Eating Organic in China

„I went to the farms in our area and tried to find the ones who were growing organic food,“ says Yinghui Zhang-Carraro. Yinghui is a freelance writer and resident of Beijing and organic food has been a longtime staple in her household. During a recent encounter at the BioFach Messe for organic food in Nurmberg, she provided me with a glimpse of the evolution that the organic food market has been undergoing in her neighborhood.

What type of organic food is available in the markets in your neighborhood? What do you miss most?

If you mean supermarkets in my neighborhood, you can find organically labeled veggies and fruits, and most of grains and seeds commonly grown in China. I miss most the great tastes of real food I enjoyed thirty years ago in my home town near the border with Russia as most of food then was grown naturally with compost and no sprays. The other thing I miss very much is clean seafood!

How much trouble is it to shop for „basics“, such as organic vegetables or rice, compared to conventional food? Are there parts of the city where it is easier to find organic food? If yes, what sets them apart from other areas?

If you knew well about the real organic and natural farmers around Beijing, it would not be a problem getting most of the basics you need. And if you trust the supermarket system, you can easily buy the organically labeled basics in many supermarkets. In Chaoyang district in Beijing, organically labeled food products are easy to find in most of the supermarkets and special small scale shops catering for expatriates as most expatriates and high income earners live in this area.

What is the price difference compared to regular food?

It differs a lot, depending on food categories, where you buy them, and who produces them. For instance, the cheapest organic white rice is 12 yuan (about 1.4 euros) per kilo, while the conventional one is as cheap as 3 yuan per kilo. In general organically labeled vegetables may cost three to ten times more than their conventional cousins, and the same can be said with all other organically labeled food items, while some small organic and natural farms supply the vegetables at fixed rate for all types of veggies grown in the farms, usually at the price much lower than those organically labeled counterparts found in the supermarkets.

How is the market for organic food organized? Do people buy directly from the farms? If not, what type of shop sells it?

The market for organic food in Beijing or in China is not organized yet. The main channels are still supermarket chains where the general public is exposed to ‚organic food items‘. Though an ‚organic‘ chain store, called Lohao City, has been in the market since autumn 2006 with ten stores in Beijing at the moment, it has failed to deliver what an organic retailer can do elsewhere. Another phenomenon is community supported agriculture (CSA) that has started to come into people’s lives focusing on box schemes and farm visits of its members. As a result, gradually people are aware of the importance of knowing who is really growing your food and how it is grown. Personally I get three or four deliveries a week from two small farms around Beijing providing most of the food we eat, i.e. supermarkets have not been an option for food any more for my family since early 2009.

What drives farmers in your area to grow organic food? Is it part of their philosophy or is it for other reasons?

I have met some organic and natural farmers who have been driven by ideology, but most have been trying to cash in the premiums as the organic market is far from mature. Together with the Chinese characteristic of a market often dominated by ‚gift business‘, lack of information and misinformation have contributed to over pricing of organically labeled food products in China. Unfortunately this hinders the healthy growth of a domestic organic market. ‚Gift business‘ refers to any products that could be potentially bought or ordered as gifts to be given to employees of company of different sizes and government institutions. Some web shopping companies dealing with organically labeled products simply sell vouchers to such companies at high price and the end consumers know little about’organic‘.

The people in your city who buy organic food, what are their motives?

Both local people and expatriates have been concerned with food safety issues in China as a result of some big food scandals arising in recent years. And organic food in China has been often marketed as a safe and healthy option, though environmental benefits are always the last to be mentioned. A reflection of this can be noticed by the way some producers and retailers tend to overpackage lots of products, which consequently turns away some organic consumers. Most people buying organic products in China either think they are safer than conventional products, even if they are not really up to organic standards, or they just believe they are organic, so safe, healthy, and beneficial to the environment.

How does the government relate to the organic food market: does it provide any support?

As the domestic organic market just started in recent years, and ‚organic‘ plus bio-dynamic have been ’new‘ concepts in every arena of business in China, both the regulations regarding organic farming from the government level and certification from certifying bodies have not been strong enough to provide favorable conditions. Nevertheless some kind of support has been in place, for instance, certified farms can get some financial support from the local government to pay part of the certification fees. In the organic sector, the implementation of punishment for irregularities and the inspection on any wrongdoings have not been adequate, thus undermining public trust and confidence in organic products domestically produced.

Chinese food is rich with concepts about healthy and spiritually „correct“ ways of cooking and eating. How does this tradition relate to „sustainability“ in the Western sense?

The traditional Chinese approach toward food and cooking has been changed greatly over the last one or two decades due to many factors including globalization and inability to defend our traditions during decades of  opening up to the outside world. However part of it is still in the blood in people 35 years and above, for example, a meal is incomplete without a large serving of leafy vegetables. With more money in the pockets, more and more people have been opting for much more animal protein rich foods which in turn not only play a major role in the prevalence of modern diseases which were rare in the past, but have also become a main contributor to the resources-hungry,large-scale industrial farming of animals that has brought many environmental consequences, and it is simply unsustainable. To maintain ’sustainability‘ in China  without substantially affecting economic growth, public understanding of sustainability needs to be covered more in all media and NGOs ought to be a main player in educating and reaching the general public more effectively.

Birte Pampel

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