Earlier this year, China's Certification and Accreditation Administration updated the country's organic food regulations. Now, all organic food products need to have their own traceable 17-digit code which links back to the producer and the source of that food.  To prevent organic food companies from selling more organic food than they grow (by supplementing their organic food supplies with those grown traditionally), only as many labels are issued as product is produced.

The goal of these new food regulations is to reduce the number of fakes in the Chinese organic food market.
A few weeks ago, a very interesting was posted not only in Chinese media, but worldwide –Wal-Mart had been caught selling “regular” pork as “organic” in over one dozen stores in Chongqing.  

How the story begins:

In early September, a frustrated consumer calls to complain that the organic pork was the same as regular pork, though the price was nearly 50% higher. Authorities investigate within 24 hours and find that 12 of Wal-Mart’s 13 stores in Chongqing are selling mislabeled organic pork. (http://www.firstpost.com/fwire/after-an-apology-wal-marts-woes-end-in-china-118224.html)

The meat did not have an organic seal on it, yet was labeled as organic.  This was reported to the Chongqing Industry and Commerce Administration, and the Administration found three people guilty of illegal business practices (http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90882/7590520.html).

The pork was quickly traced to a local meat supplier, Gaojin.  However, the quantity of organic meat purchased and the amount sold did not match.  In fact, since January of 2010, only 15,000 kg of more than 78,500 kg of pork, or 19%, were organic.  This calculates to more than 600,000 Yuan ($95,240) of regular pork sold as organic pork.  According to investigators, Wal-Mart employees “didn't want to show empty shelves” when the organic meat was not available.

This is not the first time Chongqing Wal-Mart stores have been found guilty of illegal practices, either.  According to media reports, “The administration has sanctioned Wal-Mart stores 20 times since 2006, eight times from January to August.”

The fallout and Wal-Mart's response:
Furthermore, In response to this scandal, Wal-Mart has has opened inspection laboratories in each store in the city to improve "food management" and packaged meat will be clearly labeled to show if it is "pollution-free" or "organic."

Public and Media response

Concern for organic food in grocery stores and lack of trust is already a problem in China, so this event only adds fuel to the concern regarding whether the much-higher-priced organic food is "truly organic."  News agencies from Bloomberg to the Wall Street Journal have reported on this event.  Many analysts have said that the scandal likely will not hurt Wal-Mart long term, as it responded to the event quickly and correctly.

Expect further commentary on this type of scandal in a future blog post. For more interesting commentary follow this link:  http://www.chinahearsay.com/wal-mart-green-pork-scandal-lingering-odor-of-victimization/.

NPR recently featured the Little Donkey Farm CSA in this article.

An interesting article.  A few things to note though in response, however.  This farm is neither purely looking back to earlier and more simple days nor blindly following the US CSA model.  It is a relatively small farm, by US standards, with just 280 mu of land (just over 45 acres), but it has a strong support system --including affiliation with a well-known Chinese university, NGO, and local government support.  Further, it is well-known to the health-conscious and organic-food-seeking residents in Beijing --both expats and locals.  Also, although the Little Donkey Farm is the most famous CSA in China, there are many others that follow a similar model. 

And most interestingly, China has not taken the US model and directly applied it in China, but rather has adapted it to China. How is Little Donkey Farm different from a US CSA?  On the Little Donkey Farm, members have the option rent plots of land and plant their own organic vegetables.  They can select the level of service from full-service-delivery-to-doorstep (peasants plant and harvest, and deliveries are made into the city) to complete self-service (just a plot of land and some organic fertilizer).  CSA members range from mothers to restaurant owners to artists to retired grandparents looking for a weekend activity.  Different price points mean that more Beijingers can afford to eat safe, organically-grown vegetables. 

This article (in Chinese) points out with clearly that the concerns regarding falsified organic food remain and are a continued risk to the organic food brand.

Yet what is more important is finding a solution to this counterfeiting.
Since several prominent food scandals were uncovered in April, including dyed steamed bread and glow-in-the-dark pork, the government has launched a highly publicized battle against unsafe foods.  According to a recent Xinhua article, 4900 businesses have been shut down for illegal and unsafe food practices, and 2000 people have been arrested (http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-08/03/c_131027630.htm). 

Impressive as these statistics are, they only hint at the depth of the food safety and regulation challenges.  Lack of transparency in the food supply system, coupled with the fragmented nature of the industry makes it difficult to track, and enforcement has been unable to keep pace with safety infringements.  One website, frustrated with the pace of action, launched a website tracking food safety issues throughout the country from 2004 to 2011 (http://zccw.info/).

Now, with horror stories increasingly advertised through social media, the importance of increased transparency is becoming evident.  Video clips showing the nauseating illegal and unsafe food practices and ensuing crackdown were broadcast buses and on the national news channel CCTV-7 throughout the summer.  In addition, a very serious crackdown, including the possibility of death penalty for food safety violations shows the current focus and concern regarding the safety of the food supply (http://articles.cnn.com/2011-05-30/world/china.food.violations_1_food-safety-death-penalty-melamine?_s=PM:WORLD).

Yet, the challenge is consistent long-term regulation.  Businessmen and profit seekers are surprisingly adaptable, and willing to conform to safety challenges for the short term, but just as willing to return to unsafe practices when the threats have subsided.  Take for example, clembuterol.  Meat purchasers commonly offer higher prices to farmers who have fed their cows or pigs the chemical, which makes meat leaner.  These meat purchasers are then able to soak the meat in liquids to make it heavier before sale.  During the World Expo, when the chemical was commonly tested for in meat, this offer of extra money stopped.  However, the pause was only temporary.

The idea behind organic farming is that the simplicity and lack of additional chemicals or additives authenticates the safety of the product.  Since nothing chemical is added, and since the food is inspected regularly, the consumer benefits from safe and healthy food as well as peace of mind.  The challenge is keeping this promise and authenticity in a still fragmented, rapidly growing, and relatively lucrative market space.

I found this Wall Street Journal article particularly interesting:

China's Counterfeiters Get Seedy: Perhaps it isn’t so surprising to hear reports of Chinese entrepreneurs recently knocking off Apple stores and Dairy Queen outlets. After all, counterfeit designer tote bags and pirated software have been available for years, not just in China, but in most parts of Asia.  Now, however, the so-called highest form of flattery appears to be extending to that most basic of commodities: crop seeds.

This shows the need for a seed bank, to protect farmers from buying what they do not expect.  This would also allow for production of certified organic seeds, to ensure that they follow the requirements and are naturally produced and free of chemical residues or alteration.
There are several organic farm-style eco-tourist destinations around Beijing, including Beijing Crab Island, Phoenix Commune, Agrilandia, and LiuMinYing.  Each aims for tourism, for a retreat from the often-grimy city center, the opportunity to live with a farmer, or enjoy an eco-retreat, and most importantly, to return to a natural state of living.  Perhaps the popularity of these retreats speaks to the stresses of current city life, the poor air and lack of greenery, the constant exposure to pollutants and pesticides.  

What will be interesting to see is how these eco-retreats evolve year over year.  What is the continued volume of organic food sold? Are there any scandals? How do the retreats stay profitable and how are they funded?

In this article, Jiang Yifan, who organizes organic farmers markets in Shanghai, describes the importance of organic farming and markets for villages.  Markets allow farmers to not just communicate with customers and potential customers, but also with each other.

I’ve seen firsthand the possibility of improved village environments, income, and even yield resulting from a shift to organic farming.  Particularly in cases where farmers themselves have the opportunity to shift to organic farming and fully understand their conversion, rather than when they are externally managed, the opportunity for improved income, a greater respect for farming, and a healthier chemical-free lifestyle is possible. 

As I looked out the window of the high-speed train during a recent trip to Shandong province, I saw square after square of farmland.  Scattered across the landscape stood farmers, solitary in their fields, spraying pesticides onto their fields.  They sprayed in front of themselves, and so were exposed to direct, repeated, and sustained bodily contact with these chemicals.  Residues on fruits and vegetables sold in grocery stores show that oftentimes, the volumes of pesticides sprayed is far in excess of what is recommended.

Currently, organic agriculture stands at less than 0.5% of production –and word on the street is that this number may stretch the truth.  Professor Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has said, “If just 5% of China farms organically, that is enough, that is a good first step.”  Let’s do it.  Let’s aim for a true and accurately counted 5%.

Lohao City, an organic grocery chain based out of Beijing, has been referred to as the "Trader Joe's" of China, and there are some similarities.  The grocery chain has been featured several times in expat publications, and the owners are vibrant and strongly believe in the importance of safe, organic, and nutritious food.

The chain has stores in five cities: Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Tianjin, and additionally, the option to purchase online.  With organic food from all over China as well as from international sources, as well as fresh vegetables sourced from their own Beijing farm, they are the go-to location for consumers most concerned about the quality and safety of their purchases.

Lohao City has a strong focus on healthy, safe, and high-quality food.  Though not all of what they sell is organic, a large portion of it is.  They also clearly mark products so that the consumer can discern the organic from the non-organic products.  The store is dedicated to verifying that all its food is genuine organic food, and continues to work to understand the Chinese market.
Anlong Village, outside of Chengdu, is a very successful example of a small-scale organic farm.  What sets it apart from many of the other small-scale urban-accessible farms in China is that is –and was –farmer owned and managed.

The village did not start organic.  Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA) first started working with Anlong to solve water pollution challenges –runoff etc.  Part of the solution to water quality was organic farming.  Currently nine farms have chosen to convert to organic farming –which means more work but also more income for the farmers.  This higher income results not only from growing a higher-value, safer food, but also income from visitors to the farm and from renting small plots of pesticide-free land to urban residents who want to grow their own organic food.

Two farmer families “lead,” so to speak, the organic farmers.  They have trucks and are able to make vegetable deliveries into the city as well as interact more intensely with customers.  These families are the Wang family and the Gao family –set apart by the fact that the Wang family raises animals and the Gao family is vegetarian.

Sitting down to an organic vegetarian meal with the Gao household in Anlong Village (even their dogs are restricted to a vegetarian diet) is a case study in local, sustainable, and environmentally healthy cuisine.  Over 80 percent of the meal was from their farm, including the rice.  They purchased seeds and some gluten from the city (less than 1 hour drive away) to supplement the vegetables.  The farOne farmer had left the countryside to become a DJ, but returned to the farm as the value of farming shifted.

The direct economic advantage to the rural population, as well as the significant environmental improvement as a result of the farming practices at Anlong Village highlight the possibility of a significant impact on the local environment and local rural populations if this type of model can be implemented in other similar villages in China.
The farm has an interesting history, as well. 

For some links to other people working on Anlong projects, click here, or here, or perhaps here, or here.  As you can see, there is a lot of on-the-ground action in Anlong Village.