Thursday, December 23, 2010

Addressing Agricultural Pollution...any ideas?

Earlier this week, a university in Beijing held an internal seminar to discuss potential policy measures to recommend that might address China's massive problems with agricultural pollution. I wasn't there and don't know what was actually discussed but the notice about the meeting reveals that the seriousness of agricultural pollution has gotten the attention of policymakers.

The notice describes how agricultural pollution has gained prominence as a problem. In 2005, the State Council's Development Research Center found agriculture was responsible for one-third to one-half of pollution in China and identified agricultural pollution as a factor affecting the country's sustainable development.

In February 2010, the government's first census of pollution sources showed that agriculture is an even bigger source of pollution than previously thought. The census showed that agricultural sources emitted 57% of nitrogen and 67% of phosphorus. The data showed that agriculture is already the largest source of water pollution. The sources of pollution (fertilizer, pesticides, animal waste) varied by region. In regions with a higher level of agricultural industrialization, emissions were higher. Overall, eastern regions had the most serious pollution problems. According to the announcment, crop pollution is mainly from use of agricultural chemicals; livestock pollution comes mainly from waste created by large scale concentrated farms and the use of feed additives.

The meeting announcement notes that policy thinking on agriculture has started to incorporate environmental and sustainability concepts. In 2006, the "No.1 document" on rural policy aimed to create a "resource-conserving and environmentally-friendly" agriculture by 2020. In 2007, a communist party document added "ecological civilization" to the existing "three civilizations" of the Chinese people (material, spiritual, and cultural). The 2007 "No. 1 Document" emphasized the "multifunctionality" of agriculture. In 2008, the communist leadership's third plenum reiterated the 2020 resource-conservation environmentally-friendly goals in the context of pursuing the communist holy grail of "modern agriculture."

The meeting announcement says there has been a shift in policy thinking, but there is still no "clear policy roadmap." The elliptical language seems to point out that environmental objectives collide with the overarching food security objective (growing enough food to avoid relying on imports) and the interests of industry ("capital") in pursuing no-holds-barred agricultural industrialization. The announcement asserts that reliance on technology is not sufficient for solving the problem.

Against this background, the organizers of the meeting suggest that now is the time to raise policy measures that might be incorporated in the twelfth 5-year plan about to be launched. The discussion was set to include a number of topics. Pollution from agricultural chemicals, food safety risks were to be reviewed, followed by discussion of advantages and disadvantages of control measures and mechanisms, the connection between pollution and food safety problems, the practice of ecological agriculture, integration of traditional and modern agriculture, and international experience with these problems.

Chinese agricultural policy is becoming even more complex and fraught with contradictions. Objectives include producing as much food as possible, raising prices and incomes for farmers, keeping prices low for consumers, keeping food safe, watching out for the interests of small farmers, and promoting concentrate and full-speed industrialization of agriculture. Now, add to this reducing pollution from agriculture. It would be nice if China could feed its huge population while simultaneously reducing chemical use and waste, but in reality there will have to be some tough choices.

I was told that an economist advised the State Council earlier this year to import more pork to ease up on the pollution from pig farms. I suspect that idea wouldn't go over well in board rooms of China's meat companies, all of whom want to be the next Smithfield. Nevertheless, as discussed on this blog recently, there is a quiet wave of regulations being introduced by provinces that restrict where hog farms can be located, which reflects these pollution concerns and should be a constraint on pork production.

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