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April 15, 2020

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Rethinking agricultural efficiency at the expense of natural renewal

Straws of plants, usually burned or dumped to become pollutants, have increasingly found their way back into biological use as Chinese farmers seek to foster sustainable agriculture.

The Farmers’ Daily, a national newspaper, reported on April 10 that farmers in north China’s Hebei Province have succeeded in processing plant straws into animal feeds. For instance, corn straws are rich in protein and carbohydrates. In Longhua County, dubbed “home of beef cattle” in China, corn straws have newly been converted into fodder for cattle, whose manure, after proper treatment, becomes organic fertilizer that nurtures both plants and soil. In this way, the newspaper noted, a “closed loop” of sustainable agriculture has taken shape, in which crops come from the earth and return to the earth, nurturing the health of humans, animals and soil, without producing waste or pollutants.

Resting in the heart of sustainable agriculture as such is nature’s innate “wheel of life” that regenerates without the need for external energy like fossil fuel or chemical fertilizer. According to renowned American writer and farmer Wendell Berry, the “wheel of life” was a term used by the great British agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) in the 1940s to describe a durable agriculture based on the unifying cycle that preserves health, fertility and renewal in nature. As the recycling of straws in Longhua shows, driven by the “wheel of life,” death supersedes life and life rises again from what is dead and decayed.

In his definitive book defending man-earth harmony on the farmland, “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture,” Berry writes: “We cannot create biological energy any more than we can create atomic or fossil fuel energy. But we can preserve it in use; we can probably augment it in use, in the sense that, by proper care, we can ‘build’ soil. We cannot do that with machine-derived energy.”

Longhua’s straw-recycling business buttresses Berry’s idea of “building” soil. In preferring biological to chemical energy, Longhua has added what Berry calls a third element to the equation of production and consumption: return. With return, “all bodies, plant and animal and human … die into each other’s life, live into each other’s death. They do not consume in the sense of using up. They do not produce waste.”

In contrast, fossil fuel and chemical fertilizer go in as “energy” and come out as “waste,” polluting the air, water and soil.

In Berry’s words, machine-derived energy sustains an oversimplified economy, such as industrial agriculture, that has only two functions: production and consumption. Here the “wheel of life” is broken, as nature is exploited, not nurtured.

Berry is a defender of a landed life made whole through man’s restrained and responsible use of natural resources. In effect, when it comes to farming, Berry takes cues from ancient Chinese as well Jeffersonian values about harmony between man and nature.

In his view, industrial agriculture that has dominated the farming landscape in America exploits more than it nurtures the land, largely out of human greed for so-called “efficiency.”

‘A technological miracle’

The Union of Concerned Scientists (in the US) pointed as early as in 2008 that, from its mid-20th century beginnings, industrial agriculture has been sold to the public as a technological miracle.

“Its efficiency, we were told, would allow food production to keep pace with a rapidly growing global population, while its economies of scale would ensure that farming remained a profitable business,” said a report from the union. “But too often, something crucial was left out of this story: the price tag. In fact, our industrialized food and agriculture system comes with steep costs … Water pollution from fertilizer runoff contaminates downstream drinking water supplies, requiring costly cleanup measures.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned in 2018 that water pollution from unsustainable agricultural practices poses a serious risk to human health and the planet’s ecosystems.

Modern agriculture, FAO said, is responsible for the discharge of large quantities of agrochemicals, among other things, that compromise the health of billions of people and generate annual costs exceeding billions of dollars.

“As land use has intensified, countries have greatly increased the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other inputs,” said FAO.

Longhua County is not alone in bucking the trend. In Changtu County of northeast China’s Liaoning Province, piles and piles of plant straws have also been processed to feed local cattle, Xinhua news agency reported on April 7.

Over the past five years, more than 86 percent of plant straws across the province have been put into biological use, and further progress is underway.

In the recent past, straws would either be burned, producing thick smokes and suspended particulates that foul the air, or be dumped into rivers, polluting the water.

They could also be sliced and sown in the field, but if they were not properly powdered, there would be a risk of jeopardizing the growth of new plants. That’s why most straws were wasted.

However, sowing sliced straws in the soil as organic fertilizer has now become a mature practice in Yingkou City, east China’s Shandong Province, the People’s Daily reported in March.

“We grow grapes on the strength of sliced straws, hence no need for any other fertilizer,” Yin Pengxiao, head of a local cooperative, told the paper in an interview. “Nurturing grapes with sliced straws also reduces the harm of pests and increases output.”

The cases of Longhua, Changtu and Yingkou epitomize China’s latest effort to go ahead with “green agriculture” that at once reduces environmental pollution and enhances quality output.

Protecting the land

Though a breed apart from the American style of industrial agriculture, farming in China was also once burdened with overuse of chemical fertilizer, resulting in higher production costs in certain cases and pollution of the ecosystems. But over the past few years, China has made it a priority to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizer.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, China almost achieved zero growth in the use of chemical fertilizer in 2016. And in 2017, China threw its weight behind biological reuse of plant straws and animal manure as part of an effort to promote the use of organic fertilizer and protect agro-ecological environment. In 2018, the ministry released guidelines on green technology for the 2018-2030 period, calling for solid action to break the bottlenecks in agricultural development such as ecological degradation.

“The word agriculture ... means ‘cultivation of land,’” wrote Berry. “And cultivation is the root of the sense both of culture and cult. The ideas of tillage and worship are thus joined in culture.”

Indeed, if we truly value the land on which we work to survive, we will not till it till it’s exhausted. Agriculture, in Berry’s words, is not just a commercial business; it’s fundamentally a way of living that binds humans to the source of life. It requires a sense of humility on the part of humans.


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