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Sunday, January 23, 2011

China's organic farms rooted in food-safety concerns

BEIJING — It's quite a shopping list — wine, mushrooms, bean curd, rice noodles, dairy drinks and cooking oil — but buyer beware. In recent months, fake or toxic batches of all these items have worried Chinese consumers nationwide and are a reminder that food safety is a major issue in a country where even government agencies have food grown for their staffs to avoid problems.

China's government promises tougher penalties, better supervision and greater transparency, yet the public will take some convincing. Almost 70% of China's consumers feel insecure about food safety, according to a survey released recently by Insight China Magazine and the Tsinghua University Media Survey Lab.

Now some individuals and companies are taking action to ensure the produce on their dining tables, or in work canteens, is fit to eat. A small but growing number of people are starting or joining organic farms that abide by the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model being used in the USA.

Tourism-researcher-turned-organic-farmer He Pinru opened his Foshan Leyang farm in December, in southern China's Guangdong province. He says almost 3,000 people have signed up for regular deliveries of seasonal vegetables.

"Food safety is a serious problem in China, and not all the so-called organic foods in shops are really organic," He says.

Shi Yan, 28, a rural development expert, says she was inspired by the CSA model when working for six months in 2008 at the Earthrise farm in Madison, Minn. Shi says she shocked her parents by choosing the life of a peasant despite her degrees from a top Chinese university.

At the Little Donkey Farm, which she opened in 2009 in Beijing's semi-rural suburbs, Shi hears from other people planning similar projects. "Their first question is usually 'Can I make money from this?' " Shi says. "The purpose is not making money, but sustaining farmers on the land, and teaching city people the importance of protecting our planet and the soil."

China has about 40 "real" CSA farms, she says. A CSA conference in Beijing last month attracted more than 250 people. At Shi's farm, about 100 members pay to work their own plot of land and 500 members pay a $600 annual fee for a weekly supply of vegetables grown without the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used on most Chinese farms.

Interest in safer foods in China has soared since milk powder doctored with the industrial chemical melamine killed six babies and sickened 300,000 in 2008, Shi says.

A growing number of Chinese companies have started their own farms, following the example of government departments that have operated dedicated supply chains for years, Shi says. In Foshan, He Pinru's members include state-owned telecommunications and power companies, and real estate developers, who want to offer safe, good-quality food at employee canteens, he says.

On Chongming Island near Shanghai, Fang Ming, manager of the organic Yimutian Farm, counts 27 companies, mostly state-owned, among its 2,700 members, up from 60 at its launch two years ago.

"I found companies buy our food due to poor food safety in China, as there are too many fertilizers used on vegetables and too many food additives," he says. "They also want to offer green, organic food as a way to unite employees."

Non-agricultural Chinese companies starting their own farms are "a sign that things are not right. It's not efficient, and it's not solving the problems of food safety in China," says Peter Ben Embarek, a Beijing-based food-safety expert at the World Health Organization.

Beijing has made food safety a high priority and put in place the nation's first food-safety law in 2009, Embarek says. More must be done to educate consumers, reduce the number of unqualified food producers, and streamline the various agencies involved in food safety, he says. Among China's 150,000 food inspectors "many are not up to the job," as they lack sufficient technical and scientific skills, he says.

In November, melamine resurfaced in contaminated dairy drinks in Hunan province despite several government crackdowns since the milk powder scandal in 2008. Exported Chinese pet-food ingredients containing melamine — an organic chemical widely used in plastics, adhesives and countertops — killed or harmed hundreds of U.S. pets in 2007. Chinese companies have been caught using melamine in food to fabricate higher protein content.

Such food-safety problems prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to establish three offices in China in 2008. Christopher Hickey, FDA China country director, welcomes the 2009 law because it is designed to improve exported food as well, but he warns, "It remains to be seen how strictly this law will be enforced."

The arrests of Chinese who alert officials to food problems show that the Chinese government is not entirely behind the safety effort, critics say. Zhao Lianhai, the father of a boy sickened by tainted milk powder, was jailed and later paroled in December for his activism on behalf of other parents. United Nations official Olivier De Schutter recently criticized the prosecution of food-safety activists.

"I'm nervous sometimes and very careful about what I do," says Beijing lawyer Sang Liwei, who took part in drafting the food-safety law. He says he avoids cases with multiple plaintiffs because the government is sensitive about large disputes.

At Little Donkey Farm, computer salesman Liu Chunsheng picked up a box of vegetables and praised the produce, which can cost 50% above market prices. "The food in many markets can't be trusted. Nothing is more important than my family's health."

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 6:57 PM


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