Can China feed itself again?

4 min read
Polyculture Farming

The short answer is yes, but…

In an earlier article I explained how China built the Three Gorges dam, and flooded enough land to reduce its production by a substantial amount, forcing China to import an ever increasing amount from the EU.  I also suggested that China could increase production at home by following the examples of other countries, like Cuba, who have been growing food wherever there is land available.  One big problem with this that some of China’s cities are so dense it would be hard to even grow food on some of the balconies. So, is there any way China could grow more food?  Polyculture is such an answer.

The techniques of permaculture are again bringing to the forefront techniques as old as farming itself, polyculture being one of them. This is a technique China used up until the Cultural Revolution, when farming followed a more western farming method of intensive mono-cropping with the application of chemicals.

What I am going to say is something that has been well documented in a book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan and was also practised in China up until the 1960s. But I am getting ahead of myself.

First, what had worked and can still work. Inland aquaculture, or pond raised fish. In some regions a farm  would have a pond filled with several types of fish that kept the pond healthy and didn’t compete with one another for food. In this way farmers were able to increase their output.  Many of these inland fish ponds could be found near the Pearl and Yangtze rivers. These ponds also helped farmers to increase their incomes while providing protein for the market place.

Another way fish were raised were to link rice paddies to a river or lake.  Then as the rains came and filled the paddies and water flowed downhill where the fish would find their way back up into the paddies to lay their eggs. The newly hatched young would help keep bugs in check.  Their parents who died in the paddies provide valuable nutrients to the fields.  In this way chemical fertilisers were never needed.  Allowing fish and wildlife to coexist in their rice fields allowed for a slightly higher yield than single cropping such as is the case of separate inland fish ponds and rice paddies.

Back to the book Just Enough and why I mentioned it.  One of the things covered was the collection of human and animal waste from the cities that was carted to the farms where it ended up back on the land as a valuable fertiliser that kept the same farm land productive for generations.  During the Edo period that was for over 260 years.

Whether you call it Humaunre or Nightsoil it is the same thing – poop from people.  This valuable material along with pee can keep land more productive than current uses of chemicals, as the land maintains a healthy community of micro-organisms important in maintaining maximum nutrient levels.

In New York before the turn of the 20th century, pigs roamed wild through the streets, eating whatever was thrown out the window’s or door’s of home’s.  Some of the daily waste was taken off shore to be processed and returned. What could be composted was, bones were cooked until only ash remained, some of that was put back on the land, along with the wood ash collected from the many fires.

Information I was able to find showed that in China Nightsoil was used up until around the 1960s, keeping many of their farms productive for over two-thousand years.  This practice fell out of favour in a move to modernise. If China were to go back to its roots of using Nightsoil and Policulture in their farming practices they would find that the land would yield much more than it currently does. It would also go a long way to improving the health of the land while reducing erosion, a world-wide problem.

These two methods have become part of permaculture which, if applied to a specific region or area, the Chinese could see an improvement and volume in their production. For example, a typical permaculture food forest of an acre can feed a family of 4 people, while requiring less work once established than traditional land that is ploughed each year.  By not farming in a mono-culture manner, permaculture may reduce the production of a single crop, but overall it actually increases the output of the land by yielding many crops at the same time with less input.

China can only feed itself if it rethinks its direction and what it is doing. It will need to once again apply traditional practices abandoned not too long ago. To feed itself, China needs to go backwards to go forward.

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Tony Simon

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