Technology Drives Sustainable Agricultural Development in China

October 23, 2015

Smart Cards, Drones and High-Rise Pigpens Boost Sustainable Agricultural Development

Ji Yanyu used to spread several types of fertilizer on his rice paddy in China’s Guangdong Province.

He wasn’t unusual. In 2007, Guangdong farmers used 770 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare, which was twice the figure of Japan, five times the figure of Thailand and six times the figure of the United States.

Ji also sprayed lots of pesticides on the paddy covering less than half a hectare, even though the excess chemicals he applied drained into the groundwater or ended up as residue on the rice plants.

Today, Ji uses just one fertilizer and a fraction of the amount of pesticides as before. He harvested 450 kilograms of rice in 2014, compared to 350 kilograms the previous year.

“The new pesticides are much better than the old ones,” Ji said. “Same thing with fertilizer. I used three to four types of fertilizers before. Now I use only one. This formula is good, very effective.”

A $200-million project supported by the World Bank helps Ji and other Guangdong farmers benefit from new technologies that promote sustainable agriculture in several ways.

By reducing the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used, farmers no longer pollute local water systems or overwhelm their products with excess chemicals.

" The new pesticides are much better than the old ones. Same thing with fertilizer. I used three to four types of fertilizers before. Now I use only one. This formula is good, very effective. "

Ji Yanyu


The project also helps pig farmers transform animal waste into household energy fuel instead of polluting local water supplies.

China’s first national pollution source survey, released in 2010, showed agriculture – not industry – was the main cause of surface water pollution.

Guangdong experts estimated that about 30-40 percent of applied pesticides performed their intended functions, while the rest got released into the environment or ended up as residue on agricultural products, threatening food safety.

“It has become a serious problem,” said Cao Wendao, a World Bank senior rural development specialist and co-leader for the Guangdong Agricultural Pollution Control Project (GAPCP).

After trying various pilot projects, the GAPCP began in early 2014 to address pollution from both livestock and crop production on a large scale. It is the first of its kind between the World Bank and Guangdong.

“We hope positive results achieved through the project can help the province, and the rest of China, identify sustainable pathways for its agricultural sector,” said Jiang Ru, the senior environmental specialist at the World Bank and project co-leader.

The project provides subsidies and technical support to more than 100,000 households to enable them to adopt environmentally friendly crop production practices. To get the fertilizers formulated to meet growth needs and high efficiency, low toxicity and low residue pesticides, farmers use an integrated circuit card – also known as an IC or “smart” card.

“We wanted to do it in a targeted way. After intensive discussion with local officials and technicians, we came up with this idea of the IC card system,” Cao explained. “And it is very effective.”

Participating farmers receive an IC card that contains their name, the size of their land, the amounts of subsidized fertilizers and pesticides they can get and the corresponding subsidy level.

The farmers can purchase the goods only in competitively selected agricultural supply stores equipped with card readers, and they pay the subsidized prices directly to ensure the assistance gets used as intended.

According to the project management office, fertilizer application dropped by 24 percent for the spring rice and 12 percent for the autumn rice in 2014, while applied pesticide amounts for rice dropped by 27 percent. The spring rice yields grew six percent and autumn rice yields rose by 19 percent.

The project also promotes and finances the use of high-quality pesticide application equipment, such as better sprayers, as well as integrated pest management methods including the introduction of natural pest predators, pest lamps and insect glue boards.

In some locations, drones and other high-tech methods complement the professional pest management services.

Innovation also has brought benefits in livestock waste management.

Some new Guangdong farms have a two-level pig production facility, with the animals raised on the second floor and their waste discharged through a slatted floor to the first level. The waste gets composted directly for organic fertilizer. This innovation has
overcome the waste management challenges of traditional one-level farms in Guangdong that flush pig waste into open lagoons.

The project also supports construction of pig waste collection and treatment facilities on 300 farms across the province.

At Zhang Zhiqiang’s pig farm in Guangdong, the waste from his 4,000 hogs posed a pollution and olfactory threat – the terrible smell irritated Zhang and his neighbors.

Now the situation has improved, thanks to the modern waste collection and treatment facilities installed under the GAPCP. The treated water complies with environmental protection standards and biogas from treating the pig waste generates electricity on the farm, Zhang said.

“It is still under trial operation, but I am already very happy,” he added. “The bad smell is gone .”