To help feed China, just add trees

© CI/photo by Min Fan

Editor’s note: China contains one-fifth of the world’s people — and just 8% of its arable land. Much of this land is already degraded, leading the country to look to farming in places like Southeast Asia and Africa — places with food scarcities of their own.

Bolstering crop yields by improving the health of ecosystems in the Chinese countryside could reduce the need to import food from other countries — while improving livelihoods for many of China’s rural citizens. CI China Program Assistant Wansu Xu explains.

Question: In brief, what’s the deal with agriculture in China?

Answer: The village of Ganpu, where CI works, is a microcosm of sorts for the issues that many Chinese farming communities are dealing with. Li County in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, where Ganpu is located, is an important source of produce for Chengdu, a fast-growing city of more than 18 million people. Traditional crops include Chinese lettuce, cherries and especially cabbage, which is an important vegetable for feeding China’s poor.

In Ganpu and other villages, cabbages are usually grown with a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These make the soil quality degrade over time, requiring farmers to use even more to harvest the same crop yield. It’s likely that these chemicals are also seeping into the river as well; we will soon begin monitoring water quality in the area to know for sure.

The villagers are very aware of the damage they have inflicted on the soil over the years, but they didn’t know how to do things differently. Now they want to work with us to find a better way.

Further reading

  • Indonesia builds a ‘green wall’

Q: What is CI doing to change this?

A: We are combining forestry and agricultural techniques to create more diverse, productive, profitable and sustainable land-use systems — more simply, we’re planting trees and a range of plants underneath them. Balancing crops that use the soil differently could help to build healthier farmland ecosystems by facilitating the natural control of pests and diseases, eliminating the need for farmers to use chemicals to keep up their yields — and allowing them to charge much higher prices for their produce at market.

Planting more trees will also hold the soil in place, reducing erosion. And as farmers increase the number of crops they are growing, they will be less reliant on the unstable market of one or two products — a risky situation when a season’s crop could be wiped out by disease, pests or bad weather. As extreme weather patterns attributed to climate change increase, growing more types of produce will help farmers adapt.

Beans planted at CI’s project site in Ganpu, China. Beans help to fix nitrogen in the soil, improving soil quality and providing an additional food source for the villagers. (© Conservation International/photo by Min Fan)

With support from Daikin Industries, a Japanese air conditioning company, we have built an 8-hectare [20-acre] agroforestry demonstration area. At this stage of the project, we are mostly planting beans, which help to fix nitrogen in the soil — and provide an additional food source for the villagers. We planted apple trees this past spring, and plan to begin growing many other kinds of fruits next year, but it will be a few years before they begin producing. We may begin raising bees to pollinate these crops. We aim to turn this demonstration site into a tourism destination, where tourists can pick their own fruit. This could encourage people to stay longer in the village and spend more money there.

We also plan to create a 1,000-hectare [about 2,500-acre] community-based conservation area, where villagers will patrol the area to protect their shared forest. In addition, we’ve conducted nature classes at the local primary school, teaching children about the importance of keeping forests healthy.

As the project ramps up, we’ll monitor how the new agricultural system impacts nutrition and income in the village.

Q: Why is the location of this project important?

A: The village of Ganpu, near the upper reaches of Min River, a tributary of the Yangtze, is an important area for forest protection; by filtering the water that runs into the river, these trees help keep water clean for downstream residents. Sichuan’s forests also provide critical habitat for the giant panda.

Most of the village’s 959 residents are farmers. Many also host tourists in their homes to make extra income. Ganpu is a popular tourist destination; visitors from Chengdu and other nearby cities come to the region because it is cool in summer, and the forests are beautiful. They are attracted to Ganpu in particular because of its Tibetan heritage; the Tibetan-style dwellings and prayer wheels are cultural vestiges of the ancestors of many residents, who migrated here centuries ago.

Flowers in Li County, Sichuan province. (© Conservation International/photo by Min Fan)

Q: China is a huge place. How will improving agriculture in one village help?

A: The government of Li County has already voiced an intention to make agricultural practices across the county more eco-friendly and sustainable. If our project in Ganpu is successful, we’ll advise them to expand its techniques into other villages and towns — and beyond.

Wansu Xu is CI China’s program assistant. Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

This project is funded in part by Daikin’s “Forests for the Air” project, which recently expanded work to protect and restore forests — nature’s air conditioners — in six new countries, including China. It followed the success of our partnership planting trees and improving the lives of rural villagers in Indonesia.

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Cover image: A Tibetan woman in Li County in southwestern China’s Sichuan province. The ancestors of many residents of the village of Ganpu migrated here from Tibet centuries ago; this heritage makes the town a popular tourist draw for nearby city-dwellers. (© Conservation International/photo by Min Fan)