With all the food scares of the last couple of years, it’s no surprise that expats in China are increasingly willing to shuck out extra RMB for "natural food". Nor should it be any surprise that Chinese consumers are also more interested in "green" food – no one likes lead paint in their noodles or melamine in their baby’s bottle.
Middle and upper middle-class Chinese are not the only ones interested in organic food. In recent years, the Chinese government has become very active in promoting organic farming. While the turnaround in ideology may seem peculiar – scholars at the Chinese Academy of Science say China feeds its mammoth population on one-seventh of planet’s arable land by supplying 75 percent of crop nutrients through chemical fertilizers – China’s growing expanses of organic farmland are, by and large, run by the government.
Although the domestic market for pesticide free food is growing quickly on the mainland, a large percentage of the organic food being farmed is for exports. Because what’s natural doesn’t keep well, fruits and vegetables are mostly exported to nearby countries like Japan and Korea. Staples like organic rice and beans, however, are quickly dominating western markets; the biggest exporter of beans and seeds to the EU is now China.
Consumers wary of regular Chinese products – the toothpaste and toy scares have left foreigners scanning labels warily – aren’t sure they can trust anything out of China to be non-lethal, let alone free of pesticides. The farming and manufacturing that powered China’s meteoric growth has left large swaths of Chinese land poisoned from the ground up and the clouds down.
Many American shoppers don’t realize, however, that all imported produce must pass through American Food and Drug Administration inspections before they enter the country. While that may not be comforting given their recent lapses, anyone growing food to be sold as organic in the US must follow US standards and be certified by a US Department of Agriculture accredited certifier. Of course, many American shoppers may also be unaware that the federal rules regarding organic regulations don’t require testing for pesticide contamination.
In 2000, China was ranked 45th worldwide for amount of organic farmland, by 2005, China was number 3 and rising. According to the Chinese government, the size of China’s organic export market tripled between 2004 and 2005 (the last year numbers are available for); estimates of the value of the ’05 exports range from 130-350 million USD. China’s farmland is relatively limited and experts worry using more land for organic farming – which produces a much lower crop yield – is a poor idea for such a populous country.
Chinese farmers often grow two sets of crops – the harvest for selling is doused with pesticides, and the patch for personal consumption is kept organic. While it’s difficult isolating a crop from the surrounding chemical sodden land, achieving a single set of organic standards in China seems even more difficult. There are two conflicting certifying agencies from two different Chinese government ministries and 21 agencies claiming certifying rights. At best, the situation in confusing, at its worst it enables malfeasance.
Produce bearing the "Green Food" label is certified by the China Green Food Development Centre, which belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), but isn’t considered truly organic as the standard includes foods that have been genetically modified. There is an article explaining the differences in food certification standards and labeling on Green Choice Beijing
Expats living in China’s major cities willing to pay several times more for their groceries have several options. Greenpeace China publishes a Beijing Organic Guide and major grocery chains like Carrefour also stock some organic goods. Foreigners, and Chinese, living in less metropolitan areas have limited, if any, options for organic food. In some cities weekly organic produce deliveries are available, if you’ve exhausted all other options you can always head off into the fields to befriend farmers.
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I once read an article published by some American association castigating organic foods. Their view is that most farmers do not follow strict composting standards and that there is not a single case involving the pesticide-caused death of human. I personally think that the idea of organic food hasn't taken hold in China yet, probably because the overwhelming size of the sheer population doesn't allow for large-scale organic food trials. Before solid evidence can be produced to prove the benefits of eating organic foods, I think I'd still stick to my normal diet. (of course I have to give the veges and fruits a good rinse before I eat them.)
Mar 29, 2011 23:55 Report Abuse
I grow organically and as such accepted that I was not going to eat organic produce In China. I would like to have had this article before I went.
Seeing plenty of farmers spraying with knapsacks alarmed me. I also accepted that I would not see any labelled Organic produce in Supermarkets. However lets be fair organic food in Western S/Ms is very limited.
I figured that if my Chinese wife had little knowledge or concern [ until I met her] I assumed that the vast amount of Chinese don't know or care about what is in their food.
Having "pesticide sodden land" on farms is obviously a worry. " Getting to know farmers" you must be kidding!
Knowledge and information and concern about what we eat in the West is now sophisticated. The new conflict/ battle is over GM food, something I'd like to know more about in China.
Paying higher prices for organic food is in the realm of the well to do Chinese and western people.
I have to be convinced whether it is but a small percentage of Chinese, city dwellers and farmers alike really have much understanding of organics
Mar 29, 2011 14:08 Report Abuse