People whose impressions of Chinese food exports are colored by reports
of contaminated pet food or pesticide-laced dumplings might not expect
China to have much of an organic market. They would be wrong. According
to "The Greening of China's Food: Green Food, Organic Food, and
Eco-labelling," a paper presented at the May 2008 Sustainable
Consumption and Alternative Agri-Food Systems Conference, 28% of
China's arable land—just over 34 million hectares—is devoted to
"eco-foods," a designation that includes organic certification as well
as China's unique "green" and "hazard-free" categories of food.
In an increasingly global food market, unexpected opportunities for
farmers around the world are opening in unlikely places, such as
China's experiments with organic food. The world market for organic
foods has soared, with sales growing by more than US$5 billion annually
and doubling between 2000 and 2006, according to the International
Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an umbrella
organization based in Bonn, Germany. That international trend explains
why China and other countries—despite relatively little domestic demand
for organic food—have become big players in the organic market.
Organic farming in China is largely an export-oriented
industry, with the main products for both export and import being
cereals, soybeans, and tea, followed by some vegetables, fruits and
meat. Yet, although China has instituted several eco-food certification
systems, reports of lax inspections persist. "Regulation is an
imperfect substitute for the accountability, and trust, built into a
market in which food producers meet the gaze of eaters and vice versa,"
author Michael Pollan writes in his 2008 book
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.
In situations where farmers and consumers can't meet face-to-face at
the farmer's market, however, some form of inspection is all that's
left to serve the interest of public health. How, then, is China
adapting to secure the safety of its exports and the health of its own
Beating a Bad Rap
observers, including Pollan, are skeptical of China's organic exports.
"You cannot count on the regulatory regime in China," he said on
National Public Radio's
Talk of the Nation on
10 August 2007. For Pollan, China's poor record on environmental
protection raises a critical question: just how "organic" in actuality
are China's organic exports? Expanding on this concern in
In Defense of Food,
he writes that in China "the rapid industrialization of the food system
is leading to alarming breakdowns in food safety and integrity."
Such concerns are reinforced by incidents such as the
January 2008 discovery that meat dumplings exported to Japan from Hebei
Province were contaminated with methamidophos, an organophosphate
pesticide that can be highly toxic if ingested orally. The dumplings
caused nausea and dizziness in 175 people, and Japanese supermarkets
temporarily removed all Chinese meat products from their shelves.
(Chinese authorities have suggested the methamidophos was applied in
Japan as product sabotage, contradicting Japanese police findings.)
Many U.S. consumers wonder whether China's soil and air
are too polluted to support truly organic agriculture. Greg Fogel, a
master's degree researcher in public policy and natural resources at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says "it depends on the
company" as to whether organic certification accounts for
nonagricultural pollutants in the soil. More broadly, Fogel and others
say that China's organic farming industry is focused on remote
provinces where urban industry emissions are relatively scarce and
where "modern" agrochemicals are not available. However, in the more
urban and industrial south near Hong Kong, up the Guangdong coast and
in the Yangtze Valley, soil pollution is a recognized problem.
Chinese food production has a bad rap within the
country as well. The Chinese government estimates that food poisoning
affects up to 40,000 people each year, according to
The Spread of Organic Agriculture in China, a research brief by Natalie Baer published in November 2007 by the nonprofit Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Health has become a vital public issue in China, and protecting
children becomes especially important in a land with a one-child
policy, notes Brian Heimberg, an employee of a regional planning and
design agency in Shanghai who previously worked for several years as
business development officer for wholesaler Shanghai Organics. He says
consumer suspicion of central labeling and claims is widespread, and
incident reports get amplified by word of mouth. Yet Fogel, during the
nine months in 2007 he spent as community outreach and education
coordinator for Shanghai Organics, found that most of the company's
customers viewed "organic" as a foreign idea not necessarily linked to
their own concerns about food safety. "The two biggest barriers [to
market growth in China] still are trust and price," he says.
A second obstacle to domestic acceptance of organic
food remains the difference in price compared with conventional
produce. In 2004, organic foods in the United States commanded premiums
of 9–78% over comparable nonorganic items, according to John
Stevens-Garmon and colleagues in volume 22, issue 2 (2007) of
a food trade magazine. In China—where the eco-food market started in
cities and expatriate communities that enjoy incomes much higher than
local wages—that premium can be up to 700% over comparable items,
according to IFOAM.
Still, organic retailers have begun to multiply in
China in the past year, and according to Ursula Chen, formerly a
consultant to the U.S. Agricultural Trade Office in Guangzhou, nearly
all supermarkets in mainland China have doubled their floor space for
organic goods. Imported organic products are also available in some
high-end retail stores. "A conclusion that can be made is that more
local Chinese are buying organic," she says.
Toward an Optimal Policy
several years China has expressed commitment to improving its
environmental record and that of its agricultural sector, but it is
still exploring how to make good on this promise. "At the national
level, a lot of it is rhetoric," says Baer. In China's policy
discussion, she says, Beijing has taken its cues from the global market
with an eye to export potential.
Domestically, China's policy experiment involves
testing the international organic approach against its own categories
of green and hazard-free food, which the government introduced in the
early 1990s and 2001, respectively, in response to concerns over health
incidents and contaminated food. Green certification indicates that
chemicals used on the produce have been strictly controlled and the
food is guaranteed to be safe to eat (initially the term was
"pollution-free" but that seemed to imply that normal food contained
pollution, so the name changed). Hazard-free certification focuses on
controlling illegal use of highly toxic agricultural chemicals and
violations of pesticide residue standards.
As the promise of the global organic market emerged,
the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) established an
agency to set standards for exports modeled on international standards.
In 1994 this agency became the Organic Food Development Center (OFDC),
based in Nanjing. Organic exports certified with the OFDC label have
grown since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. That
year the OFDC instituted the first comprehensive standard for
inspecting and certifying organic products, according to center staff
scientist Xie Weihua and colleagues in a paper presented at the
December 2007 Regional Conference on Organic Agriculture in Asia.
In 2002 China signaled the rising priority of the
organic products sector by creating another agency, the Certification
and Accreditation Administration of China (CNCA), to take over the
growing new field of accreditation nationwide. By early 2005, that
agency had established the Chinese National Organic Product Standard
(CNOPS) under a separate law for organic products to resolve confusion
over the competing eco-food standards. CNOPS is based on the IFOAM
Basic Standards—a set of principles, recommendations, and baselines to
ensure organic integrity—and is compatible with U.S., European, and
Japanese rules. That same year, according to OFDC figures, the acreage
devoted to certified organic farming had increased nearly tenfold in
just three years, and reached one-sixth of the area devoted to green
By late 2007, CNCA oversaw the inspections and
licensing of close to 30 decentralized agencies that certify farms for
eco-food production. OFDC remains the most commonly used certifying
agency, but other certifying bodies and their labels have proliferated
as organic farms choose an inspecting agency according to the export
destination of their produce, according to Xie. Baer explains that what
might appear to be a bureaucratic overlap between the two ministries'
efforts became part of the policy experiment. "This duality isn't
uncommon," she explains. China may be using this parallel tracking (and
inherent competition between the two systems) to define its options for
an optimal policy.
province level, governments are tinkering with supports that attract
organic farming. Some provinces have created incentives for organizing
their own large export ventures. Other jurisdictions offer incentives
to private operators; the district government offered a subsidized
rental rate to Shanghai Organics for its farm operation, says Heimberg,
and its farm received other tax benefits. In exchange, the local
government used the farm as a demonstration of what the district could
become; Heimberg comments, "In China, as other places, relationships
are of utmost importance."
But distance to markets can limit the scope of local
incentives. In Yunnan Province, for example, provincial policy differs
little from national policy, according to Marco Stark, an inspector for
FLO-CERT, a company that certifies Fairtrade worker and environmental
practices. But even in Yunnan's capital, a city of nearly 5.8 million
people, there's next to no market for organic food, according to Stark,
and Yunnan farmers face barriers to entering distant urban markets in
Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
Another factor limiting the domestic distribution of
organic produce is that so much of the supply is being exported. The
stores selling organic goods—including the French-based supermarket
Carrefour, among other chains—need a steady high-volume supply to
maintain consumer confidence. Without a steady supply, small producers
can't enter the market the way large-volume exporters can.
In Hong Kong, it's a different story. The island's
citizenry have a relatively high income and a health consciousness that
makes them willing to pay a premium for safe food. The U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA) has even identified Hong Kong as a potential
market for U.S. organic exporters, according to
South China Organic Food Market Brief,
a 2006 report prepared by Chen, which notes that many farm businesses
had flourished selling organic and green produce in supermarkets in
South China. Chen says many consumers in this region are alarmed by
reports that China uses 30% of the world's nitrogen fertilizer on under
10% of the world's arable land, and is the world's largest user of
pesticides and chemical fertilizer. In 2006, she says, there were 9
companies in Guangdong (the large mainland city near Hong Kong) selling
74 types of certified organic products—although most of the 2,213 tons
sold were bound for export.
Organic awareness in Hong Kong goes beyond the produce
to the soil where it grows. The Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre,
which began certifying organic producers in 2004, requires soil samples
from every farm applicant, according to Sharon Chan, a staff scientist
at the center. The samples are tested for residual levels of heavy
metals and other contaminants using criteria based on Dutch standards.
observers including Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the private
Peterson Institute for International Economics, have cited the need for
China to increase its domestic consumption of goods and services to
achieve balanced economic growth. In this regard, it is reasonable to
expect that growth in the green and organic markets could be
economically as well as environmentally beneficial, and green food may
be the gateway to popularizing the stricter organic market.
When Fogel was working for Shanghai Organics, his big
challenge was linking the company to farmer's markets around Shanghai.
Once he got a few going, customers became interested. "One thing the
Chinese consumer really likes is to examine their choices in great
detail," says Fogel, whether that means hefting cucumbers or inspecting
fruit for bruises. The farmers' market interface defused skepticism
about the organic label as consumers welcomed healthier options.
Jane Tsao, director of public relations and events for
BIOFarm (formerly the O Store), an organic retailer in greater
Shanghai, agrees that consumer awareness is critical. She suggests that
the government support consumer educational efforts such as Roots &
Shoots, a nongovernmental organization founded by naturalist Jane
Goodall to raise awareness among young people about environmental and
Recent growth has been impressive. A German
public–private partnership between Nürnberg Global Fairs and the German
Development and Investment Society has resulted in two large annual
expositions to promote organic food in China. The second BioFach China
event, held in Shanghai in May 2008, drew more than 9,100 visitors.
Barbara Böck, a BioFach spokesperson in Bonn, says the CNOPS regulation
is providing "the correct foundation for domestic market development,"
with double-digit annual growth expected in the sector for the next few
Nonetheless, to convert that awareness to thriving
small farms will require more innovative government support for those
small producers. "The government claimed that now most farmers could
form groups and produce and market their products," says Stark, "[but]
I don't think that it has become much easier for the small-scale farmer
yet." Government support could remedy this situation by lowering the
threshold for farmer groups to participate in government programs that
support organic exports and by training farmers in organic techniques
At this point, growers still have very limited
knowledge of organic standards or farming techniques. "Organic
agriculture appears to be largely in a stage of avoidance," says
Heimberg—farmers run their operations as usual, simply removing any
chemical amendment listed as prohibited by the organic certification
lists." In Heimberg's experience, Shanghai Organics farmers had little
knowledge of how to choose appropriate seed, improve soil fertility
with nitrogen-fixing legumes, or otherwise manage fertility without
Chen's report for the USDA confirms this picture in the
south: many farmers and officials interpreted "organic agriculture" to
mean farming as it was done in the past, she wrote, when "everything
was done naturally." Unfortunately, this understanding does not include
newer techniques for maintaining soil fertility to sustain higher
yields or for averting losses to pest infestations.
Baer believes this problem has roots in the centralized
nature of China's decision making. "A lot of these townships are run
like corporations," she says. "Farmers are told what to do instead of
rise in global food prices, caused mainly by higher fuel costs and
increased use of food crops for production of biofuels, has caused
concern among international agencies and humanitarian organizations
[see "Food vs. Fuel: Diversion of Crops Could Cause More Hunger,"
EHP 116:A254–A257 (2008)].
In June 2008, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations held an international meeting in Rome to address food security
and the impact of rising costs and climate change on the world's
poorest communities. UN officials called for urgent action and funding
to increase the world's food production by 50% by 2030.
The connections between the niche market of organic
food, which only a small portion of consumers can afford, and the wider
problem of food security emerged in the declaration from that Rome
conference, signed by ministers and heads of state from 180 countries.
Among the means toward world food security, the leaders called for
medium- and long-term measures to increase investment in food research
and to increase the resilience of food production systems by, among
other things, maintaining biodiversity, an important element of many
organic farming systems. The leaders also encouraged more liberal
international trade policies to give farmers in developing countries
new opportunities to sell their products on world markets.
Also in June 2008, IFOAM, at its 16th Organic World
Congress, reaffirmed by vote the principles upon which international
standards for organic certification should be built: that organic
agriculture must protect, sustain, and enhance human and ecological
health, and that it must be managed in a fair and precautionary manner.
IFOAM is working toward harmonization among different countries'
standards for organic certification in the face of a growing global
market. The European Union, the United States, and Japan remain the
markets for most organic products, so the rules in those three markets
will significantly influence how international standards develop.
Originally published at www.ehponline.org