Organic food has long been associated with the Western middle classes. But the trend is catching on in China, popularised by Beijing’s efforts to host a “Green Olympics” this summer. Sales of organic food are rising, with retailers recording as much as a 50% increase compared to 2007. Dozens of outlets in Beijing now offer organic fare, which is free from pesticides, chemicals and genetically modified substances.
The selection of beautifully presented goods include anything from grapes to carefully peeled onions, wrapped in cellophane. The manager at the Huapu Hypermarket in central Beijing says that the rise in organic food consumption shows how the Olympics is promoting green awareness.
Liu Wenli is not only banging the “Green Olympic” drum in his supermarket, but he will also be carrying the Olympic flame when it comes to the Chinese capital. “We are going to host the 29th Olympic Games in China, and the slogan is that it’s a people’s Olympics, a technological Olympics, and a importantly a ‘Green Olympics’. And so we’re hoping to attract everyone’s attention,” Liu said.
But for many consumers, buying organic is not so much a matter of becoming aware of its benefits through publicity campaigns, but being able to afford it. One female customer said she buys organic now that her living standards have risen.
“The living standards of common people have gone up, and the Chinese are now paying more attention to their health. Our living conditions are better, so now I mainly buy organic,” she said. Other shoppers in Huapu Hypermarket agree. “Normal food is a bit cheaper. Mostly it’s the middle-class and the lower middle class who buy that. When living conditions are better, more might buy organic food,” said another.
Customer concerns about food safety in China are valid, believes Jiang Gaoming, professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany, and Vice Secretary General of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Group. He says farmers in China have long adopted cheap production patterns, making poor quality or even dangerous food.
“Farmers adopted certain production methods to make food-production cheaper. They use whichever chemicals are cheapest. The use of pesticide seems better, and it is cheap. In fact, the pesticides they would buy are also used as fertiliser, and this makes it all the more dangerous,” Jiang said.
Organic produce is marketed not only as a healthy choice, but a luxury good, so great care is taken in selecting vegetables and packaging them at The Organic Farm, around 25 kilometres north of Beijing.
Every stage of production is carefully performed by hand, from the planting to the harvesting and choosing the best vegetables to then package. The farm supplies over 50 varieties of fresh vegetables, herbs, fruit, mushrooms and eggs to large outlets in Beijing and to more than 400 private customers.
Chen Conghong, the founder of The Organic Farm, and an official at the Agricultural Ministry, said the government hasn’t just been pushing “green” ideals since the Olympics, but has been promoting organic food at the government level since 1989. He says that this campaign has helped raised the profile of organic food, making more of an impact with consumers.
“The middle-class in China is paying more and more attention to their own health. Eating chemically treated food will cause very negative long-term effects,” Chen said. While the Green Olympics are promoting awareness on green values, the trend seems like it has caught on in Beijing – and could continue long after the Games have come to an end.