It’s been known in the West for more than a century that China is one of the few places on earth where a complete model of ecological agriculture was developed, one capable of sustaining fertility indefinitely.

In the earliest years of the 21st century, Dr. F. H. King was sent by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to tour China, Japan and Korea and closely observe their model of agriculture. Dr. King returned home to write the classic Farmers of Forty Centuries, detailing the systems and techniques he witnessed. However, he died before he could complete his final chapter on implications and applications for Western agriculture. The eco-ag movement can thank our heroes J.R. Rodale and Charles Walters of Acres USA for keeping this book in print continuously since its publication in 1911. (We should celebrate a centennial!)

Joe Hollis recently alerted me to the existence of a newer book, Agro-Ecological Farming Systems in China (edited by Li Wenhua, published in the U.S. by the Parthenon Publishing Group in 2001). This new one, aimed at Western scientists, lays out the environmental problems evident in China and provides details of attempted solutions using integrated systems. Today, farm-scale biogas generators and solar panels are powering small settings in which each animal and plant works together and contributes to the fertility of the whole. These self-sufficient, resilient models of health have been sought by the worldwide biodynamics and permaculture movements for many decades.

To understand the history of eco-ag in China, it’s necessary to distinguish the beauty of the model – the design of the setting – from the tragic fact that in many cases the design elements are polluted with industrial waste. The practices of the so-called Green Revolution, while artificially boosting yields for a few years, killed the soil and created nitrate fertilizer runoff in the waterways, in China, the U.S. and many other countries.

We in the West, by contrast, are seeking models of self-contained ecological settings. In North America the agriculture of the Europeans was a colonial export model. Today, instead of sending cotton and tobacco back to Europe, we provide GMO corn and soybeans to the giant corporations that manufacture ersatz food. U.S. government agricultural policy is devoted to big commodity subsidies at the expense of supporting small and medium-scale farms that attempt to serve local community needs.

Repulsed by this tragedy, the ecological pathfinders including the unsung heroes who created the organic movement since 1970 are concentrating on permanent (perennial) agriculture. Archaeological findings of the past half-century have provided evidence that the Indians had successful models, certainly many techniques that can be incorporated into small-scale, self-sustained design. Contemporary permaculturists are short on details of the species combinations that make up guilds or mutually enhancing communities of organisms, the specific plants and animals that work together to yield a sustainable income for the farmers. The book Agro-Ecological Farming Systems in China helps to fill that gap.

Eco-ag cannot be summarized without reference to sustainable economics. We cannot farm sustainably without fair compensation for farmers and land stewards. For too long, feudal and industrial cultures have reviled farmers as peasants or serfs to be managed. We had to reach the end of our rope in the U.S., with the farming population shrunk to less than 2 percent, to remember what vital skills are employed in farming and how long it takes to learn them.

We have a whole lot to learn from China, not least how they identified the medicinal properties of one-quarter of the known plant species in Asia and created a body of scholarship to define how these plants can be integrated into the human diet to sustain health.