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    Greener Pastures: China’s Fraught Relationship With Organic Food

    After years of food safety scandals, China’s sustainable farmers see a bright future.

    SHANGHAI — During Monday’s opening ceremony of the China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, President Xi Jinping declared that China will import $30 trillion in goods over the next 15 years, including food and agricultural products. For one Shanghai-based farm manager, these words were less concerning than you might expect.

    “It puts competitive pressure on our domestic agricultural products, sure, but this should only improve quality in the long run,” Dr. Xia Hanbing, manager of Shanghai Tianzai Fruits and Vegetables Specialized Co-op, tells Sixth Tone. The 38-year-old has been searching for farming methods that would reduce the reliance he’s had on pesticides since 2010 — right around the time he remembers organic farms starting to blossom — and he’s hoping to find answers from his overseas peers who’ve come for CIIE.

    Today, China has quite an appetite for organic food, whether homegrown or imported. According to a 2017 report from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture, China has the fifth-most organic farmland of any country in the world at 1.6 million hectares, and is the world’s fourth-largest consumer of organic foods with sales of nearly $5.6 billion.

    As Chinese consumers have prioritized food quality, imported organic products have soared in popularity, with some supermarkets following in the footsteps of their Western counterparts by dedicating entire sections to organic foods.

    But while the boost in organic food sales should in theory be a boon to farmers, Xia laments that it’s not easy to cultivate such products in China. “It’s nearly impossible to grow organic vegetables on my farm, and it’s difficult for other farmers, too,” Xia says. “First and foremost, ‘organic’ calls for certain soil and water standards, and because vegetables are part of the food chain, they’re especially vulnerable to diseases and pests. The current eco-friendly measures to combat these problems are not yet developed enough to fully replace pesticides.”

    Xia says he is applying for a “green food” certification, which has lower standards than an “organic food” label and allows for the use of certain approved pesticides.

    The global craze over organic foods, combined with the difficulty of producing them, has led to a chaotic environment for certification and accreditation. China has its own standards for organic products that have been accepted by IFOAM and the international community, but with foreign brands scrambling to enter the Chinese market, many are simply buying fake “organic” accreditations from for-profit agencies, according to a July report from state news agency Xinhua.

    “Certifying and accrediting organic food has become a business,” Xia says. “With the certification process so often going through third parties with their own commercial interests, it has become a stamp of approval for the food producer itself, rather than for its products.”

    “A lot of this has to do with the fact that Chinese consumers have more faith in the ‘organic’ label if it appears to have come from an international authority,” Xia added.

    Swiss company SGS is one authority that provides inspection, testing, and certification services for international food producers. “Food safety does seem to be a priority to the Chinese government,” Kenneth Wu, head of portfolio management at SGS, tells Sixth Tone. “But the current regulatory environment is quite complicated, and having strict standards for inspection and certification doesn’t mean there won’t still be problems. Organic farmers have to shoulder some of the social responsibility, too.”

    In the agriculture and food product exhibition hall at CIIE, the word “organic” is prominently displayed on a banner hanging above one booth. Here, Alejandro Florian O. Alcantara, president of Raw Brown Sugar Milling Co. Inc., hopes buyers will take an interest in his cane sugar products from the Philippines.

    Alcantara tells Sixth Tone that his is the only company to have brought organic products from the Philippines to Shanghai for this week’s expo. As an IFOAM member, Raw Brown Sugar Milling has its farms and products inspected every year so it can continue to claim its organic certification from CCPB, an Italian quality-control authority. According to Alcantara, both IFOAM and CCPB are well-known and widely recognized by the world’s food producers. “This is the first time I’ve promoted my company’s products in China,” he says. “This country is a huge market for organic food.”

    Following several high-profile scandals in the past decade — including salvaged “gutter oil,” contaminated milk powder, and several stomach-churning cases involving meat — food safety was front and center at a CIIE panel discussion on Tuesday. Representatives of government agencies seized the opportunity to assure attendees of their commitment to higher standards and a more transparent certification system.

    Zhang Mao, minister of the State Administration for Market Regulation, suggested that those who supervise food safety should learn from the health industry’s recent mistakes, referring to the case of pharmaceutical company Changchun Changsheng being fined $1.3 billion in July for flooding the market with nearly 500,000 substandard DPT vaccines. “Punishments for violations should be more severe,” Zhang said during the event. “Not only companies but also individuals who perpetrate violations should be punished and fined. Moreover, they should be responsible for fully compensating the affected customers.”

    Xia, the Shanghai farm manager, says he’s happy to hear that the government is taking a more serious tone when it comes to food quality and safety. But for now, he’s most excited about picking the brains of his international peers in the industry who have flown in for CIIE. “When I visit the agriculture products exhibition hall on Thursday,” Xia says, “it will be to learn.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Customers shop for imported fruit at a supermarket in Shanghai, Dec. 31, 2014. IC)