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Organic produce is gaining popularity in China among both consumers and farmers but reading the fine print is important

By Lisa M. Mulvey

Antioxidants. Heavy metals. Folic acid. Veterinary drug residue. Vitamin C. Biotoxins.  What’s on your plate? 

Eating organic in China – pesticide-free, toxin-free – is getting easier in the major cities, but if you take a close look at what’s actually going on at farms and stores, there is good reason to be skeptical. China’s issues with food safety are well documented, and although the government is stepping up enforcement, playing catch-up with better-regulated systems requires time, money and education. 

An estimated one-tenth of China’s farmland is now contaminated with heavy metals according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and domestic organic produce sales have surged. According to predictions by organic trade fair BIOFACH, the Chinese organic market scale could reach RMB59.4 billion this year with the market share of organic food totaling two percent of the overall food market, up from one percent in 2007. 

Lured by the promise of clean, healthier produce, organic options present a tempting alternative for those who can afford the prices, which can be three to five times more expensive than conventional foodstuffs. But consumers seem willing to invest in safer produce. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce variations, kale, spinach and broccoli are particularly in demand as they are most vulnerable to absorption of cadmium. 

But are even organics in China safe? Kimberly Link, a Shanghai-based life coach, admits she remains skeptical about the safety and legitimacy of organic produce. 

“I try my best to control other factors – air quality, exercise, sleep, eating a balanced diet – and accept that I’m consuming a lot of heavy metals in my fruits and veggies,” she says. “I don’t trust the soil or the water, so I don’t buy rice here, we don’t eat potatoes, tomatoes or grapes. I also limit root vegetable consumption because of the ground pollution.” 

Most larger chain supermarkets such as Carrefour, City Shop, Ole and City Super now have whole sections and smaller local markets are increasingly stocking organics to compete. Online retailers specializing in organic products have also stepped up to meet the growing demands for natural and organic products. 

The good news is that authentic organic produce does exist in China. Passionate farmers are working hard to ensure top quality and safe produce. According to the Institute for the Control of Agrochemicals, Ministry of Agriculture, two million hectares of land are under organic cultivation.

But consumers still need to be vigilant. Organic does not automatically mean completely healthy. For instance, not all pesticides are prohibited within the organic farming process and the amount of allowed pesticides used on crops is not closely regulated (see box).

One nearby locale where there is a committed effort to the production of organic food is Chongming Island, regarded as “Shanghai’s last piece of pristine land.” The island has also been recognized as a national development zone for sustainable green development and has recently been recognized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). 

Located 50 km northwest of the city center in the Yangtze River estuary, Chongming is home to several organic farms, as the land is affordable and the fertile alluvial soil is cleaner than in other parts of Shanghai (see box).

Shanghai is also home to a bevy of passionate growers and innovators that may not be officially certified as organic but strictly follow Western organic standards, or as close to them as feasibly possible. Beat Poltera, General Manager for Verdura, a Shanghai-based specialty grower of herbs and microgreens, talks proudly about this. “We don’t use any toxins or pesticides,” he says. 

Technically, Verdura’s products are organic but certification is prohibited as the growing methods are based on a soilless environment.

Verdura produces year-round baby greens, microgreens, edible flowers and herbs grown in a greenhouse setting. They use soil-free, pesticide-free, pollutant-free hydroponic and aquaponic methods that also involve recycling water supplies. Poltera emphasizes that “90 percent of our products are grown hydroponically.” In such an environment growers utilize precise controls in terms of air and water temperature, humidity and light. The only additives needed are natural vitamins and minerals. The result is an organic product with maximum nutrition harvested and delivered on the same day for optimal freshness and quality. 

When asked about how to quash skepticism among potential consumers, Beat says, “To clients with concerns on trust, there is no other way than source inspection.” He adds that many Michelin-starred chefs he works with, as well as purchasing groups, regularly visit and inspect the farm. 

In China, what is organic?

Organic, in terms of food, simply means grown without the use of artificial chemicals. To be more precise, to be considered organic, the following standards must be adhered to no matter which country they come from:

The Chinese National Organic Product Standard (CNOPS) is founded on international norms with a sharpened focus on pollutant and prohibited substance contamination and quality management aspects, such as record keeping and traceability. According to Hangzhou-based REACH24H Consulting Group’s research completed in December of 2015, China’s regulations for organic agriculture certification remain notorious for being among the strictest in the world. However, Chinese standards concerning pesticide use are less stringent than those of the European Union and the U.S. Currently, 12 highly toxic pesticides remain in circulation in China as listed by the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA). Furthermore, a more functional difference exists within their implementation and the governance structure that oversees these standards. 

Supervision of the 23 organic food certification groups within China is often reported as understaffed and negligent. According to the USCHPA (U.S.-China Health Products Association), in the span of just one year over 200 organic produce products certified by an authorized center failed to meet government standards. Cheats and frauds notoriously slip into the markets and onto shelves. Fake organic labels can even be bought on Taobao for a mere 0.03 Yuan as opposed to an organic farm certification that can cost upwards of RMB50,000 to 60,000 per organic item registered. An analyst with CIC Industry Research Center (a Shenzhen consulting company), states that rules for using organic food labels are not strictly applied or understood, which makes consumers lack confidence when buying organic food.

Chongming Island

Approved by the local Shanghai government in 2000, 33 square kilometers of the Chongming island have been set aside as an eco-agriculture-oriented zone. Organic farms in this area reportedly spend millions of dollars (often supported by government funding) on water filtration and circulation systems to further minimize contamination.

Mahota Farms is located on the island and is working to create a self-subsistent ecosystem within 120 acres of the farm’s pesticide-free land. The farm integrates animal husbandry with organic vegetables, but also devotes 15 acres of land to waste and to resource management facilities. Manure from the farm’s livestock is used to make compost and biogas production is currently being explored. Mahota says he builds trust with customers by offering transparency. 

Winner Wang explains, “Each package of leafy vegetables has a unique QR code. Consumers can scan it to get more information, including the time when it was sowed, planted and harvested.” Mahota emphasizes their passion for protecting the environment by practicing energy conservation, using methods that create a low-carbon footprint and recycling resources in innovative ways. She explains that visitors are encouraged to engage in activities and workshops, which include planting, harvesting and cooking. 

Georgia Zhou, co-founder of Sprout Lifestyle which promotes nutrition and learning in Shanghai, runs a catering business and offers cooking and nutritional workshops. Zhou works with Mahota, BIOFarm and other smaller certified organic farms around Shanghai to supply trustworthy organic products. Georgia cited BIOFarm’s line of sprouts (under the name of Ambrosia), which she offers in her store as they represent China’s first certified sprout factory. Zhou advocates for accountability and emphasizes the importance of building connections with the growers. 

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