Yet what is more important is finding a solution to this counterfeiting.
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.
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.
Biofach China (May 24 to 26), in Shanghai is the biggest, most innovative, and most exciting organic food expo in China. Held at INTEX Shanghai exhibition hall, just a short metro ride from city center, this year the event included 300 exhibitor stands and two days of presentations.
For the fifth year running (Biofach China is five years old now), this year's expo is larger than last year's. Prominent on the exhibition floor included Lohas, Organic Farm, and Tony's Farm, among many others. Stands included exporters, importers, and local producers. Organic products such as exotic herbs and camel milk (surprisingly tasty!) were featured near vegetable stands. This year also included an increase in organic soaps, textiles and baby products, according to another attendee.
Presentations were optimistic about the future of organic food in China, highlighting organic industry in the country as a "sunrise industry." Innovative websites and investment plans, and optimism about the role of organic food in China's goal for food security were discussed.
For an industry based on customer trust, facetime at events like this is crucial. Organic and Beyond also, like several companies, held their own event near the expo --a fascinating wine-and-hors d'oeuvres affair that presented business fundamentals (business is booming) and introduced customers, organic food experts, and others working towards success in the organic food market that with innovative thinking, success at the organic food business is very possible.
Tyler, an American student studying at 北大 (Peking University), is a prime example of foreign students in China, looking to keep their healthy eating habits in China. Tyler, a vegan who has "changed to vegetarianism due to inconvenience in China" is currently researching CAFOs in China, and honestly believes in a sustainable future for the country. We met at a vegetarian restaurant, which offers organic raw vegetables, to chat.
What are some of your biggest challenges when choosing what to eat?
Language and cultural propriety/politeness. Having a limited vocab often does not cut it for local dining. Visiting friends or dining with friends can be a problem: the concept of vegetarian and/or vegan is bizarre (even in Beijing), and refusing food often results in your counterpart becoming dejected and/or offended. Lack of language married to smaller stores can be a problem: if used to one-stop shopping in States, that likely won't cut it here unless you find a Western conglomerate.
So, you arrived in Beijing just a few months ago, where are some interesting places in China you have visited so far?
So far my travels have ranged from Shanghai trailing along the coast to Wenzhou in Zhejiang province. This weekend I travel around Henan and next brings me to Chongqing. This summer's aspiration: a trip in Tibet.
Any sites that are most impressive?
Site-wise I would have to opt for Yangdong Mountain in Zhejiang. Yea yea yea, Westerners love mountains, but seriously. This region offers tours that extend from sun-up past sun-down, and avoids being mega-touristy. The environment in Zhejiang and southern provinces-compared to thirsty Beijing-is remarkable and illustrates the divide in endowment of natural resources.
Food-wise I would say the Temple Fair in Beijing was the craziest. During this "holiday" people from all provinces in China congregate in central locations (in a given city) and prepare local dishes. Wandering around one day with a non-vegetarian friend who was willing to try scorpion, squid, silkworm...that was pretty priceless. Downside: Beijinger friends made me eat a plate of stinky tofu.
What is your view on sustainability and organic food in China?
Organic farming is such a relevant case study in China. Transition from completely organic nation...to urbanization and industrial growth destroying organic chances...buildup of non-organic now meeting slow growth and awareness of benefits and appeal of organic food. Fertilizers are the death of organic in China, as non-organic compounds positively soak the Chinese soil with an excess of nutrients, all to ensure food security in China. The problem really does come down to urbanization and transportation...though ramping up investment in rural transportation and main lines of transport. China has almost reached a 50% urban population, an incredible feat. These people are not being fed backyard vegetables and local-vegetarian-fed food, they are likely being fed food from safe factories and bigger farms that can ensure food quality and mass production.
There are a few measures that the government is capable of enforcing in the way of sustainability in bigger cities, i.e. tax on plastic bags. For China, sustainability frequently meets national policies of reduction and an improved global image: lower carbon emissions, clean up cars in advance of Olympics (I think this was get rid of diesel fuel or something?!?), etc. Sustainability is definitely on the rise in China and is increasingly woven into their rhetoric and policies. Push comes to shove: economic development at all costs trumps everything else right now, however.
In the Southeast suburbs of Beijing (about 25 km south-east of city center), a model ecological commune started in 1982 still stands. Liuminying Ecological Village is 145 hectares of wheat and fruit trees, with row upon row of greenhouse followed by row upon row of henhouse.
The farm, applauded by the UN in 1987 as one of 500 models of environmental sustainability. The fee for a tour of the commune is 50 yuan per person. For an additional 60 or so yuan, your tour guide will drive you around in a golf cart. There is also the option of staying overnight. The commune itself consists of about 250 families, including several model families who display their homes for tourists. Homes are heated with a mixture of biogas from the biogas facility on the compound, as well as solar. Those living in the commune are given a wage, generated from the selling of the farm’s goods. Those that work harder get a bonus. They also receive a portion of grains.
The look of the village itself is something unique to China only, built in a quasi-soviet style, adorned with fences, and gold, and even a miniature of the Great Wall running along a main walkway. Tall brick walls are covered in poster-sized photos of the famous, powerful, and exotic visitors who have passed through. And the previous mayor was a Mao impersonator for a while –the resemblance is quite striking! The streets in the afternoon are quite quiet, the greenhouses are impeccably well-kept and technically well-planned. The fields, though largely organic, have had some pesticide help and so are not all organic. This model commune is an interesting experience indeed, unique to China and a location for which each visitor can draw his or her own conclusions and learn a bit about early ecological planning in 1980s China until today.
This weekend the well-known Little Donkey Farm in the suburbs of Beijing had its Spring Planting Festival, and in addition hosted the Country Fair monthly organic food market. The result? Two thousand visitors (mostly Chinese!), many farm stands, local people working plots of land, and a wonderful and inspiring ongoing dialogue on the state of organic food in Beijing.
Many attending the festival were eager to share their views on organic farming. One man who had rented a plot of land from Little Donkey Farm, and was preparing the soil with some of his close relatives, explained his reasoning for growing his own organic vegetables. "They taste better, I trust them...with all the food safety concerns like what now they have mantou with coloring...we grow all our own vegetables in the spring and summertime. And its nice to come outside and work the land. We used to be farmers."
Another man, who receives periodic deliveries of Little Donkey Farm vegetables had also made the trip up to the farm for the festival. "My wife is a doctor," he said, "there is so much cancer of the stomach, the intestines...I did my own research and they spray pesticides on everything. And the organic vegetables in the supermarket...who knows if they are actually organic." He has moved almost completely to organic foods, supplementing his CSA with organic oil and rice he purchases near his home.
To the side of the farm, the market was buzzing with activity and exchanges of information: Where do you buy your oil? How do you clean your dishes? Have you heard of the latest food scandal? Patrons were purchasing cases of eggs, flour, yogurt, vegetables, and tofu. NGOs handed out information, and Chinese performers sang songs and danced.