From 07 to 08 June, the DCZ participated in a study tour in the area of Suzhou city, Jiangsu province. The study tour was organized by the Suzhou Municipal Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Foreign Economic Cooperation Center (FECC) of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA). The trip aimed to offer insights into advanced agricultural production and rural development in one of China’s economically most developed provinces.
Location of the sites visited
In addition to its strong manufacturing base and high economic performance, Jiangsu province is also known for its efforts in restoring water ecosystems. Jiangsu is not only located in the Yangtze River delta but also home to Lake Tai, the third largest freshwater lake in China. In the mid-2000s, Jiangsu’s water ecosystems were faced with a severe pollution crisis from agricultural nitrate run-off and industrial pollutants, forcing local governments to implement strict protection measures. Ecological restoration has gained even greater urgency by the fact that Lake Tai and other local freshwater reservoirs are the main source of drinking water for megacities such as Shanghai.
Under these conditions, agricultural and rural development in the province had to become more environmentally friendly. Tasked to open up new and environmentally sustainable sources of rural growth, local officials have been promoting a mix of smart agricultural technologies, investment in rural infrastructure and the built environment, as well as ecological management principles inspired by traditional fish–horticulture farming systems to promote agricultural and rural development in the area. Below is an overview of how these approaches have been put into practice based on several agricultural and rural development projects we visited in the area around Suzhou as well as an assessment of their environmental and social outcomes.
Plant factories and smart horticulture production
The tour started with a visit to Greenhouse A+, a smart plant factory located in Lujia town in the Suzhou area and in operation since October 2022. The facility was constructed by AgriGarden, a subsidiary company of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) in charge of promoting and planning plant factories throughout China and whose Beijing headquarters we visited in May 2023. Using automation equipment and smart technologies developed in the Netherlands, Greenhouse A+ produces vegetables and ornamental flowers in a highly automated, factory-like setting. Rather than using soil, plants grow in a coco-based substrate, while parameters such as temperature, humidity, irrigation, and nutrient levels are controlled automatically by sensors and computers. Due to the tightly managed growth conditions and closed environment, the factory does not have to spray pesticides, we were told by the plant manager. High-quality seeds for the specialized plant varieties suitable for growth in a plant factory setting are either purchased on the market or procured from research institutions such as Nanjing Agricultural University or China Agricultural University.
Plant factories like Greenhouse A+ are promoted by Chinese authorities as a way to tackle rural labor shortages and use fewer natural resources as the material flows of water, fertilizers, substrates, and biomass can be tightly controlled and be used more efficiently through circular solutions. But despite these gains in efficiency, 90% of plant factories in China are incurring losses, according to industry research. High investment and operational costs as well as the large energy demand to run the factory equipment cut into the profit margins of such projects. There are also limits to scaling up production given the fixed size of the greenhouse buildings. As a result, plant factories in China are usually set up as public-private partnerships with considerable financial support from local authorities. This is also the case in Lujia town, where Greenhouse A+ is not simply seen as a commercial horticulture producer but a lighthouse project that can help promote and upgrade smart technology and attract equipment manufacturers and other companies along the whole agro-industrial chain.
Environmentally friendly aquaculture and integrated fish – horticulture production
Water bodies bordering Suzhou city under partial or full fishing ban:
- Lake Tai
- Yangcheng Lake
- Changyang Lake
- Dianshan Lake
- Yangtze River
Source: Jiangsu Provincial Government, 2020
Due to its many lakes and waterways, Jiangsu province is ideally suited for the production of aquaculture products. The province’s lakes offer a natural habitat for aquatic species such as crabs, lobsters, shrimps, and a wide variety of fish, making these an important part of the local diet. But efforts at improving water quality, restoring fish populations, and protecting lake ecologies have meant that fishing has been severely restricted in many of the province’s water bodies. Since 2021, a ten-year fishing ban applies to several areas in the Yangtze River basin, while large freshwater bodies such as lake Tai are subject to temporary fishing bans. As a result, local authorities have promoted pond aquaculture as a key method of fishery production in the province. In 2020, an area of 300,000 ha in Jiangsu was dedicated to pond aquaculture, producing 2.87 million tons of aquatic products or 60% of the province’s total aquatic output.
On our trip, we visited two pond aquaculture projects dedicated to the production of hairy crabs, a coveted delicacy whose price can reach several hundred RMB per kilo. The first one was located near Yangcheng Lake between Suzhou and Shanghai, covering an area of approx. 380 ha. The farm sources its freshwater from Yangcheng Lake and uses ecological water treatment methods to clean the wastewater and feed it back into the ponds. Water temperature, PH value, and oxygen levels are constantly monitored, and the water quality analyzed in the farm control center. In 2020, the farm was certified to use the “Yangcheng Lake” geographical indication in its brand name.
The second project was located near Lake Tai in Qidu town and designed with support from Shanghai Jiaotong University and Nanjing Agricultural University. Like the previous one, it obtains its fresh water from the nearby lake and uses biological treatment methods such as filter feeders and water plants to clean the aquaculture discharge water. Over 20 km of pipe infrastructure ensure that the cleaned water is recirculated through a system of interconnected ponds. Given the large area of close to 2,000 ha, the farm is run by 108 individual aquaculture companies, each of which leases an area of the pond system for a 5-year period at the price of 3,000 RMB per mu (0.07 ha). A management company run as a public-private partnership is responsible for operating the entire project, maintaining the equipment and infrastructure, as well as testing and ensuring water quality.
Finally, we visited Lixiangtian Organic Farm, an aquaponics project located in Lili town. Combining aquaculture and hydroponics, the farm raises fish in tanks and uses the water from the tanks to recirculate into plant beds. This allows the plants to absorb nutrients from fish waste in the water, cutting back on the need for added fertilizers while helping to clean the water before it is returned to the fish tanks. Using technology from Israel, the farm is highly resource efficient as the water is circulated throughout the system and there is no waste or run-off.
Digitalization and tourism as drivers of rural development
In addition to agricultural production, the development of rural areas is a top priority for the government. Under the banner of rural revitalization or common prosperity, officials have launched development campaigns meant to tackle many of China’s long-standing rural woes such as the persisting rural-urban divide, demographic and social decline, and the lack of attractive income opportunities and livelihoods for rural people. Our trip in the Suzhou area offered opportunities to learn more about the approaches used by local authorities to promote the overall development of the region’s rural areas.
In rural development, digitalization also plays an important role. Our first visit took us to Yuandang village in Wujiang district. Here, local officials opened a digital service center that serves as a one-stop shop for villagers to obtain banking, healthcare, shopping, and leisure services. With a population of 2,200 people out of which more than a third are 60 years and older, the center primarily aims to improve access to public services for older people directly at their doorstep, but it also offers a range of activities for children such as a public library and an audio room. In addition, the center promotes the rural tourism industry. On its app, visitors can see which rural rentals are available, where to buy local food products, and how to best move around in the area. Local officials told us that the costs for the center are entirely covered by the village authorities and that similar centers have already opened in over 20 of the surrounding villages. While the facilities looked all new and impressive, it was hard to gauge to what extent the services provided by the center are used by local residents. At the time of our visit, we could observe one elderly woman picking up her pension, but otherwise the center was not very busy.
The second rural development project we visited was a rural vacation and eco village located in Sanhao village, Lili town. Surrounded by multiple lakes and rice paddies, the vacation village covers an area of 4.4 km2 and consists of renovated farmers’ houses in traditional architecture, restaurants, outdoor facilities, and larger pieces of newly built architecture for official functions and weddings. The village is run by an investment and management company and offers additional sources of income in the service sector for the remaining 28 rural households. Other residents who chose to leave the village and relocate to the nearby township receive an annual rental income from letting their rural dwellings to the operating company. The village committee also receives an annual rental income for allowing the operating company to use the village grounds, which is then redistributed amongst the original residents, we were told by our guides.
Our final stop took us to the villages around Jiangnan Cultural Park in Zhenze town. Here, local farmers mostly grow rice and mulberry leaves for the nearby silk farm, which employs over 400 people from the area. While the local economy used to be characterized by factories, over a decade ago efforts to improve the water ecology in the region led to the closure of many of these factories, the town mayor told us. In the meantime, the area has reoriented its economy towards rural tourism. Preferential policies and private investment have seen the emergence of several restaurants, cafes, and outdoor recreational sites to attract visitors from the neighboring cities. Over the May holiday, Jiangnan Cultural Park recorded over 10,000 visitors daily, the mayor told us proudly. The area is also successful in bringing back former residents that left to work in the cities. Better income opportunities, an improved village environment, and good infrastructure connections are the main drivers, according to our hosts from the local government.
While both rural development projects look towards rural tourism as a way to spur local development, the Jiangnan Cultural Park appears to do a better job at offering livelihoods that attract original residents to remain in or even return to the countryside. There also appeared to be a better integration of work opportunities in agriculture, (silk) industry, and the service sector, making the approach look more socially sustainable than other projects predicated upon the original rural residents relocating to townships or cities and developers using the emptied rural space to attract urban tourists.
The visit has shown that local authorities experiment with a variety of approaches and strategies to promote agriculture and rural areas. Development visions center around a modernized agricultural sector supported by smart technologies and the remaking of the countryside into a clean and attractive environment for rural and urban people alike. Social and environmental aspects play an important role although more in-depth research would be needed to assess to what extent the stated goals have been achieved. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Suzhou area benefits from its proximity to large urban centers and high levels of economic development and investment. The approaches to rural renewal practiced here will not be an option to replicate for poorer, more remote rural areas of China, meaning that each region will have to develop its own creative ideas to address these issues.