According to Cook and Murray, "In a sustainable society resources are used fairly and efficiently in order to meet basic human needs globally.
Within rural sociology, sustainable agriculture is frequently considered to be a mutually exclusive "competing paradigm" that challenges conventional agriculture on environmental, economic and ideological grounds. As a result, much of the research on identifying sustainable agricultural practices has been focused on understanding the characteristics which differentiate conventional and alternative farmers, as well as the conditions that serve to constrain or facilitate the development of alternative practices and ways of thinking among farmers and agriculture more generally. For example, researchers have examined a variety of farmer and farm attributes such as age, education, orientation to risk, perception of environmental problems, farm size, and profitability; the impact of agricultural markets and prices and state policies, programs and services have also been examined extensively (Hall 222). Other authorities, though, suggest that the solution is much simpler than some observers have made it out to be: "Considering the human enterprise as a whole, we need to be efficient with regard to resource use and waste generation in order to be sustainable" (Cook & Murray 14). Within this range of emerging policies and opinions on what constitutes sustainable agricultural practices are some clear trends that will undoubtedly influence what agricultural practices should be used in the first place. For example, it would make little sense to pursue an aggressive program of agricultural sustainability in isolation from other vital environmental issues such as soil erosion, what types of foods are actually being consumed, as well as water and air pollution and the impact of uncontrolled population growth; these issues are discussed further below.
Current and Future Trends. Issues of land degradation and environmental pollution in China have received an increasing amount of attention during the past two decades or so; while this trend no doubt reflects greater access to reliable information, in many areas signs indicate that conditions are getting worse (Huang, Rozelle & Veeck 1997:44). These authors maintain that real increases in land degradation and pollution have taken place in the post-reform period, despite efforts of environmentalists to influence land use policies. "The intensification of agriculture and the rapid growth of rural industry, housing stocks, and transport systems have focused attention on changes in land use and declining land quality in the countryside, but solutions have been slow in coming," they say (Huang et al.:44).
Other trends noted in the research included a shift in demographic composition; based on the harsh reforms enacted by previous administrations, the Chinese population growth rate had effectively been halved during the 1970s, but the birthrate increased again after the mid-1980s, with much of the increase taking place in China's rural areas where births were occurring above the quota set by the state family planning agencies. According to Christopher J. Smith (2000), "It was at this time that the economic reform policies had started to take hold in both rural and urban areas. The introduction of new responsibility systems in the countryside allowed individual families much greater leeway to raise incomes by increasing productivity. In the low-tech environment that predominates in the countryside, both industrial and agricultural, one of the few ways that can be achieved is by increasing the labor supply; many families believed that the only way to get rich was to have more hands tending the fields" (92). These shifts in demographics have also been accompanied by market reforms that have allowed farmers to produce whatever agricultural produce that provides them with the maximum return in the marketplace.
The concept of "sustainability" suggests that there must be a recognition of existing trends and patterns of consumption; the current shifts in agricultural practices can be directly associated with what people in China are actually eating, thereby driving demand for specific types of agricultural products; in other words, it would make little sense to grow agricultural products that were in low demand. According to Smith, "Newly rich consumers in the cities and the countryside are willing and able to buy such items, which provide the effective demand to reinforce structural shifts in food production practices. In short, statistics on food consumption during the 1980s indicate some major changes in diet in the countryside" (109); these trends are shown in Table 3 below.
Table 3. Per Capita Annual Consumption of Major Food Commodities, China's Urban Households, 1981-1996 (in kilograms) (Source: Smith 2000:109).
Urban Residents' Consumption of:
1996 as % of 1981
Beef and Mutton
Fish and Shrimp
Figure 2. Per Capita Annual Consumption of Major Food Commodities, China's Urban Households, 1981-1996 (in kilograms) (Source: based on data in Smith 2000:109).
As can be readily seen in Figure 2 above, urban consumption of grains, vegetables and sugar has experienced a steady decline since 1981 to a record low in 1996, representing 65.1, 77.8, and 59%, respectively, of their 1981 levels; most other agricultural product categories, though, showed moderate increases in consumption over this period of time, including beef, poultry and liquor which almost doubled. Rural patterns of agricultural consumption are described and illustrated in Table 4 and Figure 3 below.
Table 4. Per Capita Annual Consumption of Major Food Commodities, China's Rural Households, 1981-1996 (in kilograms) (Source: Smith 2000:109).
Rural Residents' Consumption of:
1996 as % of 1978
Pork, Beef, Mutton
Fish and Shrimp
Source: China Statistical Yearbook, 1997, Table 9-6, p. 295 (urban data); Table 9-24, p. 321 [rural data] in Smith 109).
Figure 3. Per Capita Annual Consumption of Major Food Commodities, China's Rural Households, 1981-1996 (in kilograms) (Source: based on data in Smith 2000:109).
In sharp contrast to their urban counterparts, rural consumption of grain products has shown a slight (103.4%) increase since 1978, and the consumption of vegetables has declined almost 25% since that time; however, pork, beef and mutton, as well as poultry consumption patterns have shown strong growth (223.9% and 772.0% respectively) since 1978. Likewise, consumption of eggs and fish/shrimp products have more than quadrupled, consumption of sugar has almost doubled, and liquor consumption has experienced almost a six-fold increase (581.9%) since 1978 in rural households.
What Can Be Done? Complex problems require complex solutions, and the literature was clear that identifying and developing sustainable agricultural practices in the emerging nations of the world represents one of the most important - and complex - of the problems facing humanity today. According to John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff (1998), absent a profound change in the nature and growth in the sizes of cities, constraints on suburban development, and a moratorium on the continued introduction of new synthetic chemical compounds until their environmental safety is proven beyond a doubt (all of which are not likely to occur in the near future), there are not many viable alternatives available. There are some steps that policymakers at all levels can take, though, to help promote sustainable agricultural practices in such countries; these include:
Encouraging the consumption of locally grown food
The recycling of clean food wastes from homes, restaurants, and markets back onto farmland;
Identify farmers that follow environmentally and socially sound practices at farmers markets and through the new Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs, where individuals and families buy shares in the production of the farm before the season starts);
Clean up sewage sludges by eliminating the contamination of sewage with potentially toxic wastes from industries as well as individual homes (these authors caution that this initiative will be vigorously resisted by industrial concerns because of the enormous investments required);
Foster and Magdoff point out that "Although such activities will not solve the problems, they will make a difference. And during the struggles, the mutual education of those interested in broader societal issues, on the one hand, and those concerned with sustainable agriculture and environmental issues, on the other, could lead to more permanent future alliances" (33).
The research showed that the emerging nations of the world are faced with some profound challenges as they seek to overcome the pervasive and lingering effects of past agricultural methods that have in many cases done more harm than good in providing for the needs of a country's citizenry. In the past, agricultural practices were based on tradition and spiritual concepts that indicated when and why crops should be planted. The research also showed that many emerging nations have succeeded in overcoming these constraints through innovative policies and initiatives that take into consideration the unique characteristics of the land and people involved, recognizing what natural resources people actually have to work with and what types of foodstuffs they actually eat. Modern agricultural practices as practiced in the West that rely heavily on heavy (and expensive) equipment as well as industrial pesticides and fertilizers to wrench continued high yields from the soil are not readily…