From Dragon Heads to Farm Drops, Chinese agriculture has many faces

In Beijing last week, STEPS member Adrian Ely hosted a roundtable with social enterprises, NGOs and firms involved in food and agriculture to discuss the findings of the Low Carbon Innovation in China: Prospects, Politics and Practice project.

Vegetable stall in Beijing market

Based on fieldwork by Sam Geall (SPRU), and support from Yiching Song (Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences), Adrian presented the project’s main findings.

In the agri-food domain, the project looked at two broad innovation pathways, and their systemic impacts and implications:

  • A dominant ‘indigenous innovation’ pathway. This incorporates massive investment in strategic emerging industries such as agribiotech. It includes consolidating the food supply chain through what are known as ‘dragon head enterprises’ – large firms selected by the government to lead the drive for agricultural industrialisation.
  • An ‘alternative’ pathway. This is almost entirely overlooked by government support. Within this pathway, communities, enthusiasts and proactive consumers contribute to initiatives around sustainable agriculture, incorporating organisational innovations (e.g. shorter supply chains or novel payment mechanisms), or improved agricultural practices that reduce the need for synthetic inputs.

This categorisation into two pathways has been useful for analytical purposes, but the discussions showed that it fails to capture the complexity of interwoven innovation pathways that are emerging in different parts of the country.

Diversity in Beijing

The workshop heard from three practitioners whose approaches illustrate the diversity of farming models around the capital – Beijng Farmers’ Market, Shared Harvest Farm and Alesca Life Techologies.

The speakers described different production methods: biodynamic farming in rural areas to high-tech urban gardens in converted shipping containers, different organisational models such as community supported agriculture, and a range of distribution methods including farmers’ markets, direct delivery, pick-ups, farm-drops or the array of innovative solutions enabled by social media (such as door-to-door delivery of ready-prepared ingredients direct from the fields).

The workshop discussed the opportunities and challenges faced by these different approaches, all of which exist within China’s rapidly changing agri-food system. We also heard from researchers who had studied two issues of direct relevance to the success or failure of these forms of agriculture.

Two ingredients for success


Firstly, public perceptions of food and levels of trust (e.g. in safety) are important to the success of some of these alternative pathways. Recent food safety scandals have led Chinese consumers to seek out more reliable sources of food, with which they have a trusted relationship.


Secondly, standards can act as both a benefit and a cost to farmers. China’s organic standards were revised in 2012 (partly in response to the scandals mentioned above) and have been described as the most stringent in the world. Whilst this may be necessary to verify claims of good practices and to secure consumer trust, the associated testing costs take them out of the reach of most smaller producers, cutting them off from this potentially lucrative market.

Whilst we only heard from practitioners and experts from around Beijing, the diversity of agricultural models being discussed was striking. This pays tribute to the diversity and dynamism of farming in China, and the broad efforts that are being made to better link rural and urban life, and to balance the environmental and social costs of food production and consumption. If China is able to harness this dynamism within its agricultural innovation system, its quest to feed its population sustainably will be greatly advanced.

Find out more

Read more about Low Carbon Innovation in China.

Photo: Dmitry P on Flickr (cc-by 2.0)