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Can China Clean Up Its Food Exports by Going Organic?
Mara Hvistendahl, 13 Sep 07
Article Photo

This spring and summer, reports of tainted pet food, cough syrup, and seafood from China entering the US market have focused attention on China's sub-par export standards. Following a barrage of negative press coverage, fully two-thirds of Americans now have little or no confidence that food from China is safe to eat. But what about average Chinese, who don't have the luxury of buying food imported from other countries?

Most people here still buy their groceries in crowded wet markets or from vendors who display vegetables on blankets laid out on the street. Such areas are difficult to regulate. But even in Chinese supermarkets along the developed eastern seaboard, it is common to find poorly wrapped slabs of week-old chicken anchoring the meat refrigerator. Now there is news of secret farms for Olympic-grade pork and vegetables intended to provide China's athletes with high-quality food -- which wouldn't be necessary, of course, if the country had in place a system that guaranteed good food to all. The World Health Organization estimates that illnesses caused by tainted food cost China $4.7 and $14 billion a year in medical care and loss of productivity.

After a schizophrenic series of reactions that included executing the former head of China's food and drug safety agency and producing a laughable television series titled "Believe in Made in China", the Chinese government finally seems to be addressing its domestic food safety woes. Two weeks ago, it introduced a recall system for food and toys. Earlier this summer, it unveiled a five-year plan for food and drug safety. Such policies a good start. But they do little to address the root of China's food problems. A better solution? As the country rethinks its food production, it should to consider the link between agriculture and its grave environmental problems.

China is in the difficult position of having to address environmental damage even as it increases food production to accommodate a population that is eating better and richer foods. As the move this week to suspend an afforestation project in order to reserve land for agriculture suggests, Chinese policymakers tend to see these challenges as conflicting. But a few dissenters take the view that the country's environmental and agricultural concerns can be addressed in tandem.

Gaoming Jiang, a botanist with the Chinese Academy of the Sciences in Beijing, has been active in the domestic food safety debate, attracting attention earlier this summer with an article explaining how dead chickens end up in China's food supply. He now espouses organic farming as a solution that will both produce high-quality food and reduce pollution in rural areas - and bring higher incomes to Chinese farmers. As China's middle and upper classes demand high-quality food, Jiang says, what makes ecological sense will make economic sense:

A single hen can lay up to 250 eggs a year, when free-range hens can lay no more than 50. However, since these free-range eggs can be taken to the city and sold for 10 times the price of battery-farmed eggs, herders can profitably give up their cattle and produce free-range chickens and eggs. This will mean the herders can resume their nomadic lifestyles; they can also relieve some of the ecological pressure on the grasslands, which are faced with growing desertification, and Beijing will suffer fewer sandstorms.

Jiang is not alone in pushing for sustainable food in China. But getting Chinese farmers to go organic will not happen overnight. Field conversion takes three years, and then farmers must be properly trained. As the country's GDP grows, the challenge will be to keep farms small and local. Already, large tracts of land are being set aside for organic rice and soybean production in northeast China. Many of these farms will produce products for export to the West - considering the fuel required for transport, hardly an ecological solution, and certainly not the way to address China's own food needs.

Jiang's argument seems to suggest that the market alone can take care of the problem. Farmers will need a lot of help from the government as well. But in switching to sustainable agriculture, China has an advantage over, say, the US, in that most of its agriculture is still small. It has the chance to get things right the first time around.

Image: flickr/testing.ipernity

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Comments

Thank you for this informative article. Understanding/monitoring/helping improve food exports from China is a vital issue. I hope that you'll write more articles on this important topic!


Posted by: Andrea on 16 Sep 07

You bring up some good points about the China's growing food problem and the benefits of organic agriculture. True, organic agriculture may be a solution for China...but only for some agricultural products and in all parts of China since geographic and climatic conditions make organic agriculture more costly than it's worth.

Also, even if farmers can make more money off of free range eggs, the truth is that the majority of Chinese people don't really care where their eggs come from, as long as they're cheap, nor can they be convinced that they are indeed free range. So there first needs to be a culture of buying and eating organic products created in China, like in the US.

While agriculture in China is considered small, and family based, compared to US agriculture, it's highly dispersed without a lot of communication infrastructure connecting villages in the rural parts of China. To say that "It still has the chance to get things right the first time around" is inaccurate, because Chinese agriculture has been around for thousands of years longer than agriculture of many other civilizations, including that of the US.

In fact, traditional Chinese agriculture is heavily based on organic methods. Many of the more remote farms still employ organic methods and do not use pesticides or other chemicals at all. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, there is not really a market for organic products within China...so switching to organic (which is not necessarily better environmentally or economically...it depends) would not really solve food quality problems within China.


Posted by: Mary on 3 Oct 07

You bring up some good points about China's growing food problem and the benefits of organic agriculture. True, organic agriculture may be a solution for China...but only for some agricultural products and in all parts of China since geographic and climatic conditions make organic agriculture more costly than it's worth.

Also, even if farmers can make more money off of free range eggs, the truth is that the majority of Chinese people don't really care where their eggs come from, as long as they're cheap, nor can they be convinced that they are indeed free range. So there first needs to be a culture of buying and eating organic products created in China, like in the US.

While agriculture in China is considered small, and family based, compared to US agriculture, it's highly dispersed without a lot of communication infrastructure connecting villages in the rural parts of China. To say that "It still has the chance to get things right the first time around" is inaccurate, because Chinese agriculture has been around for thousands of years longer than agriculture of many other civilizations, including that of the US.

In fact, traditional Chinese agriculture is heavily based on organic methods. Many of the more remote farms still employ organic methods and do not use pesticides or other chemicals at all. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, there is not really a market for organic products within China...so switching to organic (which is not necessarily better environmentally or economically...it depends) would not really solve food quality problems within China.


Posted by: Mary on 3 Oct 07

You bring up some good points about China's growing food problem and the benefits of organic agriculture. True, organic agriculture may be a solution for China...but only for some agricultural products and not in all parts of China since geographic and climatic conditions sometimes make organic agriculture more costly for poor farmers than it's worth.

Also, even if farmers can make more money off of free range eggs, the truth is that the majority of Chinese people don't really care where their eggs come from, as long as they're cheap, nor can they be convinced that they are indeed free range. So there first needs to be a culture of buying and eating organic products created in China, like in the US.

While agriculture in China is considered small, and family based, compared to US agriculture, it's highly dispersed without a lot of communication infrastructure connecting villages in the rural parts of China. To say that "It still has the chance to get things right the first time around" is inaccurate, because Chinese agriculture has been around for thousands of years longer than agriculture of many other civilizations, including that of the US.

In fact, traditional Chinese agriculture is heavily based on organic methods. Many of the more remote farms still employ organic methods and do not use pesticides or other chemicals at all. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, there is not really a market for organic products within China...so switching to organic (which is not necessarily better environmentally or economically...it depends) would not really solve food quality problems within China.


Posted by: Mary on 3 Oct 07



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