A fair for green produce from the Great Northern Wilderness, held in Beijing this month, was a hit with consumers. Some 20 tonnes of organic rice was sold during the five-day event.
”We banked on our reputation of being far away from pollution and working a land that hasn’t been treated with chemicals for 60 years,” says Sui Fengfu, director of the Agricultural Reclamation Bureau of the northeastern Heilongjiang province.
For years, China pursued chemical input-heavy farming to increase yields and ensure enough food for its enormous population. Chinese leaders see food self-sufficiency as a political imperative and have invested millions in GM crop research in order to secure ever-higher yields.
Nevertheless, recent years have seen a surge in organic farming, which advocates the use of traditional farming methods without use of fertilizers or pesticides. The demand is driven by an explosion of organic food sales overseas. China’s organic food exports totalled 142 million US dollars in 2003 and 200 million US dollars in 2004.
While these overseas sales account for only a fraction of the 27 billion US dollar global market for organic foods, they are increasing at a rate of 50 percent annually.
”There was virtually no domestic market for organic products in the early 1990s," says Li Debo, deputy-director of the Organic Food Research Center under the State Environmental Protection Agency. "But now big cities like Beijing and Shanghai have many specialized shops for organic food, selling vegetables, tea, rice, honey and fruits."
An estimated two million hectares of farmland are under organic cultivation, while some 1,400 companies and farms have been certified organic. Exports are the main driving engine behind the sector’s growth. Chinese organic products are exported mostly to Europe where they dominate the supply of pumpkin, sunflower seeds, and kidney and black beans. The U.S. and Japan are also major buyers.
Growth in domestic demand has been spurred by rising urban incomes, the emergence an affluent middle class and also because recent years have seen an increasing number of food safety scandals.
In 2004, transparent ‘glass’ noodles were banned in major Chinese cities after certain brands were found to be using a lead-based whitener. In 2003, 78 primary school children in the southern town of Beihai were poisoned after drinking contaminated soya milk. Such food scares have prompted calls for the expansion of the organic food sector.
The government has heeded those calls, recognising the global and domestic market potential. Unlike in many countries, where organic farming has emerged spontaneously as a response to environment and health concerns, in China most conversion initiatives have been driven by the government.
This year, the National People’s Congress adopted a new five-year blueprint for the country’s economic development, whose main tenet is to boost the incomes of the 800 million people living in the rural areas. The plan calls for a "new socialist countryside" and redress of the uneven distribution of wealth between the cities and the country, which has seen rural living standards lagging far behind those of their urban counterparts.
Renowned agricultural economist Wen Tiejun has described the creation of organic farming trial zones around big cities as "Noah’s arks" that could avert social disorder by providing employment for migrant workers and laid-off people.
Du Xiangge of the Beijing Agricultural University says promoting organic farming fits nicely with the government’s greater environmental sensitivity. The shift to certified organic methods requires a three-year conversion period during which no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are used on the land.
In the past, farmers have tried to increase yields with modern nitrate-based fertilizers, but this has had damaging side-effects on soil health. ‘’The return to more natural farming methods for organic production would allow the land to recover and would be a plus to the environment," says Du.
But the rapid growth of the sector in a country where only 15 percent of the land mass is arable, has led to concern among some experts.
Recently, scholars of the Chinese Academy of Sciences pointed out that if China were to adopt organic food strategy on a large scale, the size of the cropland would have to be expanded significantly, which is not an option for the land-scarce country.
They argue that China is only able to feed one-fifth of the world’s population on one-seventh of the world’s arable land because some 75 percent of the crop nutrients are now supplied by chemical fertilizers, compared with only 22 percent in 1965.
But Du dismisses the idea of organic farming going mainstream in China. "Only ten percent of the organically certified land is currently planted with grain," he says. "The big mass is planted with fruits, vegetables and tea.”
Despite its vigorous growth, Du says the organic sector remains a tiny niche market, accounting for just one percent of total food sales.
With the sector growing so fast, many fear for the quality control of the produce, given China’s enormous size and reputation for lax law enforcement. The country has over 200 individual food safety laws, regulations and standards, which apply at national and regional level, according to official media.
Yet there have been reports of pesticide residues being found in organic-labelled spinach exported from China to Japan, prompting foreign buyers to begin dispatching their own food controllers.