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The sustainability of organic agriculture in developing countries: lessons from China

By Richard Sanders and Xingji Xiao


Concern over food shortages in recent years has made questions over whether organic agriculture can provide the basis for sustainable agriculture in developing countries ever more urgent. In China, organic agriculture - almost completely abandoned as a result of Maoist grain monoculture and Green Revolution technologies by the 1970's - is making a comeback, with the Organic Food Development Centre, China's principal organic certifier, winning full accreditation from the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements in 2003 and organic food being produced in China in increasing amounts, albeit from a low base, for sale in both domestic and overseas markets. But organic conversion for China's overwhelmingly poor farmers, as for poor farmers everywhere, is extremely problematic. Not only are there risks of lower yields in the first few years, ignorance of organic techniques, problems of obtaining sufficient organic fertiliser, back-breaking weeding, problems of handling the bureaucratic requirements as well as the monetary costs of certification and finding markets, but owing to the very small size of Chinese farms, farmers need to undertake organic conversion cooperatively. Promoting the necessary conditions for organic agriculture is therefore not easy, particularly in poor, out-of-the-way rural areas. However, the decision by China's largest and most important state liquor company -Maotai- to source its ingredients, primarily sorghum and wheat, from organic sources has led to the largest concentration of organic farmers in China - in rural Guizhou, one of poorest parts of China -providing farmers with the necessary security to undertake organic conversion with enthusiasm. My paper will present my research findings, based on visits to Maotai, Guizhou, in 2007 and 2009 and will point to possible lessons for other developing countries who wish to make organic conversion feasible and organic agriculture sustainable over tim

Topics: S605.5, HC79.E5, HC427.95
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