Peri-Urban Farming for Beijing—Towards Sustainable Production

Posted by on November 27th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

As part of the OECD-China Workshop, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture arranged a day-long study tour for attendees to visit several Chinese state-run cooperatives producing vegetables and eggs for the Beijing consumer market. These cooperatives represent some of the most advanced and successful examples of cooperative production in China. The visit provided a dramatic vision of the future of farming in China as the nation transforms from a traditional, smallholder-based production system to a more modern form of peri-urban farming for cities.

Many Chinese farms today are small (on average less than 0.6 hectares of land per household), and provide low qualities of life for Chinese farmers. In the first CPC central policy document for 2013, the Central Government indicated that China will promote larger, more advanced farms. These larger farms are intended to provide more income per farmer, and will therefore enable the purchase of more technology and inputs. The Chinese Government hopes that this model will increase agricultural efficiency while making agriculture more attractive among youth, while also providing farmers with a better quality of life. GHI’s Margaret Zeigler was introduced to some of these larger-scale farms on the study tour.

The visit started with a tour of a cooperative of 290 farming families on 200 hectares of land where greenhouses are used to cultivate vegetables. These vegetables include sweet corn, eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and many others, and are sold primarily to large retail stores for urban consumers in Beijing.

The greenhouses on this farm are technologically advanced and environmentally efficient. They grow vegetables year round, using organic, low input methods. In cooperation with nearby chicken farms, the waste from the nearby chickens is treated in stages to provide clean water for irrigation and to capture biogas for energy use. The liquid water is separated from the solid waste in the treatment process, recycling as much of the waste as possible into useful inputs.

China greenhouses

An informational pamphlet at the site from the Beijing Academy of Agricultural Sciences described how waste is recycled into water and fertilizer in a three-step process. They noted that Beijing releases an annual 1,396,000 tons of hazardous animal waste into the environment. This waste is filled with valuable resources that could be better utilized. At the vegetable cooperative, waste is filtered twice. The first step removes course particles from the waste while the second step removes fine particles. At the end of the process, both the filtered water and recovered nutrient fertilizer can be used for growing crops. Ideally a drip irrigation system can be used to make this process as efficient as possible. The pamphlet notes, however, that if a drip irrigation system is not possible, it is relatively easy to build an alternate and simple piping system.[1] The cooperatives also receive biogas (a relatively clean, renewable energy source) from this process. This biogas could not be captured with conventional use of animal waste.

A second stop on the tour included a visit to DQY Eggs (德青源 De Qing Yuan). DQY Eggs is a massive egg cooperative with over 3 million chickens and 1.9 million laying hens. Each “house” contains 100,000 laying hens in spaces of 600 cubic centimeters, larger spaces than required by European standards. The International Egg Council gave DQY an award for innovation and environmental sustainability, citing its impressive environmental standards and complete lack of pollution.

China DQY eggs

The success and massive scale of DQY eggs indicates that China food production is moving rapidly towards more environmentally sustainable and international standard-based processes. Consumers trust the brand, allowing it to gain 60 percent of the branded egg market in Beijing. The environmentally conscious and innovative waste-recycling policies of DQY, and its successful cooperation and integration with surrounding villages and cooperatives also gives credence to the Chinese renewed hopes for a cooperative agricultural future. These technologically advanced cooperatives, while by no means representative of the Chinese agricultural system in general, present an appealing route for the Chinese to follow, and will hopefully prove successful in the future even in absence of state management.

These cooperatives are part of a greater movement by China to consolidate and modernize the countryside. China imagines an agricultural future where farmers live in orderly communities and do agriculture on a larger scale, free from the uncertainties and dangers of smallholder farming. Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), an architectural and urban planning firm working on new large-scale developments in China, describes building what they call “The New Agricultural Village.”[2] Their vision of a large, orderly village that is well connected to urban markets corresponds is very close to that of the cooperatives on the study tour. China should continue to promote these high-efficiency operations, and hopefully they can become successful in poorer areas beyond the reach of massive government investment.

[1] “Zhao ye guan gai shi fei zai nong ye zhong de ying yong” Beijing Academy of Agricultural Sciences

[2] Skidmore Owings & Merrill “Challenges Facing China’s Cities in the 21st Century 二十一世纪中国城市所面临的挑战“2013。

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