A speech presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center titled “Sustainable Agriculture In China” | 2003

Remarks by Roger Blobaum, Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC, March 13,2003

Sustainable Agriculture In China

I want to begin by saying that I have had, and still have, some professional involvement in the evolution of the organic farming sector in China. This presentation, as a result, will include occasional references to my own experience and observations. It will be a little different from the well-footnoted papers one might expect at institutions like the Woodrow Wilson Center.

It is important to stress at the outset that the organic sector in China, although it has important political support at the highest levels, would be seen as an extremely small and almost insignificant sector in any country. In a huge agricultural country like China, where 800 million people are still classified as farmers, it appears even more significant. But, as I will explain later, it is considered so important that two important government bodies, the China Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, have been, and still are, engaged in bureaucratic competition over its development and control.

Although there is some consumer awareness in China of organic food and farming due mostly to food safety concerns, especially in urban centers, the domestic market is largely undeveloped and the emphasis since the beginning has been on exports. Consumers have not been provided with much information. Until recently I subscribed to the China Daily, mainly to keep up with agricultural and environmental developments. These areas receive much more coverage than one would find in an American newspaper with national circulation. But my clipping file shows that this national daily, which is published in English and usually reflects the government line, did not mention organic agriculture even once until three years ago.

Although the first organic inspection in China took place in 1990 and involved a European certifier and a tea farm and processing plant, there was no organic sector in China prior to 1994. I became acutely aware of this in 1993 when I prepared a paper for the International Symposium on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development in Beijing. I was surprised, to say the least, to find that my paper, entitled “Organic Food and Farming: Development of Ecologically Sound Agriculture Around the World,” and one of 94 on the program, was the only one dealing in any way with organic agriculture. The sponsors also were surprised but, to their credit, they realized this might be an opportunity instead of a problem. The result was that they changed the program so I could present it at a plenary session. I ended up talking about organic farming from the same podium as bigwigs from the UNDP and other international agencies.

That paper, which was widely circulated, led to my involvement as a consultant over the next six years to the China Green Food Development Center, a Ministry of Agriculture agency, and to the Agroecology Research Institute at China Agricultural University. And the opportunity to travel extensively in he countryside and see a lot of organic production first hand.

What led me to prepare a paper on organic farming for the Beijing seminar? I had assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that the organic methods I had observed in China many years before were still important. I was part of the first delegation of U.S. farmers to visit China after the opening up began near the end of the Cultural Revolution. All of us during this first trip in January of 1975, and a trip a year later that included several land grant university scientists, were impressed with the recycling, composting, natural pest control techniques, small-scale pig raising, and other farming practices we saw during nearly five weeks spent mostly visiting communes and research and demonstration sites in the countryside.

I had not realized when I prepared this paper that China, in the interim since our visit, had largely abandoned organic-type practices and had shifted to a chemically-dependent Green Revolution type of farming. And that, among other results, it had become the world’s largest pesticide user. We were aware that some nitrogen fertilizer was being applied in 1975 and 1976 and had visited a small fertilizer manufacturing plant. But we saw little to suggest the heavy reliance on farm chemicals that would come later.

I did learn at the Beijing seminar that some government officials were having second thoughts about this and that an eco-farming movement had been started a few years earlier. This led to funding by the government of more than 1,200 eco-villages or eco-farms throughout the country. Many professionals involved in these projects now are helping promote organic farming.

I want to turn now to specifics regarding the evolution of the organic sector in China. It is an intriguing story of bureaucratic infighting, of an unsuccessful attempt to gain international acceptance of a Chinese organic definition, of high-level decisions to focus almost exclusively on exports, and of the competitive dual-track situation that is still in place today. I have followed the development of organic sectors in a long list of countries over many years and I can say that what has happened in China is unlike anything that has taken place anywhere else.

I have been involved since 1994 in development and operation of the International Organic Accreditation Service, which now accredits private, nonprofit, and government certification bodies. We accredit certifiers that operate in 75 countries and certify 60 percent of all the world’s organic food. Last month in a ceremony at a large European organic fair, we signed an accreditation agreement with the Nanjing-based Organic Food Development and Certification Center of China, the first Chinese certifier to obtain international accreditation. This is a huge accomplishment for the OFDC, which met the same requirements as the world’s largest and most experienced certifiers and now can guarantee access for the organic food it certifies to markets in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere.

OFDC’s development was helped along with funding from a German aid agency and others. The OFDC executive director serves on the international organic sector’s standard setting body and the high quality of this certification organization reflects that experience. It developed its own inspection and certification capability, rather than using foreign inspectors, and stands out as an example of the professionalism we are beginning to see in the emerging organic sector in China.

The OFDC was established in 1994 by China’s State Environmental Protection Agency. It now is a state-owned enterprise established as a nonprofit institution under that agency’s sponsorship. Its approved certification categories are crop production, livestock including honey, input manufacturing, food and fiber processing, aquaculture, and smallholder groups.

The other part of the organic development story began in 1991 in Beijing. When I was coming into Beijing from the airport for the 1993 seminar, I remember seeing a large billboard advertising Green Food products. I had no idea what this was all about until the next day at a meeting at Beijing Agricultural University where I began getting some tough questions from several well-informed people in the audience. It turned out they were staff members from the China Green Food Development Center, a small Ministry of Agriculture agency set up two years earlier to establish a green food sector in China. This initiative was first described as an effort to establish a “pollution free” food sector. But when it was suggested consumers might question whether the rest of China’s food might be polluted, they coined the “green food” label and this label is now well established in markets throughout the country.

I learned a lot more about the agency two years later when I was invited, along with several international organic farming experts, to tour Green Food farms and processing plants and to attend the Green Food Fair in Tianjin. In traveling several hundred miles by van, mostly in northeast China, we discovered that most of the Green Food production was on large state farms managed by the Department of State Farms, another Ministry of Agriculture agency. We also learned that this was primarily a national sustainable agriculture initiative with two certification levels, “A” and “AA.” The “A” category was for food produced with IPM methods. The “AA” category was for food produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and promoted as a category roughly equivalent to organic. It was obvious from size of this exhibition that Green Food was making real progress in the Chinese domestic market. Also obvious was a keen interest in finding out what more might be required get an organic label on “AA” Green Food and move it into the export market.

A year later I returned under the Foreign Experts Program and spent almost two weeks in meetings with Green Food Departments discussing organic trends and requirements. I don’t remember all the questions that were asked but I do remember having Peking duck seven nights in a row and in being quite surprised to find that the ice cream I was served had been shipped over from San Francisco and was Green Food certified. Later we flew to the ancient city of Xian, where I presented a half-day of training for Green Food directors from several large cities and all of the provinces. It was clear the China Green agency was positioning itself to become an internationally-accepted organic certifier.

But some serious problems remained. Green Food was a Ministry of Agriculture agency, the land involved was controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of State Farms, and the farmers in the fields were Department of State Farms workers. This left the impression the Green Food agency would be certifying itself. Green Food also was engaged in marketing Green Food products, and was manufacturing and selling natural fertilizer and other inputs. Neither is allowed under international certifier norms.

A year later, back in Beijing again, I was relieved to find Green Food had given up on becoming an organic certifier and that BCS, a German certifier, had been invited in to certify “AA” category food that met EU organic requirements. Thus Green Food dry beans, peanuts, and other nonperishable products, for the first time, received organic certification and were going into Europe. Later SKAL, the Netherlands-based certifier, and Ecocert, a French-based certifier, also began competing for the business involved in certifying production on Green Food bases. The Green Food Development Center also spun off its businesses so it could concentrate on certifying its own fast-growing “A” category products for the domestic market.

So China’s organic food is exported is now certified under two government sanctioned approaches involving two competing government entities. One is the OFDC approach, which is the State Environmental Protection Agency entity with Chinese inspectors and newly-acquired international accreditation. In this case the agency-sponsored entity actually certifies. The other is the Green Food approach, which is the Ministry of Agriculture entity that also has internationally-compliant standards but is not an organic certifier and relies instead on foreign certification bodies.

I know that Ecocert, and possibly some of the other foreign Green Food certifiers as well, now employ Chinese inspectors. A recent report states there are now more than 60 training Chinese inspectors.   Most of the organic food exported is handled by Chinese organic trading companies that work closely with farms and processors and help connect them buyers in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. In some cases Japanese companies carry out this function themselves in China and there are reports that at least one Japanese certifier plans to open a China office.

Is this dual system and general lack of government direction and control a problem? Some say this interagency competition may actually help stimulate growth in the Chinese organic sector. Some say the bad feeling that still exists between the two agencies makes it unlikely they will ever get together, even on things like national organic standards. The central government has not initiated any action on organic regulations and has not formally designated or authorized a governmental agency or department to be responsible for the administration of China’s organic industry.

However this situation may make it more difficult to provide the research, extension, marketing, and other services Chinese farmers need to convert to organic methods. This responsibility may fall, for now at least, to institutions like China Agricultural University, which conducts organic research, convenes national organic seminars, and has established the country’s first organic agriculture course. I know the university’s Agroecology Research Institite also is part of a national university-based agroecology network that links up scientists and others involved in organic education, extension, and research.

Support also is needed to help organize small Chinese farmers into grower cooperatives that could meet international grower group requirements. Grower groups, many with 500 small farmers or more, are highly successful in opening up international markets for small producers of organic coffee and other certified high-value crops in Third World countries. It will be extremely difficult for OFDC to lure China’s tiny one-hectare farms into the organic sector unless they can be organized into grower groups that have internal control systems and do not require each unit to be inspected annually. They clearly cannot afford the cost of annual inspection and cannot meet all of the strict requirements of international organic standards. These standards, for example, require organic farms to surround themselves with a buffer zone, usually 25 feet wide, to help protect organic crops from chemical contamination from adjacent conventional farms. There is no way these tiny units can meet that requirement.

That doesn’t mean all of the OFDC-certified units are small. Privately operated tea growing enterprises, processors and input manufacturers, and wild harvest units have no problem meeting international requirements. On the other hand all of the Green Food production bases converted to organic, which include both state farm lands and large units controlled and operated by local governments, are big enough to afford annual inspections. And, of course, they have no problem providing the required buffer zones.

So how big is the Chinese organic sector? The answer is nobody knows. The various production, processing, and other components are scattered over a huge country, two different government bureaucracies are involved, and no official data is being collected. There also is confusion in China, as there is in many other places, about whether to count farmers in conversion as well as those that are certified. Many of the press reports from China suggest that the organic sector is quite large but, on close examination, it is clear that they are confused and are including all of the IPM-level Green Food production in these numbers. The “A category Green Food is obviously making a significant contribution to the growing sustainable agriculture sector throughout China and hundreds of certified “A” category products are on the market. But this large volume of food cannot be counted as organic.

Probably the best estimates comes from the Organic Farming Development Project in Nanjing, a small nonprofit group that admits no reliable data exists. The project managers estimate, however, that there is somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 hectares under organic management in China now and that the output is valued at somewhere between $50 million and $70 million. We shouldn’t be too judgmental about this lack of data because our own Department of Agriculture, until a few weeks ago, was clueless about the number of certified organic farmers in the U.S. or the amount of land under organic management.

I’m optimistic about the future of organic agriculture in China. The domestic market for certified organic is still largely undeveloped but will become important as incomes rise, especially in urban centers. A good start has been made in gaining access to fast-growing international markets and close-by Japan offers unusual market growth opportunity. Big global growth in organic processing, which requires many kinds of certified ingredients, is building demand for organic herbs, spices, mushrooms, and other products that China can export. Add to this organically-grown exotic fruits and medicinal herbs.

Largely unnoticed, I think, is the development of the organic support component. I checked the listings of members of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, which has strict organic membership requirements, and was surprised to find that China has almost as many members as the U.S. The list includes organizations, institutions, and other support entities engaged in research, inspection, certification, production, education, processing, and exporting.

Finally I think it is significant that three of the largest and most prominent internationally accredited certifiers, one from Sweden and two from the United States, are active in China. So are IMO, BCS, SKAL, and Ecocert, all big Europe-based global operators. JONA, the newly-accredited certifier from Japan, also is certifying there. The fact that these aggressive international certifiers have rushed in to position themselves strongly suggests they have taken a good look at China and concluded that it is, indeed, an important food-producing country with an organic sector that promises lots of future action. I would bet that they’ve got it right.