China steps closer to sustainable farming by encouraging use of organic fertilizers

Source:Xinhua-Global Times Published: 2017/3/1 19:58:39

Growing green

In February, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) released a plan to pilot a fertilizer-replacement program by the end of 2017 in 100 counties and districts. Over the years, Chinese farmers have grown dependent on chemical fertilizers to boost output, but that dependency has taken its toll on the land and has increased risks to public health. To curb the overuse of chemicals in agriculture, China is promoting bio-fertilizers as an alternative. But change comes with a price, as organic fertilizers cost around four times as much as their chemical brethren. The situation begs the question of whether Chinese farmers can go green without government support.

Visitors check out an exhibit at a vegetable exhibition in Shouguang, East China's Shandong Province, in April 2016. Photo: CFP

Three years ago, farmer Yue Zuozhong realized his soil needed a rest.

"The land in my vegetable greenhouses had grown hard and impervious. I could no longer find earthworms," said Yue, from Shouguang, East China's Shandong Province.

Shouguang, which is famous for its vegetables, produces one-third of the vegetables sold in Beijing.

Yue concluded that excessive use of chemical fertilizers had caused low productivity, soil degradation and low fertility.

Chinese farmers apply 70 percent more chemicals to their crops than the world average, but the country is taking a step closer to green agriculture by encouraging farmers to reduce their reliance on chemical fertilizers.

The Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) released an action plan in February to pilot a fertilizer-replacement program in 100 counties and districts in China by the end of 2017.

The program aims to cut chemical fertilizer use by at least 20 percent by 2020. It will cover vegetables produced in northern China's greenhouses, apples grown in northwestern China's Loess Plateau region and the Bohai Bay, which borders North China's ­Hebei Province, Tianjin and East China's Shandong Province, as well as key growing areas for oranges, tangerines and tea.

The excessive use of chemical fertilizers has damaged the soil, polluted the land and put consumers' health at risk.

"Improper use of chemical fertilizers can lead to a high level of heavy metal elements in the soil, which can threaten people's health," said Guo Yuesheng, vice head of the Soil and Fertilizer Station of Shandong.

Chemical addiction

The pilot program is part of China's effort to switch to alternative organic fertilizers. The task is immense. National chemical fertilizer use amounts to around one-third of the world's total consumption.

The amount of chemical fertilizers used in fruit growing in China per mu (0.067 hectares) is more than twice the figure of Japan, six times the figure of the US and seven times of that of the EU.

To grow vegetables, farmers in China use 12.8 kilograms more chemical fertilizers per mu than those in Japan, 29.7 kilograms more than the US and 31.4 kilograms more than the EU, according to the MOA.

"Long-time reliance on chemical fertilizers to boost production has resulted in hardening and secondary salinization of soil, as well as pollution," Guo said.

Data from the MOA show that chemical fertilizers damages land fertility, causing degeneration in about 40 percent of workable land.

"Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are applied at the source of agricultural production. Preventing pollutants from entering the soil is fundamental to ensuring safe agricultural produce," said Qin Qingwu, a member of the China Agricultural Economy Society.

Urging a switch

To curb the overuse of chemicals in agriculture, China is encouraging targeted fertilization, the integration of water and fertilizer, as well as promoting green disease and pest control to ensure chemical fertilizer and pesticide consumption stops rising by 2020.

In Shouguang, which has more than 800,000 mu (53,600 hectares) of greenhouse vegetables, the local government has been encouraging farmers to use organic fertilizers to improve arable land and since 2010.

Yue, for one, took the government up on offered subsidies. Deciding to cut back on chemical fertilizers, he switched to bio-fertilizers and pig and chicken manure for his two vegetable greenhouses.

Before the MOA launched its pilot program, Shouguang's government provided a subsidy of up to 300 yuan ($43.61) per ton for bio-fertilizers, according to a report by Beijing-based Farmers Daily in 2016.

One mu of vegetables needs a dozen kilograms of bio-fertilizers and some pig and chicken manure, he said. With the help of government subsidies, farmers in Shouguang like Yue need to pay only 750 yuan to 1,050 yuan a ton for bio-fertilizers. Pig and chicken manure costs around 120 yuan per cubic meter.

"It cuts my costs in half," Yue said. "But most importantly, after using organic fertilizers, the hardened land has become soft again and more easily permeated by water."

The cost of change

However, making the change is difficult as chemical fertilizers are much cheaper than organic alternatives and are easier to transport.

To provide the same amount of nutrients, organic fertilizers cost around four times as much as chemical fertilizers, according to Guo.

"We still have a long way to go to advance the use of organic fertilizers," he said.

Yue said that little could be achieved without the government's financial support and professional expertise.

"It is our hope that the government can continue to subsidize us and offer help to achieve sustainable farming," Yue noted.


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