The problem

In China, tobacco cultivation has posed a dilemma. On one hand, it has fueled a multi-billion dollar industry, employing over 20 million farmers and providing major revenue to the government.

On the other hand, one million people die in China annually from tobacco-related illnesses. The tobacco industry also harms the environment. Cultivation requires dangerous pesticides. Curing consumes huge quantities of coal and wood, aggravating air pollution and deforestation.

A labour-intensive crop, tobacco requires 3,000 hours work annually per hectare, twice as much as rice. It also takes more nutrients from the land. That said, it provides no food security, an increasingly urgent issue underpinning China’s continued social and economic development.

A Collaborative Solution

A sustainable solution had to address the needs of all stakeholders: farmers, government, and citizens. The Yuxi Municipality Bureau of Agriculture (YMBA) in Yunnan Province, China’s largest tobacco producer, proposed planting alternative crops that would yield returns equalling or surpassing tobacco. The state government threw its support behind the initiative.

In 2008, YMBA started a pilot tobacco substitution project in collaboration with researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Through announcements at village meetings and by word of mouth, YMBA worked with village heads to recruit 458 farm families at three sites, totalling over 480 hectares. Villagers at the sites wrote the charter and elected the management board for a farmers’ cooperative. Board members were selected for consensus-building and leadership skills. The cooperative’s responsibilities included supplying seeds, pesticides, and materials to the membership at the lowest possible cost through bulk purchasing.

Local agricultural specialists provided farmers with training and technical assistance. With this support, the farmers mastered key production and business skills to produce high yields, store crops efficiently, provide reliable accounting, conduct market research, and sell their produce.

Growing Success

By 2010, farmers’ annual incomes at the pilot sites were 21% to 110% higher per acre than those of tobacco farmers in the area.

Since 2011, therefore, YMBA has been scaling the project up to other counties. Farmers themselves are taking the initiative to reduce tobacco cultivation in favour of other crops; grapes have proven to be the most profitable. The entire community continues to benefit. From 2012 to 2015, the per capita net income of Yuxi Municipality grew by more than 3000 yuan (US$484).

A Win-Win

The Tobacco Substitution Project is clear proof that careful, collaborative planning and execution can provide practical benefits to all stakeholders even in the face of traditional practices. Its success should inspire similar initiatives throughout the world.

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