Investigating sustainable agriculture in China.

Steffanie Scott having lunch with a Chinese family.

Steffanie Scott, far right, and PhD student Aijuan Chen, second from right, share a meal with members of a homestay family in China.

From contaminated baby formula to tainted dumplings, China has a bad reputation when it comes to food safety. But look carefully in your grocery store. Chances are good you’ll find fresh organic snap peas or frozen organic broccoli – produced in China.

China has the world’s second-largest land area devoted to organic food production and there is a burgeoning movement toward what geography and environmental management professor Steffanie Scott calls ecological agriculture – farming that is greener than average but may not be certified organic.

Scott and three of her graduate students are researching ecological agriculture in China, and much of what they have found is encouraging.

There are two types of ecological agriculture in China – organic, which is certified to international standards, and green, which permits a limited range and amount of chemicals and residues. A third food quality standard is hazard-free, which allows a wider range of agro-chemicals but still tests products for chemical residues. The latter two types are made-in-China initiatives mainly intended for the domestic market, says Scott.

Though organic is the smallest sector, it has been growing fast. When certified organic food was first produced in China in the 1990s, it was largely for export, but as of 2008, more than half of the organic food grown in China was sold domestically – with more imported into China from abroad. China has also recently imported the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, which is growing in popularity around large cities.

One major difference between Canada and China has been the role of the state in developing ecological agriculture. In Canada, civil society has led the growth in the organic and local food markets, while the government has done little, says Scott. In China, the state has led the development of the green and hazard-free agricultural sectors, primarily to address concerns about food safety, though it has been less supportive of organic agriculture.

“There’s generally quite widespread skepticism about the ability of organic agriculture to feed a large population,” says Scott. In fact, research has shown that done right, organic agriculture can actually result in higher yields than conventional farming, she adds.

Still, the movement toward greener agriculture has been positive, says Scott. “One thing China is known for ... is rampant loss of agricultural land through industrialization and urbanization, so it’s interesting to see this emerging as an alternative opportunity that can protect agricultural land and meet needs for healthy, sustainably produced food.”

For more information on this research, visit the Steffanie Scott's research project on Ecological Agriculture in China.