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Cultivating perspectives on ancient agriculture

By Jin Zhu | China Daily | Updated: 2012-02-22 10:25

BEIJING - Traditional agriculture researcher Min Qingwen believes every age-old farming convention has value.

The 49-year-old's views fly in the face of contemporary piety, which hails large-scale high-tech farming as the savior of a growing global population.

While Min's views might be unorthodox, he's no fringe crackpot. Rather, he is deputy director of Center for Natural and Cultural Heritage, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The country's grain output has remained higher than 500 million tons annually since 2007, National Bureau of Statistics figures show. It grew by 4.5 percent to reach 571 million tons last year.

Nearly 60 percent of the grain came from Northeast China, where favorable climate and industrialized agriculture produce high yields.

"Many agricultural experts believe modernized farming, which relies heavily on chemicals and large-scale mechanization, is the only way to feed the growing population," Min says.

"They believe traditional farming, which has sustained itself for millennia, is completely outdated and will be replaced. But many of traditional agriculture's essentials have yet to be discovered. They are actually precious legacies handed down over the generations to ensure food safety."

Min's outlook was given a boost in 2002, when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) initiated the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) program to rescue traditional farming practices that survive in millions of poor rural communities worldwide.

Experts say traditional farming is at risk of disappearing in the face of rural migration and rapid urbanization.

Min and his research team have worked with the FAO to find traditional farming methods and locations in China that are in urgent need of protection. A symbiotic rice-fish aquaculture system that dates back more than 1,000 years in Zhejiang province's Qingtian county was given protection in 2005.

It was listed among the FAO's first five global protection programs. The other four are in Peru, Chile, the Philippines and Algeria/Tunisia.

Few had heard about the protection project at the beginning of the year, when FAO launched its China operations, Min says.

"(The rice-fish system) has lasted for generations, and I really can't imagine that such farming methods could become a global legacy in agronomists' eyes," he says, paraphrasing a Qingtian county official's words.

"A lack of awareness of traditional farming's importance means its precious legacy will be lost unless local governments take effective preservation measures," Min says.

"Since most programs are in remote areas untouched by modern agriculture, they will safeguard traditional farming and biodiversity, which are essential to humankind's survival, especially in the face of climate change."

Yunnan province's Hani Rice Terraces, which the FAO listed in 2010, have continued high grain output during the drought that has parched Southwest China in recent years. The terraces' output actually increased by 1-2 percent during the 2010 drought, the local statistics bureau reports.

As the FAO says in its statement: "The Hani people utilize and manage water resources in a unique, simple, economical and efficient manner. Also, remarkable land use systems and landscapes, which are rich in biological diversity, inspired the world's future sustainable development."

FAO's project director Dai Weidong says: "China now is a leading country in the protection of traditional farming, such as public awareness and effective local protection measures, which could be used as reference for other countries," he says.

China is expected to have 10 GIAHS programs by 2013, Min says.

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