Some rice farmers are questioning the new environmentally friendly production methods they started using last year.
Zhang Yanbin, head of Nanma Village in Nankao County, Central China's Henan Province, led villagers to adopt the so-called ecological way to grow rice.
The farmers used organic fertilizers, such as soybean and fermented chicken manure, and much less pesticides.
"Our rice can be sold at a higher price 5 yuan (62.5 US cents) per kilogram while the general rice at 3 yuan (37.5 US cents) but the output has been decreased by 15 per cent," said Zhang.
"We made less money because our ecological rice cost more in labours, packing and promotion."
Zhang's experience is part of the whole scenario of China's ecological rice development, which has been promoted by some scientists and environmentalists.
The industry is still stunted by lack of government support, low market recognition, and above all, less involvement of ordinary rice farmers.
Despite the various ecological ways of rice planting, the accumulated planting areas of them are less than 8 per cent of China's total rice field 29 million hectares and the percentage has not significantly grown for a long time.
A major challenge is the average ecological rice farming costs more labours compared with conventional farming equipped with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
"Many young and skilful labourers in the countryside would go to cities to work. They would not spend time in farming, let alone the more delicate ecological farming," said Zhou Jianhong, an associate professor at Yunnan Agricultural University.
In Zhang Yanbin's village, 300 households agreed to jointly grow ecological rice at first, but one year later, 70 households decided to withdraw. "Because they felt the weekly training for farming techniques and the strict requirement on pesticides and fertilizers were too troublesome," said Zhang.
Ecological rice farming is not a once-for-all solution. In Yunnan Province, biodiversity rice farming has not been effective in fighting pests, fungi and bacterial rice diseases, said Zhou.
The effective ecological farming is also challenged by lack of market recognition.
Rice farmers complain they are unable to sell their ecological rice at a higher price without the aid of big companies in technology, promotion and branding.
"The ecological farming should be a collective programme in a whole region. Otherwise, the ecologically planted rice could be polluted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides nearby," said Zhang Jia'en, a professor of ecology at South China Agricultural University.
But he added: "The ecological farming does not mean to totally give up modern fertilizers and pesticides. Its existence helps reduce the excessive use of chemical products and reliance on them."
Hu Ruifa, an expert at the Agricultural Policy Research Centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said modern genetically modified (GM) rice might work together with ecological farming to fight pests, diseases and natural disasters while reducing pesticide uses and labour inputs.
By inserting genes able to resist pests or diseases, GM crops have proved effective in reducing chemical pesticide or fertilizer uses, but many people are concerned about their potential threats to biosafety.
Zhang Jia'en noted that the central and local governments must establish a strict market admission system to give priority to ecological rice, with which more farmers and consumers will accept the rice.
(China Daily 08/23/2006)