic, social, and institutional sustainability of agricultural production systems . . . give major attention to crop rotations and other soil-building practices . . (and) emphasize farmers as allies of nature, rather than conquerors of nature.”

I saw some of these projects during trips in 1993 and 1995. I had another opportunity last month during a consultation with the China Green Food development Center, a Beijing-based institution set up and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture. I presented briefings and lectures on organic and sustainable agriculture and toured ecological farming projects during a trip arranged by the State Bureau of Foreign Experts. I was impressed by what I saw and heard. The Green Food Center’s development of ecological agriculture on more than 250,000 hectares of farmland in all 30 provinces and of alternative food systems in most large cities is getting a favorable response from farmers, local and provincial governments, urban consumers, and agricultural scientists.

Although a substantial amount of Green Food is grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and all of it is inspected and certified, it does not fully comply with international organic standards. China’s Environmental Protection Agency is supporting a new university-based organic farming center in Nanjing, which has been given the task of developing national organic standards. OCIA has a chapter there but, so far, little certified organic food is being produced.

More favorable organic news is coming out of Korea, where the government for 30 years has supported chemical farming to boost domestic production in response to national food security concerns. Official interest in organic farming was stimulated at the 1988 Seoul Olympics where embarrassing food safety and environment problems were publicized. The Ministry of Agriculture, which had grudgingly recognized the Korean Organic Farming Association a year earlier, took a second look in 1991 and established an organic agriculture development committee. This also was a response to pressure applied by the National Association Cooperative Federation, which had launched a program to provide organic farming workshops for its 2 rnillion farmer members.

Although Korea has poor soils and less than 1 percent of its agricultural land is managed organically, this new sector is expanding by more than 30% per year. Marketing is being handled locally, for the most part, through direct farmer sales to consumers and retail outlets in department stores. Support for organic agriculture, still provided primarily by non-government organizations, includes public compost-making centers, training courses, and an emerging certification system.

The Korean Ministry of Agriculture’s lukewarm support for organic farming, while important, is the exception for governments in Asia. Organic farming is still viewed with extreme caution and skepticism by nearly all Asian policymakers and agricultural scientists. This was driven home to me in 1993 when I presented a paper at the International Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Symposium in Beijing. A total of 90 papers were discussed at this government-sanctioned meeting, most of them presented by Asian scientists. I could not believe it when I discovered that my paper was the only one dealing with organic farming. I had a similar experience in presenting a paper at an Asian Region sustainable agriculture symposium a year later at the Food and Fertilizer Technology Center in Taiwan. The resistance to adoption of organic methods in that meeting was summed up later in the symposium report:

“Organic systems appear to be less suitable for a tropical country because of the very rapid breakdown of organic matter. . . A tropical environment also promotes the buildup of pest populations and pathogens, making disease and pest control much more difficult. Furthermore, many tropical countries still have a food deficit and need to increase production as their primary concern.  Sustainability must be a second concern . . . Organic produce can command a very high price in industrialized countries where there are a large number of affluent urban consumers.   In less industrialized countries with lower incomes, the need is for an adequate supply of cheap food which the consumer can afford.”

This explanation, however, is now being challenged throughout Asia. Like many other places in the world, the development of organic agriculture is being promoted by a rapidly growing network of grassroots non-government organizations. At the first all-Asia organic conference held in 1993 in Hanno City, Japan, representatives from 10 countries adopted a statement calling on governments to “adopt and implement environmentally and socially sound agricultural policies and development strategies without forgetting the lessons from the failure of the Green Revolution.” It also called on farmers and consumers “to develop partnerships like the Japanese community-supported agriculture system “tekei” towards ensuring availability of healthy food for all and great food self-reliance” and urged all organic proponents to “develop, consolidate, and broaden their base in order to push forward the organic agriculture movement in all Asia.”

Two years later more than 400 people, including representatives of more than 100 non­government organizations active in 21 Asian countries, attended a sustainable agriculture conference in Seoul organized by IFOAM-Asia and others. While a lot of coalition building was underway in the region, the organizers noted, there had been little linkup prior to the conference between farmer organizations and most were unaware of what was going on outside their own countries. The Pesticide Action Network and IFOAM-Asia have become important organic and sustainable agriculture catalysts in the region.

Reports from India suggest that traditional agriculture in areas untouched by the Green Revolution is environmentally benign but that organic farming in the modern sense of the word is just getting started. Several non-governmental organizations are involved in training and networking and the All India Federation of Organic Farmers has been set up to help build support for these separate efforts. Similar non-government organic initiatives are underway in Thailand, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

The bottom line in Asia is that little organic farming exists in the region that is certified or certifiable or that meets global standards. A considerable amount of production, especially on small holdings, is close to organic and meets ecological agriculture criteria. It is important because it meets local consumer demand, helps provide food security, and responds to the strong desire throughout Asia for food self-sufficiency.

F.H. King would not be impressed with most of what is happening now in Asia. Both pesticide reduction and more efficient use of synthetic fertilizer are seen by policymakers and scientists as the best way to go in moving toward more sustainable systems. Continued heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizer is considered a given. Livestock production, once highly decentralized, is being moved into factory-type complexes near cities and manure utilization, as a result, is declining. So is the recycling of urban wastes on close-in farmland. Except in more remote areas, the traditional family backyard pig also is disappearing.

Chemical-dependent farming is still the dominant approach in most areas of Japan, where urbanization has consumed much of the country’s good land. A consumer-driven campaign for safe food and environmental quality, however, provides increasing demand for food produced with organic and nature farming methods. More than 1,000 consumer-producer groups are operating in Japan. These arrangements, promoted by the Japan Organic Agriculture Association and the Mokichi Okada Association, and referred to as “tekei,” stress non-chemical production and face-to-face contact between consumers and producers. Most organic food produced and sold in Japan is self-certified.

The Japanese government has put up $23 million to support a new sustainable agriculture office that promotes environmental quality, development and extension of sustainable farming methods, agricultural recycling, and organic production. In Hokkaido Prefecture in far north Japan, where there is little urban pressure and farming is much less intensive, more than 130 local governments are implementing sustainable agriculture plans. In visiting several mayors and other elected officials there last year, I was told that voters tend to reject political candidates who decline to take strong public stands in favor of sustainable agriculture.

Integrated pest management, which involves scouting and reduced pesticide use, is widely accepted and supported in most Asian countries. The best work is going on in Indonesia where a presidential decree 10 years ago banned 57 brands of pesticides used on rice and launched a nationwide IPM program It was implemented at the local level and has used field schools to train more than 100,000 farmers to become experts in their own fields. This effort has cut pesticide use in half without reducing yields and it is estimated that at least one-fourth of Indonesia’s rice farmers no longer use pesticides. The World Bank and the United Nations Development Program consider this effort to be so successful that they are financing a campaign to spread it throughout the region. Several Asian governments also are pushing biological pest control initiatives that rely heavily on beneficial insects, mating disruption, bio-pesticides, and similar non-chemical pest controls.