Friday, August 22, 2008

Going China

I recently wrote a story for the local expat newspaper, The Shanghai Daily, about the organic market in Shanghai. With concerns related to soil and chemicals, the majority of expats and foreigners opt for organic fruits and vegetables.

For locals, the prices for organic produce remain steep...two bell peppers go for about $2 US dollars, three potatoes and a pack of cherry tomatoes for a buck. Plus, people here are just simply trying to make a living...learning more about safer produce is probably one of the last things on their minds.

Nationwide, organics consumers account for no more than 3 percent of China’s total population. Most of China's organic products are shipped abroad to the American and European markets.

I admit, back at home I didn't buy too many organic fruits and vegetables. I buy mostly organic here because I worry about the lack of regulations and prices don't seem expensive from an American perspective.

There are big and small players in the market. I visited a small farm for my story. You could see their passion and enjoyment in promoting their organic produce and products. The highlight of the visit was trying some refreshing organic ice cream in two interesting flavors - cherry tomato and pumpkin.

Their message harkens back to taking care of environment by not using fertilizers and chemicals. Definitely an important reason to support the organic movement.

Here's the story:

The fragrant smell of basil filled the greenhouse on a sultry summer day as Yong-Qin Wang worked to clear the weeds from the herbs. Outside, plastic bottles rigged to catch pests naturally lured them in with pollen inside. In another greenhouse, asparagus and red peppers grew side-by-side because the pests attracted to each vegetable are known to attack each other.

This is a small glimpse of the inner workings at BIOFarm, a small organic operation with 100 acres in the ChuanSha modern Agriculture Exhibiting Area near the Pudong International Airport. Free of chemical aids, the cultivation process – from sowing of the seeds to harvest - requires more labor and patience for yields of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, ginger, and red orka.

“Organic takes more time to grow because we have to follow nature’s rules. Chemicals can do a lot of things, but they can be toxic to our health,” said Jane Tsao, director of public relations and events at BIOFarm.

Organic leaf vegetables can take up to 25 days to grow compared to 10 to 14 days. Tomatoes sometimes will require three to four months instead of two months. The higher prices of organic foods, due to the labor costs and lower yields, remain a barrier reaching more new customers.

Despite the harsh weather extremes, the organic market is growing in Shanghai with many farms – about 40 km away – bringing in fresh produce in everyday to area supermarkets and homes.

A Greenpeace survey from 2006 commissioned in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong, found middle-high income family were the main target consumer for organic foods because they were willing to pay three to four times more for organic products. Shanghai consumers were the most concerned about food quality.

It’s no longer only expatriates and foreigners seeking out organic products in Shanghai, said Guy Wiener, general manager of Shanghai Organics, the largest and first organic producer in Shanghai.

“Local customers are more aware of healthy food and more people can afford it,” Wiener said. “When you can afford it, you get to know it. Then you’ll want to buy it because it’s better for you.”

What’s organic exactly?

Foods claiming to be organic must be free of artificial food additives and are often processed with fewer artificial methods, materials and conditions. This growing process doesn’t include any chemical ripening, genetically modified ingredients, chemical pesticides, or herbicides.

Currently, people can find wide range organic goods beyond fruits and vegetables. These include honey, milk powder, rice, dried beans, and tea.

Organic Food Development Center (OFDC) is the main certifier of organic food in China. The agency, founded in 1994, is recognized by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), a global organics certifier.

IFOAM standards- a set of principles, recommendations, and baselines to ensure organic integrity - is compatible with U.S., European, and Japanese rules.

To sustain OFDC certification, farms undergo yearly inspections of farm fields and processing facilities and periodic testing of soil and water. Some consumer distrust remains with fake labeling and regulation standards. Many organic producers in Shanghai encourage customers to visit their farms to establish a sense of trust.

Weiner said the United States faced similar trust issues 20 years ago when its organic market began to emerge. He estimates the China organic market is about five years behind the United States and Europe.

“Every market will be regulated, it’s just a matter of time,” he said.

Organic in Shanghai

Higher incomes and awareness has been the key that has turned more people to organic produce in Shanghai.

“It’s healthier for everyone,” said Shirley Sun, 27, who began buying organic produce a couple of years ago.

“I buy organic, but not always because the price is so much higher. My parents who are over 50 will not buy it, said Sun, a 27-year-old executive assistant. “For local people, regular vegetables are more common. You can only see the organic in certain markets.”

One box of organic vegetables is 10 kuai compared to one kuai for a regular vegetable, Sun said. (It's about $1 US dollar for 7 kaui.)

For mothers like Kristy White, she’s found increasing evidence from her home country of Australia that a 100 percent organic diet can improve the immune system of young children. She plans to follow this diet for her 4 month son once he starts eating solid foods.

“I feel like the organic fruits and vegetables are cleaner. There’s less potential that it’s ridden with chemicals,” said White, 34, who worked in international relations before moving to Shanghai.

Launched this past spring, the Organic Garden program from Shanghai Roots & Shoots has given area schools and universities first hand knowledge of growing organic foods with assistance from BIOFarm and Shanghai Organics.

Students from 14 schools cared for gardens on school grounds. They used organic fertilizer and red earthworms to prep the soil, and kept up the gardens with weeding and bug catching.

“The students are very happy with their work. Not only do they learn about organic, they also think about why it’s good for us and why it matters for the earth,” said Catharine Gong, program coordinator at Shanghai Roots & Shoots Program.

Experts from BIO Farm showed students the proper techniques for organic farming and they’ve also invited classes out to the farm for further education. The hope is that these students will also teach their parents.

“We want more customers to understand organic. We want more people to join us,” said Sherrie Tien, founder and director of BIOFarm. “Everyday is a movement on how to change the environment.”

1 comment:

Gunaikos said...

Fantastically written, Anna!