Organic food at a crossroads

The Chinese public are concerned about the safety of their food, government surveys have shown. But many factors still prevent consumers from buying the chemical-free produce they want, writes Jiang Gaoming.

Last month I took a group of students on a field trip to Shandong province, eastern China. The local watermelon harvest was underway, and buyers were flocking to the area. We gave the local farmers access to our scales so they could weigh their produce, and they each left us a watermelon in return. On eating them, however, we found the watermelons lacked their customary sweetness and granulated texture: the flesh was more like meat. The watermelon plants had been grafted onto gourds, so that they would be more pest-resistant, grow larger, faster and be more productive. These watermelons, which are sold to consumers in the cities, present a food safety risk. 

A quality of life survey conducted last year by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) – now the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) – found that food safety was one of the most important environmental concerns for the Chinese public. There is an increasing demand for healthy and environmentally friendly foods that are free of pesticides, fertilisers, herbicides, hormones and genetic modification: organic food, in short.

Unfortunately, China’s organic food industry has a long way to go. China produces 3 billion yuan (US$438 million) worth of organic food every year, with US$200 million going to export: around 1% of the global organic food market. Organic food accounts for only 0.02% of the total domestic food market; the global average is 2%. Many artificial factors are holding back the sector, and here are some:

Faking it

Producing organic food requires more time and labour than the alternative, with lower yields in return. Consumers are also often unable to tell the difference between the two. Consequently, many Chinese vendors will pass off non-organic produce as organic food. Some producers run small, tightly-controlled organic operations of 30 to 40 mu (0.02 to 0.025 square kilometres) in order to gain organic certification, then package their non-organic produce as organic at a fraction of the cost. I discovered one producer on the outskirts of Beijing, whose “organic” vegetables were grown under canopies with no sign of organic production, not even organic fertiliser. The farm, however, had been certified as organic, and they were selling the vegetables at organic prices.

Farmers’ double standards

Nobody knows food safety better than farmers: they understand the dangers of pesticides, fertilisers, herbicides, additives, hormones and GM crops. When they grow their own vegetables – on their land, in their gardens and even on their roofs – it’s organic. They will not eat battery chickens that are brought to maturity in only 45 days, preferring free-range chickens from their own yards that have been raised for 150 days. They know that the food they produce is unhealthy, but they will not risk the alternative because of the threat posed by greater costs, smaller harvests and lower market prices. Last year I asked some farmers in Yimeng, Shandong province, to grow 1.5 mu (1,000 square metres) of organic garlic using no fertilisers, pesticides, herbicide or agricultural membrane. Despite its excellent flavour, the buyers were not interested because the bulbs were all different sizes. I had to buy the crop myself and give it away to friends.

Consumer ignorance

Urban consumers have little agricultural knowledge and can only distinguish organic and non-organic foods by the label. They are unlikely to choose less-attractive, pricier organic food. Naturally ripened tomatoes may be green on the outside and red on the inside, unlike tomatoes that have been forced to ripen with chemicals; free-range eggs are of different sizes and colours, unlike uniform eggs from battery chickens. When faced with these choices, consumers often prefer the non-organic option. In other parts of the world, organic food tends to be about 50% more expensive; in China, it can be between two to 10 times the price of non-organic food. (In a few cases, even 50 times the price). The beef we helped raise in Shandong province is free of hormones and additives, and the cows still reach weights of 510 kilograms. But if the price were identical, farms would prefer to raise cows non-organically. If the price were higher by 10% then there a small profit could be made, and at a 50% premium it would be the preferred choice, yet still remain affordable for high-income urban households.

Building capacity

Organic food production means protecting the environment and repairing the land. It is a field for those with a high degree of social responsibility and environmental awareness. However, some organic food producers, lacking the capital that allows one to have a long-term view, pass off second-rate products as high quality, or simply sell fakes. There are profits to be made in organic food, but it requires strategic foresight, social responsibility and financial backing to find them. There can be 10-fold or even 100-fold differences in price between different items of clothing, cigarettes, tea, alcohol, cosmetics and even labour: there is a market for dearer options. But the same is not true of food in China. If the organic food industry can persuade consumers to pay a higher price in exchange for better quality, there are profits to be made. But doing this will require patience, confidence and trust-building.

Although China’s Ministry of Agriculture and other government bodies have strict rules on organic food production, their work is focused on certification, and there is a lack of oversight in production and processing. Producers are often warned of imminent inspections, and officials are unaware of what actually happens on the ground. The production of organic food involves agriculture, food processing and environmental protection: government supervision requires participation from a range of experts if it is to be effective.

The organic food sector is a rising star in the agriculture and food industries, with huge potential for growth. Fostering this sector will need active leadership and financial backing from government. Scientists must provide the public with the facts, while urban consumers need to make wise buying decisions. Farmers should pay as much care to the food they grow for market as that they grow for their tables, in order to protect their own interests and be sure to make a living.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor and Ph.D. tutor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group. He is known for his concepts of “urban vegetation” and allowing damaged ecosystems to recover naturally.

Homepage photo by Qiao-Da-Ye