Term Paper: Sustainable Agricultural Practices in Emerging Nations

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¶ … Sustainable Agricultural Practices in Emerging Nations in General and China in Particular

Let trees sprout on the mountains; stop growing grain on hilly terrain; and keep livestock in their pens. - Chinese Edict for 21st Century Agricultural Practices, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, Spring 2000

In recent years, the rapid development of industrial and urban areas, and changes in agricultural practices, have resulted in environmental damage in many emerging countries, and China has been no exception (Cook & Murray 2002:154). In their haste to introduce market reforms and efficiencies into their antiquated agricultural systems, many of these emerging nations have sacrificed their environment and citizens' health in exchange for some well-intentioned but misguided short-term gains in productivity. Because China remains the most populous nation in the world, identifying more sustainable agricultural practices for the future remains a critical priority for this and other similarly situated countries today. To this end, this paper provides an overview of the problem as it exists in emerging nations in general and China in particular, a discussion of existing agricultural practices in these countries, and an examination of newly identified practices that may serve to resolve the problems faced by these nations in the future. A description of current and future trends in agricultural consumption patterns and sustainability is followed by an analysis of what can be done to address these issues, and a summary of the research is provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview. Today, China is the largest of all Asian countries and has the largest population of any country in the world. The country is truly enormous, and occupies almost all of the East Asian landmass; China stretches for about 3,100 miles (5,000 km) from east to west and 3,400 miles from north to south and covers an area of about 3,696,100 square miles (9,572,900 square km), an area equal to approximately one-fourteenth of the land area of the entire globe; in fact, China is almost as large as the whole of Europe (Chen, Lieberthal & Schmidt 2005:2-3). The epigram that introduced this paper was issued by the Chinese premier following his inspection tours of northern and northeastern provinces in the spring of 2000. Throughout those regions, a paucity of green spaces further exacerbated the already fierce sand storms that pelted Beijing and contributed to a serious drought in the capital. Following his inspection, the premier reported the results of his trip to the country's top administrative body, the State Council; at that time, the premier blamed the ambitious but short-sighted agricultural practices of Chairman Mao Zedong who instructed farmers to terrace hilly areas and plant rice or wheat. According to Cook and Murray, "The new edict from Zhu specifically forbade the very things that Mao championed, and was reportedly to be accompanied by handouts of free grain to enable farmers to plant acres of trees rather than food crops, and free coal to stop them from burning trees and shrubs for fuel" (1). Of particular concern to agricultural planners in emerging nations has been the growing problem of land degradation and its impact on agricultural productivity (Huang, Rozelle & Veeck 1997:44). Today, a growing understanding of the ecological damage inflicted by the reliance on synthetic chemical inputs, the scale of which vastly increased following the Second Word War, has generated new interest in a sustainable agriculture in which soil nutrient cycling plays a central role. The need to devise an ecologically sound relationship of people to the soil is being rediscovered (Foster & Magdoff 1998:32). In addition, fundamental structural and economic changes in China's agricultural sector, fueled in part by the rural reforms, have resulted in the increasing intensification of cropland use, as well as the continued cultivation of marginal and degraded land for production. "Every year," a Chinese agronomist reported in a meeting in Beijing, "we spend a lot of money deploying aircraft to seed the clouds for rain -- and to sow seeds for grass and trees in hilly regions. Yet, farmers continue to ask their kids to dig out barely grown sods for fuel or forage" (Cook & Murray 154). While a number of policies and initiatives have been developed to address these problems, the current measures are not routinely enforced and their implementation has frequently resulted in complete failure as the result of overly ambitious production goals and economic growth targets (Cook & Murray 155). According to these authors, a number of Chinese provinces, especially those on the country's periphery, are faced with serious land constraint issues as a result of growing populations and increased demand for agricultural and forestry products. "In many areas," they say, "the use of marginal land for crop production is vital to meet subsistence grain requirements; in other provinces, higher-quality land is being cropped more intensively to meet the demand for cash crops as well as to meet high production quotas. Researchers agree that, over time, environmental problems are multiplying in China and the areas affected by them are increasing as well" (Cook & Murray 154). The current agricultural techniques typical used throughout emerging nations are discussed further below.

Existing Agricultural Practices in China Today. The agricultural practices of early settlers throughout many regions of the world proved inappropriate or inadequate for the conditions; consequently, farmers were continually required to move from one location to another in search of new lands because their "ploughing had loosened the grassland soils, exposing the lower sandy layers which drifted under windy conditions" (Edmonds 1994:36). While soil erosion is certainly not a new problem, it reached unprecedented proportions during the 20th century.

According to J. Donald Hughes, the basic causes of soil erosion are the removal of vegetative cover, overgrazing, and plowing in arid regions or steep terrain, particularly when furrows run down the slope. This author describes the "Dust Bowl" phenomenon that occurred in the high plains of the western United States when a period of drought in the 1930s followed a time of aggressive agricultural expansion that had broken enormous stretches of short-grass prairie. "The crops failed," he notes, "and the strong winds typical of the region carried the topsoil high into the atmosphere" (145). Although the Dust Bowl was the most visible and newsworthy example of soil erosion, it was not the only one; Hughes points out that comparable events have occurred in central Asia, the loess zone of China, and in the Sahel, which is the southern margin of the Sahara in Africa. The author adds, "Drought and water erosion has always been a problem in regions of cultivation" (145). Soil erosion has been the case especially in many of the arid regions of China, where 2001 estimates indicate only 15.4% of the land is arable to begin with, and where just 1.25% of this is being cultivated as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Land Use and Irrigated Land in China (estimates as shown) (Source: China 2005:2).

Land use:

arable land: 15.4% permanent crops: 1.25% other: 83.36% (2001)

Irrigated land:

525,800 sq km (1998 est.)

Current Environmental issues:

air pollution (greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide particulates) from reliance on coal produces acid rain; water shortages, particularly in the north; water pollution from untreated wastes; deforestation; estimated loss of one-fifth of agricultural land since 1949 to soil erosion and economic development; desertification; trade in endangered species

Although China has made some impressive gains in terms of investments in infrastructure that have steered the nation away from its agricultural-based past, an enormous number of Chinese people continue to be employed in the agricultural industries today as shown in Table 2 and Figure 1 below.

Table 2. China Labor Force, Occupational Breakdown, and Agricultural Products (estimates as indicated) (Source: China 2005:5-6)

Labor force:

778.1 million (2003 est.)

Labor force - by occupation:

agriculture 50%, industry 22%, services 28% (2001 est.)

Agriculture - products:

rice, wheat, potatoes, sorghum, peanuts, tea, millet, barley, cotton, oilseed, pork, fish

As shown in Figure 1 below, approximately 389 million Chinese citizens are actively engaged in agricultural pursuits today:

Figure 1. Occupational Breakdown - China (2001 est.) (Source: Based on data in China 2005).

While enormous numbers of people remain actively engaged in agricultural pursuits, the fact that the industry and services sectors are growing while the agricultural sector continues to decline, identifying innovative and sustainable agricultural practices has assumed increasing importance today since fewer Chinese farmers are going to need to feed an increasingly larger percentage of the population in the future; these issues are discussed further below.

Innovative and Sustainable Agricultural Practices. In his essay, "Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation Tillage: Managing the Contradictions," Alan Hall (1998) reports that for the past two decades, there has been increasing emphasis placed on the need for environmentally oriented approaches to farming; concomitantly, this author notes that agricultural production and market systems have also experienced significant restructuring in the context of both increasing globalization and persistent over-production and farm profitability crises (221). Taken together, these forces have resulted in conventional agriculture coming under considerable criticism from within… [END OF PREVIEW]

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