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Community Supported Agriculture in China: An exciting approach that aims to restore soil and human health.

Until recently, China’s agricultural history and traditions have been embedded in approaches and systems in which soil health and human health were at the heart of their farming traditions. This changed as a result of the cultural revolution and rapid urbanisation resulting in industrial farming systems that degrade both soil and human health. As part of a project I am undertaking for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, I was recently fortunate enough to speak Dr Shi Yan is Founder and Director of Shared Harvest, who set up the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farm in China. Her mission is to re-engage and reconnect Chinese citizens and bring back traditional practices and knowledge.

Dr Shi Yan is often referred to as ‘a female doctor growing vegetables in the countryside,’ she has been instrumental in the burgeoning CSA movement in China, with well over 1000 projects and CSA farms. The movement has come at a time of changing consumer attitudes in China and increasing concerns over food safety. The 2008 toxic milk powder scandal — where excessive levels of melamine were discovered in China-produced milk products, put food safety at the fore of Chinese consumer concerns. Pesticide and fertilizer use have skyrocketed in China over the last 40 years and as a result the country now uses 30% of all fertilizers and pesticides produced globally. This has resulted in significant soil and ground water contamination and subsequent poisonings impacting both farmers and consumers. The CSA network aims to tackle this through a movement towards more regenerative farming practices , not only aiming to reduce pesticide use and restore soil health, but by tackling some of the structural social and cultural determinants of health, reconnecting citizens with farmers and citizens with land and the growing of food.

According to Dr Shi Yan ‘for over 5,000 years people and nature lived in harmony’ using composting, manuring and closed loop systems which restored soil health, managed pests and diseases and provided enough affordable healthy food for China’s growing population and beyond. Rice farmers for example, would traditionally have rice paddies, which would also produce fish and ducks. Ducks would control pests and oxygenate and fertilise the paddies and fish would provide a source of valuable protein, a true example of a closed loop system in harmony with nature that would provide nourishment for the body.

Over the last 60 years, as a result of urbanisation, many farmers and young people from farming communities have moved from the countryside to the city and as a result, much of the traditional farming knowledge is being lost. At the same time, the industrialisation of Chinese agriculture has resulted on increasing reliance on chemical inputs, especially fertilisers and pesticides. The first National Pollution report in China, produced in 2010, showed that agricultural pollution contributed to almost half of total pollution incidences in China. According to the WHO, China had 16,179 unintentional poisoning deaths in 2016, 31% of the world’s total of 52,077

While studying at Renmin University of China, Shi Yan was concerned about the widespread environmental damage being caused by chemical-reliant farming practices. After a stint studying in the USA she returned to China and founded Little Donkey Farm in 2011, the first CSA in China. In 2012, Shi Yan founded another CSA, Shared Harvest farm which is a completely organic farm and was one of the first in China to follow the CSA model.  Shared Harvest now has 3 farms supplying fresh fruit and vegetables to over 1000 households, predominantly in Beijing.  ‘It has two models of operation’ says Shi Yan. ‘People come to the farm and rent land to grow vegetables or they have farm workers who grow the food and deliver it to people within Beijing’. As a result of Shi Yan’s pioneering work over 1,000 farms have converted to CSA principles and numbers continue to grow. In addition, Shi Yan has established a CSA education centre in Beijing and runs the annual CSA China conference. These are ‘great platforms for farmers, civil society groups, scholars, cooperatives and others to come together to share experiences and lessons.’

Shi Yan also says that more recently the government has started to take notice and more of an interest in agroecological agriculture. Whilst it’s still early days, last year (2018) the government announced a national strategy on ‘Rural Regeneration’ and are starting to focus more attention on the needs of rural communities.  They have promised a “strong agriculture sector and full realization of farmers’ wealth” by 2050, with renewed a focus on green Agriculture and organic Agriculture.

Shi Yan recognises that whilst much has been achieved in China over the last 10 years, this is a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the food system health challenges in China. This includes food safety and ‘diseases from the mouth’ as she refers to obesity and other dietary related diseases , which are on the rise.

One of the key challenges and barriers to replicating the CSA model in China is now around ‘governance’ explains Shi Yan. In rural areas there are very complicated governance structures.  In China land is not privately owned but owned by complex village collectives and each influenced by village/town leaders. There are effectively hundreds of thousands of different governance structures that depend on local leaders. Solutions will require local responses and no one-size-fits-all responses. Engaging with and working with these local leaders is going to be the key to success.