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China’s rural future: regenerating farming and the economy
December 20, 2015

[by Jason Nardi, Solidarius / RIPESS Europe]

Something extraordinary has been taking place in China in the last 10-15 years, a sort of new cultural revolution, not led by the central government but by a new generation of young (and less young) peasants and scholars. Collaborative and cooperative small-scale Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and hybrid forms of collective vegetable gardens for “weekend farmers” and urban Farmers’ Markets are at the basis of this movement, which is sprouting rapidly and looks very promising.

In mid November 2015, the 7th Chinese national CSA conference took place together with the 6th Urgenci International Symposium, in the Shunyi district, in the periphery of Beijing, proposed as a ‘Slow Living’ region of China. Under the banner of “New Rural Regeneration”, the focus was on re-connecting rural and urban dwellers, short supply chains, “fair trade” and the “CSA‘s potential in mitigating both climate issues and food insecurity”.

The new Rural Regeneration is attracting young, highly qualified urban dwellers back to the land, bringing new energy and inspiration to rural areas that have been abandoned and depressed. The new farmers are inspired by the ecological and social innovation of this movement that combines producing healthy, organic food with a real economic alternative to the dominant agro-chemical industrial system. As explained by the organisers, “Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a movement that has taken hold independently in many countries around the world and shows how consumers and farmers in various places are responding to the same global pressures. CSA offers one of the most hopeful alternatives to the downward spiral, and is the only model of farming in which consumers accept to share the risks and benefits with farmers. It provides mutual benefits and reconnects people to the land where their food is grown”.

In the last 5 years, more than 800 CSA initiatives have sprung to life around China, thanks to the work of a growing network of young, new farmers. The International Conference was organised by Dr. Shi Yan, a founder of the CSAs movement in China and vice-President of URGENCI network, and her team from the “Shared Harvest” CSA farms, in conjunction with the Tsinghua University and the support of the municipal government of Shunyi District. Some 66 foreign guests from 28 different countries participated, as well as more than 600 Chinese, mostly young attendees. URGENCI is the international network of these CSA movements (which have different names in different regions), seeking to unite the farmers and consumers whose actions on a local level are benefiting the global community and ecosystems. The network also introduces the principles of the CSA model to communities where it has not yet taken hold, and builds alliances with grassroots partners with whom we share the ambition of achieving local Food Sovereignty, preserving biodiversity and working towards food justice. Urgenci held its General Assembly on Sunday 22 November, with a live and vibrant participation, a growing young network with 36 different countries represented at the GA.

While in most of the world the trend has been that of a hyper concentration of food production in extensive lands – often obtained through land-grabbing practices which force small-scale family farmers to sell out their land to mega-corporations, and a parallel process in China, where the farming population has been decreasing and growing old as the cities have attracted more and more people and drained their villages, under the pressure of government policies concentrated on urban development and agro-chemical food production, there is a simultaneous new generation of small-holders, pooling their land in cooperative structures, and developing technical and social skills with the support of conscious consumers and bringing new life to the economically depressed countryside. China has joined this global movement contributing to new food systems, with and estimate of over 350,000 conscious consumer families in more than a dozen cities across the country.

In the periphery of Beijing – a megacity with a population of over 21 million people – there are entire villages that specialise in a form of agro-tourism, which links producers and consumers and domestic tourists in novel ways. Not only do they offer the possibility of cultivating and harvesting your own food, but you can also bring your children who can have a direct experience– through organised activities – of how the food is naturally grown as well as local folk culture; you can eat at the farm restaurant, and stay at local homes, hosted by the villagers.

Before the CSA conference, there was the opportunity to visit some of these farms, talk to the people there and learn from them how they are building this new hybrid form of peri-urban rural communities. The most well-known is the “Little Donkey” farm, created in 2008, now probably the biggest CSA with 60 employees and over 500 household members, in the village of Ho-Shan-Jian. Beijing residents can do weekend farming in a grow-it-yourself spirit, assisted by the Little Donkey people, linking new ecological techniques (like the ‘natural farming’ principles of the South Korean farmer Han Kyu). Little Donkey has 2 different memberships: the working share (which can be a self-managed 30 square meters vegetable plot, co-managed by the farm or a group/multi-household one of 60 sq.m – all are provided with material inputs such as seeds and organic fertilizers, tools and technical assistance to grow their own vegetables) and the regular share, where members receive a weekly supply of seasonal products that they can either pick up from the farm or have delivered to their door.

Most payments are made online and, as we learned at the Conference, new apps are being developed such as “Real Farm”, which connects CSA producers and consumers directly and allows to order online as well. Little Donkey has a restaurant, a shop (with food and other products) and is used as a training- and research centre, as well as a place for community and convivial activities such as the Chinese thanksgiving.

Other farms we visited were quite different: the Phoenix cooperative is a biodynamic 13 acres eco-village, with a vegetarian restaurant, guest rooms, classrooms and a school, based on a mix of Confucius and Rudolf Steiner’s’ teachings; the Green Prosperity farm is a government subsidised cooperative with 335 members that makes use of new technologies (like “organic” fiber dust) to grow crops ecologically in greenhouses, claiming to be more productive and cost effective (but still at an experimental level). And finally “Shared Harvest”, managed by Shi Yan and her husband, the hub for the CSA movement in China. It now employs 25 new farmers mostly graduates of the agricultural faculty of Renmin university. The farm activities provides food and activities for 500 families, four groups of parents from local schools, and organic clubs and restaurants in Beijing. Painted on the front wall of the main building is a phrase that says it all: “Who is your farmer? Where does your food come from?”

The International Conference itself was a really rich and useful networking event, alternating plenary and more theoretical sessions with workshops on many practical issues. The program revolved around the following issues: (Day 1) Earth care, regenerating the soils; (Day 2) People care, regenerating farming: a new generation of peasants; (Day 3) Fair Share, regenerating the economy. This last part, in particular, was developed around Urgenci’s alliances where Solidarity Economy and RIPESS had a strategic space. “As social movements”, Urgenci affirms, “we work together, and support one another to change the system and build alternatives. The two pillars of Urgenci are Food Sovereignty and Solidarity Economy. These are joined through Agroecology. Our key allies, Via Campesina, and RIPESS are the main global networks that represent these two pillars and our joint work in building alternative food systems, connecting farmers to markets and supportive policy at national and global level”.

CSAs are at the heart of Solidarity Economy. In fact, in many countries the solidarity economy networks are mostly based on relocalising the food supply chain. This can be in the form of extended local (farmers’) markets, social markets, Solidarity Economy districts, which link different forms of consumption, production and services exchanged among all those who believe we can change the economy so that it serves our communities and the well living of all – instead of the profit for the few. We are also trying to involve our local authorities and some more traditional businesses, because we believe in cross-fertilisation and that it’s in everyone’s interest to have a more resilient and reproductive society.

So how can the CSA movements and Solidarity Economy networks work better together?

As one of the Chinese panelists put it, “without seeds, there is no biodiversity; without biodiversity there is no agroecology; without agroecology there is no food sovereignty”.

So first of all, we need to make the very close link to agroecology and food sovereignty more explicit, as a fundamental part of the building of a solidarity economy. We also need to defend and jointly uphold the small scale farmers’ rights and claims – especially when public policies are designed for large scale agro-industry and land-owners, building on the alliance between organised consumers and organised producers and that by-passes the conventional market and re-creates local sustainable supply chains, strengthening the local community and weakening the dependence from large monopolistic economic powers.

This form of alliance enables participatory and democratic processes that have to do with fundamental aspects of our everyday lives, starting with food production and consumption: the PGS’ – Participatory Guarantee Systems (which the Chinese are very keen on adopting) are a good example, as well as the Food Policy Councils and similar initiatives at a more institutional level, as they allow us to involve an increasing number of citizens and raise awareness of what they are eating, who produces it and how. Just like the writing in front of the Shared Harvest farm: “Who is your farmer?”

Exchange visits and training, as well as research and education are other two aspects that can be part of joint efforts between CSAs and solidarity economy networks. We can also share more tools, such as solidarity finance, mapping (methods, tools, information exchange, standards) and collective processes such as the “Panorama of the SSE” and increase the advocacy with intergovernmental institutions: the UN Task Force on Social Solidarity Economy, and the RIPESS contributions to the debate on the post- 2015 Development Agenda. Urgenci has for several years also been actively involved in building the bridge between food sovereignty and solidarity economy in the UN Committee on Food Security, through the Civil Society Mechanism. As Judith Hitchman, the newly elected president of Urgenci, who represents Urgenci in RIPESS – and is a key person in the work at the UN –confirms, although all these efforts to dialogue and advocate in international inter-governmental institutions might seem distant and remote from our everyday lives, little by little they are is a perceptible change in positions and social movements are gaining ground and winning more consensus.

The challenges at global level have also changed: with the consolidation of a systemic crisis of the hegemonic civilization model, more and more minds and hearts are looking for alternatives that could produce new social and economic models and practices. And while we are “building by doing” a better world, we also have to fight together opposing those policies that are dangerous and destructive, such as the trade agreements that give yet more power to multinational and financial corporations, land and water grabbing (and privatisation of the Commons, instead of their promotion and protection), as well as breaking with fossil fuel dependance.

With China in the picture – and Chinese people and the government are seriously concerned about food safety, pollution, as well as becoming more conscious consumers – and the growth of the CSA and rural regeneration movements, the perspective is more optimistic. Now it’s up to all of us to spread the word.

This post is also available in / aussi en: French

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