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2018-09-10 12:15:40 Commentary

After years of scandals involving everything from gutter oil and fake meat to potentially poisonous infant formula, Chinese consumers are fed up with the country’s food safety inspection system. But while most have few options but to keep buying the same products and hope for the best, members of the country’s rising upper middle class are turning to alternative food sources for high-quality, safe food.

One of these sources is the Beijing Farmers’ Market. It began in 2010 when expat artist couple Emi Uemura and Michael Eddy rented a small plot of farmland in the outskirts of Beijing together with some friends. Through the farm, they became acquainted with several farmers in the Beijing area, some of whom practiced ecological farming — the practice of planting crops without using pesticides or fertilizers. Since these products tend to be significantly more expensive than conventionally produced food, however, finding a market for them can be a challenge.

Many of the farmers on the Beijing outskirts are highly educated, wealthy urbanites who rent farms as both an escape from city life and as a way to provide their own families with safe, fresh food. Unlike most Chinese farmers, they have the financial wherewithal to adopt more environmentally-friendly, lower-yield farming techniques. As the number of food safety scandals mounted, the couple came up with an idea: Why not host an event to connect these farmers with consumers looking for healthy, high-quality produce?

They held their first event, Country Fair, in a small art space in September 2010. Fewer than 10 sellers participated, and the only customers were the organizers’ friends and family. Still, those in charge considered the event a success, according to Chang Tianle — now the market’s chief organizer. Although the crowd was sparse, some of the artists in attendance showed attendees how to make dumplings using fresh ingredients, and farmers had a chance to share their stories with visitors in a seminar format.

Despite its humble beginnings, the market was quickly embraced by activists interested in ecological farming and building a better, more sustainable society. Currently, it holds market days several times a week all over the city, with produce from a regular group of 50 sellers and another 50 or so who participate on a rotating basis.

The core idea behind alternative food networks is to build trust by promising consumers the ability to verify farmers’ methods.

The Beijing Farmer’s Market is just one of a growing number of Alternative Food Networks (AFN) blossoming in big cities around the country, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Kunming. These networks typically attract upper-middle-class buyers looking to source food from outside traditional channels, which many no longer trust. AFN seek to build trust between buyers and sellers by establishing personal connections, rather than relying on standardized inspections by a supposedly neutral third party — the reliability of which neither side can personally verify. Compared with the government-certified organic food available in supermarkets, AFN crops also tend to be cheaper, though they are still inaccessible for many Chinese consumers.

The market’s organizers also want to prove the viability of produce grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and thereby convince farmers who aren’t wealthy urbanites to cut down on their usage of these chemicals — which contribute to waste runoff and other serious ecological problems. It and similar markets claim they offer farmers more control and a greater share of the proceeds than conventional Chinese farmers’ markets, helping boost rural incomes and attract potential partners. According to Chang, the market currently has hundreds of sellers on its waiting list and has converted its volunteer staff into 20 full-time employees.

Chang herself started with the market as a volunteer. In 2011, she decided to commit full-time and quit her job at the Beijing office of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy — a U.S.-based NGO focused on fair and sustainable agriculture — partly because she felt that rural-oriented NGOs lack the resources to improve farmers’ lives. She now helps organize activities that appeal to affluent urbanites while also educating them about the countryside, including farm visits, reading clubs, and lectures.

Still, the real key to the market’s success — and what makes it stand out from more conventional Chinese farmers’ markets —is its focus on providing high-quality, safe produce from trustworthy sources. Yet doing so can be a challenge. In China, the term “organic” can only be used in reference to agricultural products certified by a third-party agency and approved by the Certification and Accreditation Administration of China. It’s a system that is vulnerable to manipulation and pressure from local officials trying to meet development goals. Few Chinese seem to have any faith in the label, and according to Zhang Zhimin and Wang Shenfu — both farmers who work with the Beijing Farmer’s Market — most of the market’s partners are uninterested in jumping through all the hoops certification would require.

Instead, in order to ensure the quality of the produce it sells, the Beijing Farmer’s Market has turned to Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). Under PGS, farmers must agree to open their farms for inspection at any time by market employees, consumers, or even other farmers. To ensure compliance, market employees make occasional inspection visits to confirm that farmers are not using fertilizers or pesticides. But the core idea is to build trust by letting consumers verify farmers’ methods for themselves — even if in practice, they may only rarely do so.

The market’s organizers also want to prove the viability of produce grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

Beyond PGS, the market’s organizers are still trying to flesh out their goals for the future. For example, should their focus be on providing food produced without the use of fertilizer or pesticides, or should they aim to accomplish something larger, such as promoting green agricultural practices?

Ultimately, the majority of Chinese consumers may be relatively uninterested in the answers to these questions — at least for now. The sheer scale of industry malfeasance in recent years means Chinese shoppers are less concerned with technical definitions, and more with finding food that can they can trust. Still, it may be wise to get ahead of the curve. AFN are currently operating in more than 10 cities around the country, typically in legal and policy gray areas. Adopting common standards and cooperating with the government wherever possible may help them avoid a regulatory crackdown.

Another potential issue with the model is accessibility. AFN have proven popular among a certain subset of consumer — typically educated, wealthy, and international — but high prices mean the food they sell is out of the reaches of ordinary Chinese people. And many of their partner farmers are not exactly representative of the countryside as a whole. If social justice is the goal, these are major oversights. It remains to be seen whether the AFN model can be adapted to provide fresh, safe agricultural produce to all urbanites — not just the urban middle class — and if it can offer a viable, secure business model for poor farmers as well as wealthy urban transplants.

When I asked Chang why she joined the market, one of the reasons she gave was that its model offered not just a way to save urbanites from the dangers of unsafe food, but also a way to help rural communities develop in a more sustainable direction. And despite a relatively limited clientele that can afford their products, there is room to grow. Unless officials can restore public faith in the country’s food safety system, there will continue to be a demand for alternative solutions to the country’s dining needs.

Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell..

(Header image: A family buys vegetables at the Beijing Farmer’s Market in Beijing, 2018. From Beijing Farmer’s Market’s Weibo account @北京有机农夫市集)