Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | October 17, 2007

The Challenges of Chinese Organics

The US market for organic foods is expanding into traditionally improbable markets like Middle America — predictably raising concerns about the Wal-martization of organic food. The industry to fill that demand is booming as well — but in a location that is somewhat unlikely, and yet in some senses altogether predictable: China. Chinese organic produce, milk, and even livestock are serving demand thousands of miles away. In 2003 alone, Chinese organics accounted for $142 million in exports to markets around the world; by 2004, that number had increased to $200 million. According to The New York Sun, imports of Chinese organics tripled globally between 2003 and 2005. In that year, the BBC reports, Chinese organic exports totaled about $350 million; the number of acres of organic farmland in China, meanwhile, totaled about 5.7 million, behind only Australia and Argentina.
(China does not export all its organics. Chinese urban dwellers, in particular, are increasingly interested in healthier, safer, more wholesome foods — their interest fueled by food contamination scandals such as one in 2004, when transparent “glass” noodles were found to be bleached with a lead-based whitener. On the other hand, China’s first organic supermarket recently closed because of lackluster sales — consumers weren’t prepared to pay the higher prices organic entailed.)
The trend of organics originating in China has been percolating for many years. As the Worldwatch Institute reports, China has had at least some organic farming since the 1990’s, around the time the Agrilandia Italian Farm began producing handcrafted organic wines, cheeses and conserves on the Italian slow-food model in Baige Zhuang, a remote suburb of Beijing. Agrilandia subscribes to the Italian “multi-use” model of farming, in which farming, processing, food service, and agricultural tourism all take place at the farm.
China currently has 8.6 million acres of organic farmland, almost 90 percent of which was certified in 2004. That raises red flags among some proponents of organics, who say it would be virutlaly impossible to transition that much Chinese farmland — which has traditionally been doused in chemicals — in such a short period. Additionally, critics say, China’s air, water, and are so polluted it’s hard to imagine truly organic produce growing in Chinese soil. But as the US does not require actual testing of Chinese produce for pesticides and other contaminants, it’s a big challenge to determine which Chinese farms really meet the standard specified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification. Concern about the quality of this food is hardly unfounded; China’s lax food-safety standards recently led to a massive recall of pet food contaminated with an inaccurately labeled industrial chemical earlier this year.
A 2003 study by the US Food and Drug Administration found that imported produce was three times as likely to violate limits for pesticide residue; however, it also found that foreign produce was more likely to be free of pesticides altogether, indicating that many foreign producers do not use pesticides at all.
The solution, obviously, isn’t banning imports of organic products from China; the nation is too successful at growing and marketing organic produce, and the worldwide market for organics too large, to shut down the burgeoning Chinese organic industry. It’s improving US organic standards, which set the standard for the world, to include mandated pesticide testing and other controls, so that producers will respond by improving their farming methods to meet those stricter standards.
The global market for organic produce and other products is only going to get larger in the coming years. In turn, that growing market should increase the incentive for Chinese farmers to convert their farmland from chemical-dependent farming techniques back to traditional, pesticide-free, sustainable farming methods.
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