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organic agriculture in china
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why china?

Today, agriculture is the biggest source of water pollution in China. The Ministry of Water Sources in China reported in 2016 that over 80% of the water from underground wells used by farms, factories and households across the heavily populated plains of China is unfit for drinking and bathing because of contamination from industry and farming.

China is home to more than 200 million small-scale farmers, whose conventional agricultural practices are responsible for the majority of national crop production, and whose continued overuse of fertilizer, pesticides and other harmful chemicals add to national concern around food safety, serious deterioration in soil quality (and thus decreased crop productivity) and decline in biodiversity.

A Community-based Approach Towards Organic Cotton Cultivation in China

the time is now

What if small-scale farming in China could flourish, while bypassing these harmful environmental effects? Farmers who use organic methods benefit from improved soil health, improved water quality and a climate-smart approach which improves the holistic ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem is also more resilient to drastic changes due to climate and other factors.

Our social marketing and community engagement techniques are developed precisely to tackle environmental issues that are the result of local community practices.

power in partnerships

To launch its first organic agriculture program, Rare has partnered with the C&A Foundation, which has extensive experience working with organic cotton farmers in India and is the largest organic cotton buyer in the world. Last year, Rare also partnered with the China Chamber of Commerce for Textiles to host a roundtable on the benefits of organic cotton. Moving forward, Rare will work with China’s local and national government agencies, alongside organic brands and buyers, in order to connect these key stakeholders to support each other and our efforts in boosting the practices of sustainable agriculture in China.

what’s working

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    campaigning for conservation participants

    Engaging the Community

    Last December, Rare hosted an intensive 10-day Campaigning for Conservation workshop in Wuhan, Hubei province with a dozen participants from four different provinces. In the workshop, participants learned the principles and concepts behind social marketing. They now have the tools to plan and execute a social marketing campaign to shift farmers' practices in their own communities toward becoming more sustainable

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    boy with puppet

    Engaging the Community

    One participant, Lu Feng, who works for Mecilla International, a sustainable food and clothing company headquartered in Hong Kong, said of the workshop: “I have been doing outreach activities for a long time in the villages, but I have never known social marketing theory and tools. Now that I have learned both the social marketing theory and also how to apply them, it’s very helpful for my work back at the site.”

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    organic cotton in china

    Origin of the program

    Rare’s sustainable agriculture program evolved from an organic farming pilot in China’s Tian-e-Zhou (TEZ) Oxbow Nature Reserve. On 100 acres of land, farmers planted corn, cotton and soybean, following organic farming methods. Through the project, more than 300 farmers were trained in organic cultivation and ultimately harvested 10,000 kg of cotton, 60,000 kg of soya and 27,500 kg of corn, all of which were certified as in-transition organic crops.

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    Processing cotton

    Links to Market

    C&A, the world’s biggest buyer of organic cotton, purchased 10 metric tons of our in-conversion organic cotton (the first ever to be grown in Hubei Province) from last year’s harvest

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    tshirt logo

    Links to Market

    The cotton has been featured in a test-run of 30,000 t-shirts to be sold in 75 C&A retail outlets across China, as part of their upcoming “For the Planet” sustainability campaign, which launched in early June, 2016.


The domestic market for organic products is booming. The Chinese market is huge and there is increasing consumer awareness."

Mr. Tian Li Xin, Beijing Lefang Textile Co. Ltd

Case Study:

Community Engagement in Hubei Province

Rare intern Yuxi Xia joined the organization in its organic agriculture work in Hubei Province, China, where Rare is applying its behavioral science insights to community engagement with the farming village of Zhuqiao. Take a look at snapshots of Yuxi’s work with local farmers to transition from conventional to sustainable agriculture, during which Yuxi joined the people of Zhuqiao in the fields, in the classroom, and in the plaza for their nightly square-dancing parties. There, she learned about the importance of bringing people scattered throughout a community together in the name of sustainability.

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    field of organically cultivated cotton plants
    Organic cotton fields in Zhuqiao Village, Anlu, Hubei (Photos: Yuxi Xia)

    A field of organically cultivated cotton plants is rare to find in Zhuqiao Village, Hubei, where conventional agriculture has dominated the scene for the past several decades. Industrial agriculture has become China’s norm, in which cultivation revolves around crop yields. Residues from chemical pesticides used in such agriculture impair soil fertility and health and exploit the natural growth and ecological balance of wildlife. Under such conditions, the connection between human and nature through farming practices is lost.

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    ladybug on cotton leaf

    No culture shall sustain without sustainable agriculture. As we work on conservation issues, it is critical to reflect on the inseparable connection between humans and nature, and maintain that bond. The development of organic agriculture provides us all an opportunity to do just that. Transitioning from conventional agriculture to organic agriculture in Zhuqiao Village might mean decreased yields during the initial transitional years, but the effort is invaluable. Restoring soil health ultimately revives communities, for people and nature alike.

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    women farming in field

    Organic farming is the work of a vigorous system full of life. Sustainable farming practices connect humans to the land, bringing to the soil natural materials such as compost, green manure and bio-pesticides. It awakens the fundamental and inherent bonds between humans. Ever since humans started cultivating crops, it’s been a collective effort. As we help communities like Zhuqiao transition from conventional agriculture to organic farming, we need communities to be engaged, to cheer each other on, to share pride in protecting their land and homes. That includes local farmers, consumers, and ultimately all participants of the food system.

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    focus group with community

    Since March, 2016, Rare has partnered with a number of farms across Hubei Province and Xinjiang Province to promote organic agriculture through community engagement. To engage a community, we must better understand its members. What are their stories, backgrounds, attitudes, cultural identities, and needs? To learn more, we take on qualitative and quantitative research as well as long-term visits to the village. We invest in local people because we believe that solutions to environmental problems come from within communities engaged with the land.

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    farmers working in the cotton fields

    We believe that the pride locals take in preserving the natural resources that nurture them can drive behavior changes leading to long-lasting, positive conservation results. Inspiring such pride, doesn’t happen without encountering obstacles. Though we gained support from local key stakeholders for our program, finding a breakthrough point for community engagement campaign was not easy. Local farmers were too busy making a living out of conventional farming, or had already leased their land to the village agricultural cooperative and no longer farmed. Most people remained unconcerned with community development. We took stock of these barriers, and pushed forward.

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    hanging posters

    Sustainability in farming concerns not only the practice itself, but also the labor force in the industry. Zhuqiao reflects an inexorable trend of rural population aging in the Chinese agricultural labor force. In Zhuqiao, nearly a third of farmers are between 46 and 55 years old, and more than a third are between 56 and 65 years old. Women and children also make up a disproportionately large part of Zhuqiao’s population, which is typical of most Chinese villages, as women are usually left at home to take care of small children while men work in urban areas. We looked at ways to connect to older and younger members of the community, as the future of agriculture depends on the next generation of farmers.

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    women square dancing

    After a period of interviewing and observations, we found that Zhuqiao’s daily square dancing “party” might bring engagement opportunities. Every day at dusk, after a day’s work in the field, a group of women gathers to practice square dancing, a popular exercise commonly found in city squares, plazas or parks in China. In the village, a small concrete field right off the country road serves as the dance floor. A smartphone and a small amplifier on the bamboo chair are the only equipment. When the music plays, the ladies give their attention to the video on the tiny screen while refining their steps. Some viewers bring a stool to sit and relax on the side, while some take their grandchildren and move along with the ladies. This is authentic community life.

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    women visiting demonstration plot

    Among these self-organized women, we saw the starting point of our campaign. In July, we invited them to our first demonstration plot. They dressed up just like they would for square dancing—a sign that they attached great importance to the opportunity to learn and enjoy themselves together. At our “Organic Farming 101” mini-lecture, they listened and observed with close attention, never hesitating to raise their questions. They mentioned their interest in public lectures and learning opportunities on organic farming techniques. Through informative, fun and engaging activities, not only can we cultivate communities, but we also get the opportunity to stay engaged in conversations centered around people, nature, and our collective well-being.

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    community engagement

    Our community engagement campaign has just begun. We understand the complexity of the barriers we are facing, and the road to conservation results might be filled with thistles and thorn. Agriculture, as the foundation for national economic and social development, is not just about the environment and local ecology. For the farmers, small and large-scale alike, agriculture also concerns the development of their villages and their livelihood. Without safeguards for their economic benefits, farmers will be slow to adopt sustainable farming practices. Support from our partners, local government, and consumers like you and me is critical as we persist together on the journey to better soil and healthy environment for all.


how we will succeed

in the first five years of the program, we will:

Generate positive impacts on the environment and the health and livelihoods of small-scale farmers. In particular, the program will result in significant reduction in point source pollution, GHG, and soil erosion, and increases in sustainable incomes and soil biodiversity.

follow our journey

Restoring Soil Health
October 2016
Rare is expanding organic agriculture in China by training farmers to grow organic crops. Rare is helping these farmers clean up the chemical residues in their farmland so that they can have healthy soil for organic farming. See how the importance of soil restoration fits into the equation. Read full story >

Sustainable T-Shirts in Stores
August 2016
C&A Retail Store in China
Throughout China, C&A retail stores will be selling t-shirts produced with Rare’s in-conversion organic cotton. These will be part of a For the Planet collection, with t-shirts available for all members of the family! Read full story >

connect with the team

Room1309-1310, Build B2, Green Land International Center, 
Heping Avenue, Wuchang District, Wuhan, Hubei Province, China 430063
Tel: +86 27 86627016