Energy and labour use on farms: case studies from the Netherlands and China – PhD-thesis Tian Yu

November 20, 2019 at 4.00 pm Tian Yu will defend his PhD-thesis ‘Energy and Labour use on farms: case studies from the Netherlands and China‘. See the Abstract below.

The full thesis will be available after the defence ceremony. The ceremony will be live-streamed by but can be viewed later as well. Tian Yu is affiliated as PhD-candidate at the Rural Sociology Group of Wageningen University.


As one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emission, agricultural production is responsible for climate change. In the most industrial countries, agricultural production has built a great dependency on fossil energy consumption by replacing most human labour with agro-technologies on the farm. This is unsustainable in the context of climate change and resource depletion. Therefore, in order to mitigate climate change, the transition to sustainable food production is necessary and urgent. Rising in the 1970s, organic agriculture is believed to be a sustainable approach for agricultural production. It has been proved to use less fossil energy due to a commitment not to use any synthetic substances, but at the same time it uses more labour. When labour and fossil energy are regarded as two basic resource inputs on a farm, it seems that organic farms use more labour to compensate for the reduced fossil energy consumption. However, it is still unknown how the input balance of fossil energy and labour on organic farms is different from that on conventional farms, and how the different input balance would influence the sustainability of agricultural production. It is valuable to explore these questions against the backdrop of climate change. As the issue of fossil energy and labour input balance on farms has not been studied thoroughly, this thesis is written based on an exploratory research. The main objective is to explore the balance of fossil energy and labour input at farm level by comparing conventional and organic farming systems, and to explore the possibility to optimise sustainability of resource use in agricultural production.

By conducting comparative case studies in both the Netherlands and China, this thesis first calculated the energy and labour input balance separately in the two countries, and it concluded organic farming uses less energy and more labour compared with conventional farming in both countries, but there is great variation among all the farms in the size and farming activity of this gap. When comparing the results from the two countries, the thesis concluded that Dutch farms use more energy while Chinese farms use more labour due to their different resource endowments. However, the situation is changing in both countries, and the changes show that the so-called industrial agriculture – which consumes much more energy – is not the only nor the best trajectory for agricultural development. Requiring more labour use on-farm, how organic farming can deal with the labour constrains is then answered: organic farmers should be encouraged to explore their diverse local solutions to increase the resilience of their farm when dealing with the constraints. In further, using the theory of farming mode and farming style, this thesis discussed farmers’ input strategies by clarifying the heterogeneity within organic farms, and highlighting the trend of conventionalisation in the development of organic agriculture, and it supports the hypothesis that organic agriculture with peasant qualities shows better potential in applying organic principles to optimise the sustainability of an organic farm. At last, the thesis discussed the theoretical concept of organic peasant agriculture and tries to distinguish it from conventional agriculture and conventionalised organic agriculture. It concludes that organic peasant agriculture is valuable in the transition to sustainable food production.

‘Meet the woman leading China’s new organic farming army’ – Al Jazeera English


A recent article on Al Jazeer English with Shi Yan’s approach to organic farming that is helping to break the country’s “addiction to pesticides” and an interview with Rural Sociology’s Jan Douwe van der Ploeg.

Source: Meet the woman leading China’s new organic farming army – Al Jazeera English

Rural Development and the Construction of New Markets – newly published book

Rural Development and the Construction of New Markets,  edited by Paul Hebinck, Sergio Schneider and Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, has just been published in the Routledge ISS Studies in Rural Livelihoods.  The book can be purchased here.

This book focuses on empirical experiences related to market development, and specifically new markets with structurally different characteristics than mainstream markets. Europe, Brazil, China and the rather robust and complex African experiences are covered to provide a rich multidisciplinary and multi-level analysis of the dynamics of newly emerging markets.

Rural Development and the Construction of New Markets analyses newly constructed markets as nested markets. Although they are specific market segments that are nested in the wider commodity markets for food, they have a different nature, different dynamics, a different redistribution of value added, different prices and different relations between producers and consumers. Nested markets embody distinction viz-a-viz the general markets in which they are embedded. A key aspect of nested markets is that these are constructed in and through social struggles, which in turn positions this book in relation to classic and new institutional economic analyses of markets. These markets emerge as steadily growing parts of the farmer populations are dedicating their time, energy and resources to the design and production of new goods and services that differ from conventional agricultural outputs. The speed and intensity with which this is taking place, and the products and services involved, vary considerably across the world. In large parts of the South, notably Africa, farmers are ‘structurally’ combining farming with other activities. By contrast, in Europe and large parts of Latin America farmers have taken steps to generate new products and services which exist alongside ongoing agricultural production. This book not only discusses the economic rationales and dynamics for these markets, but also their likely futures and the threats and opportunities they face.

Table of Contents: 1.The construction of new, nested markets and the role of development policies 2. Newly emerging, nested markets: a theoretical introduction 3. The construction of nested markets 4. Family farming, institutional markets and innovations in public policy in Brazil 5. Self-labelling, certification and alternative marketing networks in Brazil 6. Rural tourism in China and the construction of new markets 7. Multi-level rural governance performances and the unfolding of nested rural markets in Europe 8. Smallholder irrigators and fresh produce street traders in Thohoyandou, Limpopo Province, South Africa 9. Beyond land transfers: the dynamics of socially driven markets emerging from Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme 10. In the shadow of global markets for fish in Lake Victoria Tanzania 11. Reconsidering the contribution of nested markets to rural development.




Feminization of Agricultural Production in Rural China – PhD-thesis Xiangdan Meng

January 2014 Xiangdan Meng has successfully defended her PhD-thesis “Feminization of Agricultural Production in Rural China:
A Sociological Analysis“. It can still be viewed at

Rural-urban migration of male labour force is an unstoppable process in China. Although some women also migrate to work in cities, most of these women return to the villages after marriage. They need to take care of the children and the family and to work on their smallholder farms. In general, women’s labour participation in agriculture has increased due to the migration of the male labourers and they have become the main labour force in smallholder agriculture. This thesis is a sociological analysis on the impact of this change on the situation of these women and on smallholder agriculture from the women’s perspective. Continue reading

Jan Schakel in China – part two

The IMRD-students, who are visiting China to do their case study, just finished their fieldwork in the Bamudi-village in the Yanqing County, North of Beijing. After three weeks of lectures, fieldtrips and surveys, they now will write the final report in the last week of their stay in China. The report will cover the findings from interviews, visits and meeting with farmers, village leaders, shop keepers and other households in the Bamudi-village (Beijing) and Quaoli village (Nanjing).

Part of the methodology of the PRA (Participatory Rapid Appraisal) is to provide a ‘Community Development Program’ and to present and discuss this plan with local inhabitants in the Village Hall to have feedback from the farmers and others involved. It will be a thrilling event, because the situation is rather complex; also in this area, not too far from Beijing.

Industrialization in China started before urbanization (heavy industry in the sixties in the middle and Northeast of China), but in recent decades urbanization is really skyrocketing: from 10% in 1949 and still only 18% in 1979 to almost up to 50% in 2007! Actually, just some month ago, there were –for the first time in their long history- more people living in the cities then in the rural areas! Although the number of ‘the poor’ (which was for a long time synonymous with ‘the rural’) decreased from 250 million in 1978 to less then 15 million in 2007, the rural area still faces tremendous problems. The unique rural-urban migration in China (young labour left to the cities) resulted in disorganization of rural communities and the erosion or even loss of cultural identity, values and the ability of collective action, as well as issues of elites that are leaving, while vulnerable groups are ‘left-behind’.

Box 1: ‘Poor, so rural….’

One of the farmers we visited (see picture) lives in a remote area, just outside Bamudi-village. The farmer is suffering high blood pressure for many years, and his wife (both in their sixties) is illiterate. They own their house (built in 1962) and rent 3,5 mu of land (0,2 ha.), growing mostly corn, fruit and some vegetables. Last year they earned 2000 Yan (200 Euro) by selling apricot to the market, but this year there is hardly any harvest at all, due to the chilly spring. Opposite to other rural families, they don’t have remittances from family members who work in the city (migrant workers), so the family income is only 5000-6000 Yan (or RMB) a year (around 550 Euro), which is really low, even to Chinese standards. As part of  the new pro-farming-policies, the household will have some extra income, like social security and minimum living standard subsidies, compensation for environmental protection schemes, alleviation of agri-tax and subsidies for certain products (mainly grain). The liveability of the community and the households will also be improved by measures of the New Countryside Construction Program; see box 2).

Village farmer

The situation in Bamudi-village is really complex, because a new phenomena – besides the traditional rural-urban-migration processes- is occurring in the region: the urban-rural-migration, which expresses the rediscovery of the rural area by the urban, and a new relation between the city and the countryside. During all the interviews in the village, it became clear that neither the central, nor the provincial government, and neither the county or the village leaders knew how to handle this new phenomena. There are no rules, nor policies and regulations, and the traditional land tenure system doesn’t fit to tackle this new migration process. One of the conclusions, drawn by the students after doing their surveys, is that there is hardly any future in this part of China, if they follow the traditional route or path of development. The growing conditions in this mountainous area very bad, and together with the lack of skilled labour and motivated young people, it rural life is very hard and it will imply the end of agriculture around the municipality of Beijing. Only mostly elderly people will stay in the village, while the rest of the family moves out to the cities. But due to polices (among others) from the NCCP (see box 2), like reafforistication and environmental protection, there might be new sources of income be created. That Bamudi village will be Beijing’s  ‘back garden’ in the near future, implies definitely the final end of a long agricultural tradition, but it will also give the area the opportunity to (re-)develop again in a more modern and more successful way.

We are looking forward to listen and learn what the local villagers will think about the analyses the students have made and the findings that will be presented and discussed tonight; we’re all looking forward to their comments and opinions. And hope that indeed it will be a thrilling night!

Box 2: New Countryside Construction Program (NCCP)

In 2006 the Chinese government launched a new plan to restore the balance and the inequity between the rural and the urban. Part of it will be the NCCP. Background of the NCCP is the rapid industrialization and urbanization, which widened the gap between urban and rural, and forced the state to support farmers and pay more attention to resource and environmental protection. Part of it will be an urbanization strategy: no allowing for most farmers to go to towns, but stay in the villages. To improve the living conditions in these villages, several measures were undertaken, like: promoting agriculture production, e.g. agricultural industrialization infrastructural development like roads, drinking water, street lights employing farmers tot protect non-governmental forests, waters, roads and environment providing public goods: medical, rural education, energy, communication and so on increasing farmers income by subsidies, human resource development, providing help to the poor (among others).

Jan Schakel, Bamudi-Village