Agri-Environmental Practices in Ancient China

As one of the most biologically diverse landscapes, China has more than 7,000 years of agricultural practices in history (Liu et al., 2013). Producing food largely in a self-sufficient manner, the traditional farming practices incorporate biodiversity-friendly landscape management such as organic manure application, integrative farming approaches like rice-fishery systems and diversified cropping system. These practices, on one hand successfully supported the ever-growing population in ancient China; on the other, they maintained the agro-landscapes with soil fertility, structural habitat complexity which favoured the sustenance of species richness and stable ecosystem operations. This blog takes a look at what and how these traditional practices managed to achieve the nowadays conflicted agenda regarding food production and biodiversity conservation, and then it discusses future implications for conservation on agricultural lands.

Terracing is a typical traditonal farming practice in China which utilises resources along the landscape in an efficient way.

Terracing is a typical traditonal farming practice in China which utilises limited resources along the agricultural landscape in an efficient way. (Photo by me in 2006, Longsheng, Guangxi Province of China)

Organic manure application:

Using animal manure and agricultural waste, organic manure application improves soil bacterial communities and foster a shift of the composition within it. It is a traditional mainstream farming practice in China ever since the Shang dynasty, 3,000 BC.

Integrative farming systems:

Characterised by small-scale production, integrative farming systems usually combine crop growing, animal husbandry and fishery together. Such a practice forms a stable and yet structurally complex ecosystem and enables it to deliver services like natural pest control, sustainable high yields and ideal micro-climatic conditions in a resource-efficient manner.

Integrative farming system of duck breeding and fishery in Hunan Province of China.

Integrative farming system of duck breeding and fishery in Hunan Province of China. (Source:

Diversified cropping system:

Diversified cropping system aims to address the requirement for high-yield and limited resource availability on the agricultural landscape. By coordinating the interactions between crops and the environment spatially and temporally, the system sustains a more diverse range of habitats and species, and it is less vulnerable to pests and diseases than monoculture.

Intercropping provides a more structually complext habitat for species on agricultural landscapes.

Intercropping of taro and corn in Yunan Province, China. Intercropping provides a more structually complext habitat for species on agricultural landscapes. (Source:

With the arrival of industrialisation and technological advancement, China has undergone the transition from traditional to the modern intensive agricultural production mode. The specialised division of labour encourages mechanised massive production, and de-peasantises the labours from agricultural lands to urban development. Facing global problems such as over-population, environment degradation, urban expansion and climate change, the industrialised farming practices induce greater pressures to biodiversity especially on the agricultural landscapes. In contrast to this, agri-environmental schemes lack policy support or framework as both the central and local governments put their focuses mainly on natural habitats rather than farm lands conservation currently.

Drawing mainly from empirical knowledge inter-generationally, the wisdom from ancient times leaves us space for progressing towards biodiversity-friendly farming practices. Put up by Harvey (2000), “Edilia” is an enlightened idea on developing sustainable urban communities when the world faces biodiversity decline, overpopulation and food (in) security. It proposes potential sustainable food production and human-environment harmony which include: (1) community-based production, (2) self-sufficiency on a community scale, and (3) human-environment sustainable interaction. Where does the future lie? Human beings cannot and should not be the only one who decides.

About the author:

Huan Zheng, BA in Sociology and Environmental Studies, the Australian National University.

Further readings:

FAO. (2013). “Semi-intensive food-fish production in ponds.” Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations, available from

Harvey, D. (2000). “Edilia”, or “Make of it what you will”, in Spaces of Hope, Berkeley, University of California Press.

LIU, Y., DUAN, M. & YU, Z. 2013. Agricultural landscapes and biodiversity in China. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 166, 46-54.

About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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1 Response to Agri-Environmental Practices in Ancient China

  1. It’s great to learn about the countries from which overseas students come, so thanks for sharing this with us.

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