Chinese farmers plant seed for a chemical-free future

Chinese farmer picks apple
Caption: Dang Jiuru smiles as he collects an apple from his orchard in Luochuan County, Shaanxi Province. With training and support from UNDP, he has increased his income by 12 percent. Each apple he sells is a step toward his grandson’s education. (Photo: Luo Yi /UNDP China)

By Adam Pitt, third-place winner of UNDP's second annual storytelling contest

Seventy-year-old Dang Jiuru dreamed of sending his grandson to university, but until recently his lifelong ambition seemed destined to remain unfulfilled. His apple orchard in Luochuan County, Shaanxi Province, simply did not make enough money. But just two years since he took the bold step of abandoning toxic DDT-based pesticides, his grandson’s university fund is now growing almost as fast as his apples.

Highlights

  • 100,000 farmers in three provinces are being trained each year to adapt their farming techniques to international conventions and trading standards
  • Production has reached 700,000 tonnes of apples per year in Luochuan
  • DDT emissions cut by 180 metric tonnes and DDT waste release cut by 350 metric tonnes by production plants in three provinces

Average altitudes of 1,100 metres and deep mineral-rich soil make conditions along this part of China’s Loess Plateau perfect for growing nutritious fruit. Like most farmers he knew, however, Dang felt he had to rely on chemicals to protect his fruit from the leaf mites that thrive in the region’s semi-arid monsoon climate.

“If you had asked me to stop using chemicals a few years ago, I would have just smiled and carried on spraying my trees,” explains Dang. “I thought I couldn’t afford to stop using pesticides and that they were the only way to safeguard my income but it turns out they were actually limiting it.”

With the ability to destroy entire mite colonies, DDT pesticides offered farmers a cheap, effective and quick solution to the problem. What Dang didn’t know was that those same pesticides he thought were protecting his family’s income were the very reason his apples had never sold for more than 2 yuan (US $0.30) per kilogramme.

International treaties like the Stockholm Convention that aim to control the use of DDT, and strict health and safety standards in other countries, meant more profitable overseas markets were not an option for Dang as long as he continued using DDT pesticides.

Training in farming techniques

Now, with the establishment of three demonstration projects and regular training provided by local and international experts, Dang is one of 100,000 farmers in three provinces being trained each year to adapt their farming techniques to international conventions and trading standards. This joint four-year project was initiated by UNDP and China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. With US $6 million funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the project is also helping farmers to remove their dependence on so-called ‘persistent 
organic pollutants’ altogether. These pollutants include DDT and have been linked to serious health complications in people who come into contact with them.

For the more technical new pest management techniques, UNDP project experts provide scientific and biological guidance on implementation. And despite the larger investment in time and management that is required, interest has spread quickly and many farmers have already graduated and become trainers themselves.

Monitoring progress

Farmers have recorded the effectiveness of their new cultivation methods in personal logbooks, allowing communities to monitor the quality of their produce and take measures to avoid problems before they emerge. These efforts have been further enhanced by pest monitoring and forecasting centres, and a pesticide residue testing station set up under the project has provided regular guidance in compliance with international agricultural production standards.

Thanks to the reduced use of DDT on most of Luochuan’s 300 square kilometres of apple orchards, as well as the farmers’ newly-minted skills, annual apple production has reached 700,000 tonnes—equivalent to an average of 3.5 tonnes for each of the 200,000 people living in the county. Better quality apples now sell for 6 yuan (US $0.90) per kilogramme.

Dang, now a trainer himself, is busy making preparations to join the growing number of farmers selling their apples to markets in Europe. And with a good harvest, offering his family the chance to earn 12 percent more per hectare than last year and invest in his grandson’s education, who could blame him? One thing he is sure about is he won’t be going back to chemicals anytime soon.

ADAM PITT is a Communications Assistant in UNDP China.

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