Food and Agriculture in China (Part II)

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Food and Agriculture in China (Part II)

by Michael Hansen & Stephen Risch

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 4, July/August 1979, p. 33–38

The following is the concluding half of a two-part article. The first part appeared in the previous issue of SftP, May/June 1979 issue. 

Pest Control in China and the U.S. 

Yet another aspect of the production process which distinguishes U.S. agriculture from Chinese agriculture is their relatively greater emphasis on cultural and biological methods of insect control as opposed to chemical control. In practice, this emphasis involves a two-stage approach to the problem. First, insect populations must be carefully monitored so as to know precisely at what stage a control agent should be used. In each production team, individuals are assigned the task of conducting censuses of eggs, larvae, and /or adults of certain pests at particular stages of crop development. These are made by either directly counting the insects on the plants or by daily monitoring the number of adult insects caught in various kinds of traps placed in the field. An especially common insect trap for this purpose is a black light which attracts certain night flying pests to a water-filled basin (indeed, our nighttime train rides through the Chinese countryside were punctuated every few miles by such a “black light display”). 

The value of such locally obtained information is not only in predicting exactly when a particular control agent should be applied. In addition, these data are organized by technicians at more central levels who then use them to develop long-term predictive models of insect abundance and uncover the underlying causes of the insects’ abundance and distribution. Such systematic insect counts over time and space are relatively uncommon even in developed countries and their availability in China results directly from the organized nature of the local agro-science infrastructure. 

Once it is determined that some control agent is needed, local personnel decide exactly what it will be. The methods of biological and cultural control employed in China are essentially the same as employed in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world. What is different, however, is the extent of the usage of these methods – the degree to which biological and cultural techniques are chosen instead of chemicals. We noted (as did the National Academy of Sciences Insect Study Group) that the use and understanding of non-chemical methods of insect control are extremely widespread throughout China, and that whenever there appears to be a choice between a chemical or non-chemical means of control, the non-chemical means are chosen. By 1977, methods of biological control were employed on more than 6.6 million hectares (more than 70% of the land under permanent cultivation for crops) and this was to increase in 1978 and 1979.1

All the brigades we talked with were trying to decrease their use of pesticide even further. We observed many examples of such efforts – a typical situation occurred at the Xia-ding-jia Brigade, located in Huan county of Shangdong Province. In 1976 they started using a parasitic wasp, Trichogramma, to control pests on fruit trees. These tiny wasps lay their eggs inside the eggs of pest insects; when the wasp larvae hatch, they consume the pest egg and thus act as a control agent. In China, large populations of these wasps are raised in the brigades by using the eggs of giant silkworms. When it is desired to use the wasps against a particular pest insect in the field, a large number of silkworm eggs (each one containing approximately 40 wasp larvae) are taken to the field and placed on the crops. When the wasp larvae hatch, they search out the eggs of pest insects and destroy them. 

When we visited the brigade, they were using this method of biological control on 25% of the fruit trees. As a result, they have been able to reduce pesticide usage by 33% from the pre-1976 levels of 750 kg/yr to the 1978 level of 500 kg/yr. We were told that in three to five years they hope to be able to use the parasitic wasps on 100% of the fruit trees. The principle obstacle in reaching this goal is obtaining a sufficient quantity of silkworm eggs. Research is being conducted at the Peking Institute of Zoology and the Canton Institute of Entomology to develop artificial eggs which can be used in place of silkworm eggs pointedly illustrating the continued link-up between peasants’ needs and high level scientific research in post-Mao China. 

The multi-faceted Chinese approach to pest control should be sharply contrasted to that of the U.S. which relies almost exclusively on a chemical control strategy, as has been well documented by Robert van den Bosch in The Pesticide Conspiracy. Whereas China appears to be reducing pesticide usage wherever possible, the U.S. is increasing usage at a tremendous rate. In 1966, for example, 33% of the U.S. corn acreage was treated with pesticide, an increase of 50% from 1964.2 In fact, the doubling time for volume pesticide used has been estimated to be 8 years.3 In spite of this heavy pesticide use, the insect problem appears to be getting worse. Thirty years ago annual usage of pesticide was 50 million pounds; in 1976 the figure was twelve times as high, at 600 million pounds. Yet, in the same time period the percent of preharvest crops destroyed by insects has increased from 7% to 13%.4

A good case can be made for the assertion that heavy pesticide usage has aggravated, if not caused, most of the present day insect problems in the United States. Reliance on pesticides as a major means of pest control is a vicious cycle which leads to ever-increasing use and dependence on them. There are two major factors causing this cycle. The first is the fact that pesticides are often more potent at killing the natural enemies of pests than the pests themselves. Thus, a resurgence of pests to higher numbers than pre-spraying levels often follows an application of pesticide. Outbreaks of the European red mite, Pononychus ulmi, in Canadian orchards have resulted from the use of DDT which destroys the mite’s natural enemies. In the year following DDT application red mite densities were higher while densities of all predators were lower than the previous year.5 The same phenomena has been found true for a wide range of pesticides (including DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, carbaryl, parathion, and azodrin) and for many other pests on such crops as citrus, oranges, avocadoes, apples, olive, cotton, grapes, lettuce, and strawberries.6 It is also a frequent occurrence that pests which previously were of secondary or minor importance have become major pests as a result of pesticide use intended to destroy the major pest. Cotton is perhaps the best of the many possible examples. The tobacco hornworm, which in 1977 destroyed half the U.S. cotton crop, or $50 million worth, only became a problem after pesticides were used to kill the primary pests which were pink bollworm and boll weevil.7

The second factor is the rapidity and ease with which some pests evolve resistance to pesticides. This has been well documented for a large number of insect pests.8 As a result of these two factors pests become more of a problem, thus requiring the use of even more pesticides which further aggravates the situation, and so the cycle continues. Heavy usage of pesticides can be likened to a kind of phenological addiction to drugs – one needs to take larger and larger doses to obtain the same effect. 

In addition to the problems inherent with pesticide use, we must remember that they are sold by large chemical companies such as Dupont, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, American Cyanamid, and Velsicol (makers of PBB and kepone)9 whose primary goal is to make a profit. A top executive of Chevron has stated that unless his company achieved a certain annual expansion rate of its markets and profits, its parent company, Standard Oil of California, would divert its capital from pesticide manufacture to other areas of chemical production.10 As a result of the pesticide market being so large and competitive (there are 1,400 different types of pesticides and 30,000 formulations), chemicals such as DDT that are inexpensive and kill a wide range of insects and other living animals are preferentially developed and sold by chemical companies over the selective insecticides, which are usually more expensive but kill only a few different pest species, because the companies are trying to gain a larger share of the market and, hence, more profits. 

The profit incentive also induces producers and canneries to force heavy pesticide usage on farmers they buy from. Larger companies that sell produce and processed food compete mainly through advertising to create a differentiated product, as previously mentioned. Products are differentiated primarily on the basis of superficial appearances and thus the companies have created in consumers an obsession for cosmetically undamaged produce. In order to maintain their standards of quality, producers and canneries often require farmers to spray on a set schedule or risk losing their contracts. It should be remembered that over 50% of the food grown in the U.S. is done via contracts. Even independent farmers aren’t free from heavy pressures to use pesticides. A study done by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on agricultural pest-control decision-making showed that chemical company salesmen and media advertisements collectively determine whether a grower decides to use pesticides and which one they choose to use.11

In addition, growers may be pressured into using pesticides in order to insure that their crops will be bought. The orange industry in California is a good example of this type of corporate strategy. If the demand for oranges is high, virtually all oranges will be bought, regardless of amount of insect damage. But as soon as the fresh market becomes saturated, buyers will either start refusing to buy them or will buy them at much lower prices for the juice and by-product market, ostensively because of “insect damage”; what they really are doing is cutting down the supply so as to keep their prices up. Growers, on the other hand, never know when the market will be flooded – so they use pesticides regularly in hopes that they can keep their crops clean enough so the buyers won’t refuse them. 

Not only do chemical companies influence the decisions made by farmers, they also heavily influence the research done on pesticides as well as the laws regulating them. Research that would result in a large decrease of sales of a product will often be censored or suppressed, especially if done through the U.S.D.A (United States Department of Agriculture). van den Bosch relates many stories of individual scientists whose research was suppressed as well as a few instances in which agrochemical companies, who are often huge contributors to agricultural schools, have threatened to remove research funds given to particular universities. He even relates a story of a State agriculture school that had been threatened with cuts in the budgets of the Entomology department as well as the entire University budget if a resolution was passed there condemning the eradication program against the fire ant which involved huge quantities of a pesticide, Mirex, and the expenditure of large amounts of money.12

Nor are laws concerning pesticides and their usage exempt from agribusiness influence. In 1970, a bill was proposed in California that would require licensing of pest-control advisers (people that give advice on pest control measures to farmers), 2) prohibit persons affiliated with chemical companies (e.g. salesmen) from recommending the use of any dangerous chemical, and 3) would also establish a State pest-control advisory committee which chemical company employees would not be allowed to serve on. The bill that finally was passed bore little resemblance to the original one. Salesmen were included without restriction among licensees and the makeup of the Pest Control Advisory Committee included a representative of the pesticide industry, a licensed pest-control operator (such as a crop duster), and a licensed agricultural pest-control advisor (most likely a pesticide salesman, since of the 1850 licensed advisors over 1400 are salesmen).13

1975 saw the passage of bill HR 8841 which amended FIFRA (Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act) giving the Secretary of Agriculture (often a friend of agribusiness) a veto power over the Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide regulations and cancellation decisions. The bill also allows “private applicators” to certify themselves to be competent in the use of very dangerous kinds of pesticides. Since the majority of private applicators are farmers whose spraying decisions are dominated by chemical company ads or pesticide salesmen, this law opens up a huge market for exploitation by the chemical companies who can now push more dangerous insecticides on the farmers through a media blitz. 

Despite the heavy reliance on pesticides, there have been a number of extremely successful instances of integrated control with the pest being controlled via a number of factors including natural enemies, cultural controls, as well as limited and more rational use of pesticides.14 Even though numerous studies have shown that integrated control is economically cheaper and more effective than chemical control,15 its use is still not widespread. Why? Because the huge chemical companies, through their manipulation of farmers, censorship and repression of anti-pesticide research, and  manipulation of laws to their benefit, want to preserve the pesticide status-quo and insure that there will be a large market of their profitable pesticides. Thus, we can see how the profit motive, the driving force of capitalism, has contributed significantly to the problem of insect control in the U.S. 

Food Distribution 

Food distribution is yet a third way in which the food system in China contrasts with that of the United States. Differences in food distribution exist between rural and urban areas in China and will be discussed separately. The two main foods in the Chinese diet are grains and vegetables, so the following discussion will concentrate on these items. 

Grains are one of the staple items in China that is rationed. Generally, peasants are alloted larger grain rations than urban workers because they perform more physical labor. In rural China rations are first determined on a production team level, the size being worked out via negotiations with the county and State and being based on the number of people in the team as well as the amount that the team produces. 

Determination and distribution of individual rations is handled solely by the production team. The usual procedure is for a team to develop a list stating the maximum amount of food grain alloted to each person, taking into account their age, sex, and level of physical activity. Each person will then automatically receive a certain percentage of the maximum (usually 50-80%), which is determined by the production team. They receive this percentage, which is usually enough to meet their basic physiological needs, regardless of what they do. Thus, even if a person participates very little in collective labor, they still will not starve. The rest of the ration is then distributed in proportion to the amount of time spent in collective labor (i.e. work on the team’s land). 

Distribution of grain rations usually occurs right after harvest. The peasant goes to the grain store in his/her area to pick up their ration, either in the form of grain or in a processed form such as flour or noodles. In most places an entire year’s ration will be handed out at one time and a family will store the grain in special huts. In urban areas, grain is rationed in monthly allotments the size of which is determined by their requirements and overall availability of food. The grain is obtained through the use of ration books. 

In contrast to the basic grains, vegetables are rarely rationed. In rural areas the majority of vegetable production occurs on private plots16 which are owned by households. Private plots are the rule in China except in brigades such as Xia-ding-jia or Da-zhai which have done away with them because they believe that the land could be more efficiently farmed and irrigated in a collective manner. The size of the private plot varies a great deal depending on how much land the brigade has, with between 5-7% of the communal land being set aside for private plots with a given amount of land being allocated per person.17 Vegetables such as corn, eggplant, squash, tomatoes, and beans were the most common crops in the private plots we saw. In contrast, urban dwellers purchase vegetables along with meat, fish and poultry at a market. We visited urban markets in three cities but we will primarily discuss the one we visited in Shanghai as it was quite representative of the markets observed. 

Virtually all the produce in an urban food market comes from within the city or surrounding suburbs and counties. The amount of urban agriculture was extremely surprising; vegetables were grown on almost all available land from vacant lots, small plots around factories or museum grounds, even along the runway of an airport. The reason that so much of the land within cities is put into production is because the Chinese believe that their cities should be as self-sufficient as possible, so as not to act as a drain on the resources in the surrounding countryside. Shanghai, the second largest city in the world with a population of ten million, grows 80% of its food within the city and the surrounding suburbs. Compare this to a city such as New York or Chicago which imports large quantities of food from as far away as California or Mexico. 

Vegetables and grain produced on communes near large urban areas will be sold to the State rather than directly to a market. In addition, in large cities such as Shanghai, communes deliver produce to State owned food stations such as the Shanghai Food Co. (pork and chicken) or Shanghai Vegetable stations. The market then buys directly from the state stations. In Soochow, a small city outside of Shanghai, brigades often deliver produce directly to the market. No money changes hands as the brigades are remunerated by the State rather than the market. 

Although some produce is brought to the market by trucks, the majority is transported on carts and in baskets on the back of bicycles. We arrived in Shanghai around nine o’clock at night and saw many people riding bicycles either pulling or carrying baskets of cabbages, onions, potatoes, or green peppers. Walking around the city that evening we noticed that for a few blocks around the market many bicycles were parked at the side of the street and were unattended, the baskets neatly stacked with cabbages. There obviously was little problem with theft as one could tell by their symmetrical arrangements that none of the cabbages had been stolen. Perhaps theft isn’t necessary when you’re guaranteed enough food to eat. 

The market we visited in Shanghai opened at five a.m. and closed at midnight. It was a fairly large market, serving 28,000 households or about 120,000 people. It sells 50,000 kg. of vegetables, over 10,000 kg. of fish, and 5,000 kg. of pork each day and even more on holidays. We were told that fish, poultry, and meat are sold only in a collective fashion; individual selling is illegal, although we did see several women selling potatoes and one selling fish. People are allowed to sell produce from the private plots in the suburban markets but not in the urban ones. 

One of the first things that strikes one about the market is its cleanliness. One can find virtually no refuse and we saw no flies at all even on the hanging slabs of meat. This is the result of widespread public campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s to clean up garbage and other types of organic wastes which are the breeding ground of flies and also of a sparing use of pesticide. When we asked about cleaning we were told that each worker in the market was assigned an area which they must clean on a daily basis. 

There was an ample diversity of fresh vegetables for sale. We saw at least 15 different varieties and were told that about 100-150 different types become available throughout the course of a year. There was no rationing of vegetables and prices were relatively cheap. Bean products such as tofu or bean curd were the only plant products rationed. Poultry items – ducks, geese, and chicken – were readily available and moderately expensive. In this market eggs were rationed, people being allowed only two kilograms per month. There was a fresh selection of fish which was relatively inexpensive. Pork was rationed with each person alloted just over one kilogram per week. 

Besides selling food, the market provides its customers with a number of services. First, there is a special section for pregnant and lactating women which sells foods such as liver which are very high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. In addition, a pregnant woman is allowed to buy higher quantities of any rationed product. 

Another section in the market offers a wide variety of convenience foods for working couples who don’t have the time to prepare and cook a meal. The convenience foods are traditional dishes such as beef and green peppers or stuffed peppers, with the meat and vegetables pre-cut or the peppers already stuffed. One merely takes the dish home, puts it in the oven or wok and within half an hour you have a fully prepared nutritious meal. 

Chinese convenience foods bear little resemblance to their American counterparts – burgers and fries from McDonalds, chicken from Colonel Sanders and hot dogs from Dairy Queen, which are usually characterized by their high grease and caloric content and relatively low food value. Because convenience foods are the most profitable sector of the U.S. food industries, and since most competition in this sector is based on product differentiation (using advertising to make the buyer think that there is something special about the product, the result is a product with declining nutritional value (nutritional value is not one of the criteria used for product differentiation, but rather superficial appearance which is obtained via processing). Processing tends to remove nutritional value and there is no reason to replace or to add it, since it would just be an added cost of production. 


Many other visitors to China made observations similar to our own, but frequently they are accompanied by quite different interpretations.18 It is quite common when comparing the food and agriculture systems in China with that of the U.S. to ascribe the important differences one sees merely to the different levels of technological development (e.g. China has a large and relatively “cheap” labor force and so can afford the labor intensive techniques of organic fertilizer utilization and biological/cultural insect control). 

There are several ways to answer this critique. One is to directly point out that there are important aspects of the Chinese ideology per se, separate from the existence of the admittedly large labor force, that have facilitated the development of these differences. And now that China has speeded up the process of technological development, she is still apparently committed to these progressive forms of decision making, and agricultural production and distribution, despite the fact that her agricultural labor force will greatly diminish. A second way to look at the problem is by comparing China with other underdeveloped countries with large rural populations (Mexico, Brazil, Central America, Malaysia, India, Egypt, Zaire, etc.). It is well known that the agricultural development policies, decision making structure and techniques of production and distribution of these countries are profoundly different than those of China and in many important ways more closely resemble those of the U.S. It is not, then, the absolute stage of technological development that is most important in determining the agricultural policies of a government, but rather the ideology and social relations of production of a society. 

In this respect we have noted with some concern changes in the domestic policy of China during the last several years. In discussions with our hosts we were able to confirm such developments as: 

1) The re-institution of a series of key schools (including secondary schools, universities, and agro-technical colleges). Set up at the national, provincial, and county levels, these schools are endowed with better facilities and faculty than most schools and their function is to channel the “brightest” students into the best schools in the hopes of rapidly producing a large work force of better scientists and technicians. 

2) A system of nationally standardized exams was reinstituted in 1978. The results of these exams will be the most important criteria in deciding which students go to universities and which students go to key schools. Further, the old requirement of students spending one or two years in manual labor before pursuing advanced studies has been dropped. 

3) The government has decided to give special prerequisites such as higher wages and better living conditions to researchers. 

We are unsure of the ultimate effects of these policy changes on the food production and distribution system, but it seems to us that there is the potential for the re-emergence of a technical elite in China that could become somewhat divorced from the masses whom they are supposed to be serving. On the other hand, the recent institutionalization and proliferation of the four level agro-science network suggests a continued commitment to incorporate agricultural workers at all levels in important decisions about production and distribution. Our lengthy discussions with many Chinese scientists and technicians tend to reinforce our belief that this commitment is also felt among scientific workers throughout China. 

Yet the potential contradictions in the developing agro-science policy are real and merit close scrutiny from China’s friends during the coming years. Ignoring these contradictions and concentrating only on the obviously progressive aspects of China’s agricultural policy would be to miss the potential for learning important lessons concerning the development of a socialist society.

Mike Hansen, a graduate student in biology at Michigan, and Steve Risch, who teaches biology at Cornell, both do research on biological control of insects, and have been active in the Ann Arbor chapter of Science for the People.

>> Back to Vol. 11, No. 4<<


  1. Liang, Pao, (1978) “Plant protection in China,” China Features Today, P.O. Box 522, Peking.
  2. U.S.D.A. (1970) “Economic Consequences of Restricting the Use of Organochlorine Insecticides on Cotton, Corn, Peanuts, and Tobacco.” Econ. Res. Serv. Agr. Econ. Rept. 178. 51 pp.
  3. van den Bosch, R. (1978) The Pesticide Conspiracy, Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, NY. pp. 34-35.
  4. Pimentel, D., E.C. Terhune, W. Pitschilo, D. Gallanhan, N. Kinner, D. Nafus, R. Peterson, N. Zareh, J. Misiti, and 0. HaberSchung, (1977) “Pesticides, Insects in Food, and Cosmetic Standards,” Bioscience, 27: 178-85.
  5. Macphee, A.W., and C.R. Maclellan, (1971) Cases of Naturally Occuring Biological Control in Canada,” pp. 312-28. In C.B. Huffaker, ed. Biological Control, Plenum Press, N.Y.
  6. De Bach, P. ( 1974) Biological Control by Natural Enemies. Cambridge Univ. Press, London. And, van den Bosch, R. 1970. op. cit.
  7. van den Bosch, R. op. cit. p. 46.
  8. Geoghiou, G.P. (1972) “The Evolution of Resistance to Pesticides,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 3:133-68.
  9. van den Bosch, R. op. cit. p. 120.
  10. van den Bosch, R. op. cit. p. 149.
  11. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticide Programs – Office of Water and Hazardous Materials, (1974), Farmers’ Pesticide Use Decisions and Attitudes on Alternate Crop Protection Methods. EPA 540/1-24-002. July, 1974. 157 pp. and appendices.
  12. van den Bosch, R. op. cit. pp. 100-1.
  13. van den Bosch, R. op. cit. p. 95.
  14. See DeBach, op. cit., van den Bosch, op. cit. or Huffaker, C.B. and P.S. Messenger, ( 1978) Theory and Practice of Biological Control. Academic Press, N.Y. for examples.
  15. See Huffaker, C.B. (ed.) (1971) Biological Control. Plenum Press, N.Y. and, Hall, D.C., R.B. Norgard, and P.K. True, (1975) “The Performance of Independent Pest-Management Consultants in San Joaquin Cotton and Citrus,” Cal. Agriculture, 29(10): 12-14.
  16. Stavis, B. (1974) People’s Communes and Rural Development in China, Rural Development Committee, Center for International Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. 14853. p. 54.
  17. Kaplan, F., J. Sobin, and S. Andors (1979) Encyclopedia of China Today, Eurasic Press Inc., U.S.A. p. 151.
  18. See for example the following articles: Abelson. P.H. “Education, Science and Technology in China.” Carey, W.D. “The China Scene.” David J., E.E. “China: Objectives, Contradictions and Social Currents” (1979) Science, 203:505-515. All the authors were members of an AAAS sponsored delegation to China during Nov.-Dec., 1978.