I have been asked periodically why we, the sixteen students and three program leaders traveling around the world together as a gap year program, study what we do in the specific countries we find ourselves. In this blog, I attempt to make it clear why we are studying sustainable agriculture in China, of all places, and give a bit of insight into some of the discussions we are having.
The Yellow River is the second longest river in Asia and the sixth longest in the world. It is considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization. The fertile water’s periodic flooding of the river valleys created all the right conditions for agriculture. It is said that agriculture is what gave ancient peoples the leisure time to focus on other aspects of life like developing creation stories, art, dance, etc.; the stuff we might call culture. Like most ancient civilizations, the Chinese culture was formed around agriculture, and thus food has played a central role in the lives of these people since its inception, arguably more than younger civilizations.
However the above point may be argued historically, one thing is for certain: the proof is in the pudding. The evidence of the role that food has on Chinese culture abounds in many aspects of Chinese society. A prime example of this is in greeting people. When walking down the street, the typical greeting is not “Hi,” or “How are you,” but “Chī fàn?” (Have you eaten?). This is not an empty offer either: walk into any stranger’s home and they immediately push food on you, whether it be some fruit or a bowl of rice and veggies.
Another example is found in the written Chinese language. The above Chinese character is pronounced: kǒu, which means mouth, a classifier for things with mouths (people, domestic animals, cannons, wells, etc), and a classifier for bites or mouthfuls. This character is omnipresent in China. You see it over entrances (入口 ), and exits (出口 ), and in combination with many other characters to form words that stand for incisions, openings, windows, import, export, and the list goes on and on.
One theory about Chinese written language is that many of the modern characters used today come from characters that were originally pictographs: the shapes of these characters resemble stylized drawings of the objects they represent. So it’s easy to see how the character for ‘kǒu,’ one of the more simple characters I’ve come across, literally looks like an opening. When placed in the context of Chinese culture, a food culture, one begins to realize why so many words incorporate the character for mouth.
Recently, the guiding question of one of the seminars that I was facilitating for the students was: “Can sustainable agriculture feed the world?” In the framework of a dating game that matched up eligible consumers with three prowling producers, we discussed various methods of agriculture (industrial, small-holder, organic) and their ability to feed a growing world population. Without getting into the nitty-gritty too much, the discussion necessarily drifted towards trying to define sustainability, as we’ve tried to do so many times before. The inevitable question was eventually posed: Is any system of agriculture really sustainable if it can’t feed the world’s population?
As with most of our seminars, we left pondering new questions. As I continue to reflect on this question of sustainability feeding an exponentially booming population, I can’t help but think of the Chinese characters for population: 人口, rén kǒu, or literally: person mouth. It makes sense that a civilization, whose very formation of the word population ties people to their fundamental need to eat, and within whose borders contains the world’s largest percentage of mouths to feed, would place a great cultural emphasis on food, and thus agriculture.
And yet in the past twenty years, the percentage of the population working in agriculture has shrunk from 50% to less than 25%. The trend of urbanization and industrialization of agriculture that continues will only serve to decrease this number drastically. Here in the small village of Xibian, you can barely find anyone (no exaggeration) of average, strong working age (15-40?), and this is the same for most rural farming villages: there is a drain of young, able bodies. As China pushes for continued industrialization and modernization to keep up its rapid economic growth, most young are found in cities, in schools, learning how to become anything other than farmers. Fast food is becoming more popular. Obesity, in a largely very fit nation, is starting to become an issue. Waterways are filled with the run-off from industrial farms. The air in most cities is so polluted, face and nose masks have not only become a necessity, they have turned into a new fashion niche.
One article we read about the technology of sustainable agriculture came from a textbook on agroecology. It mentioned that one way of measuring sustainability, which necessitates looking at production over time, is to compare current systems to those systems that have been in place for a long time, and continue to produce high rates of yield. By this definition, it should be obvious to see that industrial agriculture, which pollutes the local and regional environment, reduces the fertility of the soil, and thus relies on inputs derived from fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource, is not sustainable.
So where does that leave China, one of the first human ‘civilizations;’ a nation of people with a 7000 year-old tradition of farming? What happens to a nation whose roots are so firmly planted in the soil, whose culture so fully embraces food and the communal act of eating, when there is no longer anyone to farm? And why would a country with such a rich and sustaining tradition of agriculture, a tradition that has been shown to work, be compelled to change its ways? The answer must be, in part, that it is trying to adapt its agricultural system to a growing population.
And so I find myself in a never-ending cycle of questions, trying to balance the demands of population, culture, and the limitations of our natural environment. I am reminded of the words of John E. Ikerd, a professor from the University of Missouri, who writes on “Sustaining the Profitability of Agriculture”.
Sustainable systems must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. All three are necessary and no one or two of the three is sufficient. A system that lacks ecological soundness cannot sustain its productivity over time, no matter how profitable or socially supportive it may seem in the short run. A system that is not economically viable will not be employed, no matter how ecologically sound or socially responsible it may seem. And a system that is not deemed to be socially responsible will be discarded or destroyed by the society it must support, no matter how profitable or environmentally friendly it might otherwise seem to be.
These are the standards of success. The sustainability game is like old-fashioned pinball. The only thing we win is the privilege of playing another round. We can judge how well we are playing the game, but success is a process rather than an outcome – a direction rather than a destination.
And so we walk into the future, bouncing between issues of population growth, profit, and ecology. I am inspired by the perseverance of my students, who look for answers but find only more questions. One can only hope that these questions bounce us continually further in the direction of success, and lead us in some direction capable of handling the necessities of our human civilization.