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.

 
 
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%.

 
 
It takes more than farmers to make a successful Farmer's Market in China, but they are an essential ingredient.  Farmers provide the fresh produce and the organic food know-how, but finding a location, organizing farmers, and working though the complex logistics of starting the market is a full-time task in and of itself.

Beijing currently has a monthly organic food market called "Country Fair," organized by the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy (IATP), an NGO based out of Minnesota.  These markets have been relatively successful in Beijing, and are also starting in Shanghai.  I attended the first of these Shanghai markets, a wonderful mix of food for sale, opportunities to sign up for CSAs and learn about organic food, and get to know local farmers. 
Shanghai farmers market
Shanghai farmers market
 
 
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.