Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | October 3, 2007

Can China Clean Up Its Food Exports by Going Organic?

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:
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.
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