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Organic Food in China


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There is a store across the street from me that is part of an organic food chain. Many of their products are imported so I can trust those items. As for the produce, I want to believe but I'm not entirely sure. For similar reasons, in the States, I don't bother buying "organic" bananas from Mexico and Central America. Besides, I eat enough junk anyway that a few organic items aren't going to make any difference.

To be 100% certain that any food in China is really organic, I think we have to be invited to dinner at Zhongnanhai.


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Dependence on "organic" crops is a bad idea, which at least in the US is based on a great many myths about the business. We've been down this road before, long ago before the invention of pesticides, tractors, and fertilizers, organic was the way everything was grown. The result? Cyclical famines which killed millions, which was why the western nations moved away from it as quickly as they could.

In the future the only sensible way to go is with genetically modified crops because they eliminate the problems of conventional industrial farming (pollution caused by pesticide runoff and loss of topsoil) while at the same time increasing available yields. In the past decade China has invested very heavily in this area, and has approved GMO rice and corn strains for human consumption. The future is now.

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There's a pretty interesting profile on some organic farms near Chengdu in yesterday's SCMP magazine. (If I were down in Chengdu, I'd try to contact these farmers). Essentially, a group of organic farmers ships in organic produce to families in Chengdu, who pay a decent price for the vegetables. The small-scale of the organization (and the fact that the consumers can check out the farms) gives it a degree of trust that you probably couldn't get from a certificate alone, especially since cheating is so rampant.

Here's a portion of the article:

In the winter of 2006, Gao Qingrong made her annual Lunar New Year trek home to the family farm, near Chengdu, Sichuan province. She was in for a surprise; her parents had turned a small corner of their farm into an organic experiment.

"I was immediately against this," she says, squatting down to examine some vegetables. "I thought it would be too much work."

A few days later, Tian Jun of the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (Cura) stopped by and gave her a translation of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a 1962 book detailing the negative effects of pesticides on the environment - and on birds in particular - in the United States. The book sent shockwaves throughout the US five decades ago and is now beginning to have an impact in the mainland.

Gao, a 38-year-old who dropped out of high school to look for work in Jiangsu province, says the book was a revelation.

"It was frightening. As soon as I finished reading it, I completely changed my mind," says Rongrong, as she's known to family and friends. "From that day on, I have never let my parents use chemicals on our land."

Gao quit her factory job to stay at home and help out. She then convinced her brothers to do the same - a minor reversal in the mass urbanisation of the nation - and the family began transforming its four mu (0.2 hectares) of land into an exclusively organic farm. The Gaos and a handful of like-minded farmers in Anlong village, a 40-minute drive from Chengdu, are now at the forefront of an expanding, albeit still small, trend in China.


In 2007, seven of the organic farming families joined together to form the Healthful Vegetable Delivery Service, which, with the help of Cura, began to supply restaurants in Chengdu that shared a concern about food safety. Word spread from the restaurateurs to consumers and business began to pick up. For the first time since the experiment began, the farmers felt they might be turning a corner.

Last year, the Gaos invested in a small truck, in which members of the co-operative take their produce to Chengdu, where the group has about 100 customers, each paying 200 yuan (HK$230) a month for its produce.

The farmers initially sold their goods for as little as 50 fen per jin (500 grams). However, it was their customers - mainly upper-middle-class Chinese and a few foreigners - who encouraged them to boost their prices to a uniform five yuan per jin, compared with two yuan per jin for non-organic produce.

"Our customers know how hard we work to grow our vegetables, so don't think they are expensive," says Rongrong.

Nonetheless, it's unlikely the co-operative's produce will ever receive certification.


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