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China’s Imperative Organics

The most populated country on earth seeks to repair consumer trust in its ability to grow safe food despite a problematic past.

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On the way to their farm in northern Guangdong Province, Raymond and Becky Kwong, known in Cantonese as Kwong Sang and Wah Tsai, pass abandoned homes amid overgrown fields, testaments to the sweeping migration that has overtaken rural China as farmers become factory workers who give birth to urban entrepreneurs.

As the nearest small city, Jintanzhen, fades into the distance, the road narrows. Women in straw hats walk along it carrying sickles and bundles of rice. Eventually, the road begins to thread through the mountains, past a man-made lake and orchards of mandarins ripening just in time for the Lunar New Year.

At the head of the Kwongs’ road, small children play with live river eels, attempting to keep hold of their wet, slithering bodies in their bare hands. Pointing towards his fertilizer plant, Mr. Kwong says: “We built that during the conversion phase”.

Raymond and Becky Kwong, known in Cantonese as Kwong Sang and Wah Tsai at their farm in Qingyuan, China. The Kwongs spent two years visiting land in Mainland China and Hong Kong in search of a sizable plot of land free from pollutants and far from industry. (Qingyuan, China, 5 February 2018)

Fields of onion, garlic, and greens thrive at Raymond and Becky Kwong’s farm in the rural outskirts of Qingyuan, a mountainous subtropical region east of China’s most populous city Guangzhou. (Qingyuan, China, 5 February 2018)

A farmer collects lettuces at Magic Seasons Organics in Chingyuan, South China. Post-harvest, the Kwongs bring a variety of the leafy greens to a restaurant on the way back to Qingyaun city where they use their own greens in a hotpot lunch. (Qingyuan, China, 5 February 2018)

China requires a three-year rest period for organic certification to ensure that the land in question is unmarred by heavy metals and other contaminants that take time to dissipate or sink below the surface of the soil.

In a 2014 study, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land Resources found that nearly 20 percent of China’s arable land was polluted. Soil samples from across the country tested positive for toxins like Cadmium, Nickel, and Arsenic — likely the result of decades of unregulated industrialization and chemical-heavy farming practices that the Chinese government is now attempting to reign in.

As a nation with over a billion mouths to feed, environmental concerns have long taken a backseat to food security. China’s history of famines ignited by communist agrarian practices led to government initiatives that ensured ample growth of staples like rice and wheat, but failed to account for the long-term environmental impact of the means used to increase yields.

The late twentieth-century craze to grow more — and faster — led to rampant overuse of chemical fertilizers. According to data gathered by The World Bank in 2016, Chinese farmers used more than three times the international average of chemical fertilizers. That same year, the Ministry of Agriculture introduced a plan to restrict the deployment of chemical fertilizers to ensure zero growth in use by 2020. The plan appears likely to succeed — growth has remained under 1% annually since then.

Cancer is the leading cause of death here, and any drive to grow organic food has been motivated by concerns over personal health, rather than the environment. However, overall consumption of organic food remains very low, at just over 1% of all food, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture has found. Chemical pesticides are known to have serious, and even lethal, effects on human health. The United Nations estimates that around 200,000 people die every year from pesticide poisoning, mainly farm workers or families living near farms which use pesticides. Chronic toxic exposure has been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, birth defects, sterility, neurological effects and both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Proving the long-term benefits of consuming organic food over conventional products through scientific studies is problematic, however, because the studies tend to be observational, rather than randomized control trials, which are the standard in scientific research.

Despite China’s vast size, the country has less arable farmland and clean water than is ideal to support the world’s largest population. Much of the available land in the northern and eastern regions is desert and therefore nearly unusable agriculturally. Furthermore, of China’s 1.4 million square km of arable land, 11% has been set aside for restoration necessitated by pollution and overuse.

Agriculture has greatly impacted China’s comparatively low allocation of freshwater. At 2100 m3 per capita, the national water supply is 28% of the world average, and a 2010 report by Civic Exchange found that 70% of China’s rivers and lakes were significantly contaminated and that 50% of cities had polluted groundwater, mainly due to irresponsible agricultural and industrial practices. More recently, government data collected from 2,301 underground wells found that 80% of the studied water was unfit for drinking.

The Kwong’s farm sits in a basin surrounded by modest mountains that conveniently funnel fresh water into their irrigation system. After two years of assessing arable land in mainland China and Hong Kong, where they started farming in the 90s, the Kwong’s signed their 30-year lease here in Qingyuan.

The Qingyuan region, known in southern China for its Qingyuan gai, or ‘natural chickens’, is about 270 km from Hong Kong and 80 km from Guangzhou, China’s most populous urban area. The government has treated the area where the Kwong’s farm sits as conservation land, leaving it uncontaminated by the forces of rapid industrialization and harmful agricultural practices.

Raymond and Becky have been farming this land for ten years now. They have managed to fight off innumerable pests, weeds, and viruses, but their most complex obstacle is the stigma that would-be customers hold against all things “made in China” — at least when it comes to food.  

With Shanghai and Beijing, where organic food is more popular, over 1,500 km away, and nearby Guangzhou or Shenzhen not proving profitable for organic products yet, Hong Kong is the closest organic consumer hotspot. The Kwongs primarily sell their vegetables online to Hong Kong households and a handful of restaurants and shops who have come to trust their produce.

Hong Kong food writer and organic and local foods advocate Janice Leung Hayes says the best hope farmers have for alleviating the existing trust issues is via “transparent supply chains, where people can trace exactly how the produce got to them and where it was from, how it was produced, and so on.”

“We try to bring people out here whenever we can,” says Becky. Not many make it from the autonomous region due to the three-hour drive and border crossing involved, but Becky says simply offering the visit helps to build trust. “When we invite people to come see the farm, they understand that we have nothing to hide,” she explains. “We want to share our process.”

A farmer from a nearby village harvests lettuces on a cool winter day at Magic Seasons Organics in Qingyuan, China. The fresh greens will be cleaned, minimally packaged and loaded into refrigerated trucks that will transport the produce over 200 km to Hong Kong where consumers are willing to pay higher prices for quality organics than in nearby Guangzhou or Shenzhen. (Qingyuan, China, 5 February 2018)

A greenhouse full of pak choi ready for harvest at Magic Seasons Organics in Qingyuan, China. The leafy green, a staple of Cantonese food, is often served slathered in garlic, alongside roast meats, and in many soups and noodle dishes. (Qingyuan, China, 5 February 2018)

Beets and daikon drying out before packaging at Magic Seasons Organics. The Kwongs try to grow some vegetables that are more suited to the Western palate, though Chinese vegetables tend to require less upkeep and are more naturally resistant to local pests. (Qingyuan, China, 5 February 2018)

Home to over 1,500 skyscrapers, classified as buildings over 100 meters tall, the most in the world, and over 9,000 highrises, much of Hong Kong is designed to keep nature out: concrete covers mountainsides, and hundreds of thousands of offices and apartments are air conditioned year-round, neutralizing the city’s lush subtropical nature. Pollution often hangs heavy over once-fragrant Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong relies on mainland China for 90 percent of its food, yet among those who can afford the luxury of caring about food quality, there is a distrust of these imported goods.

Despite these localized trust shortfalls, China is now the fourth-largest global exporter of organic goods according to Biofach, host of the world’s largest organic trade fair. The United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada are the primary consumers. Emerging economies like China and India are big exporters of organic products, but they are still small consumers of the products themselves when the population is accounted for, according to the Organic and Fair Trade Competence Center.

Is Widespread Organic Agriculture Feasible for China?

Organic farming typically produces yields 10-20% smaller than conventional farming. However, studies suggest this is primarily a result of a lack of implemented research and technology. Though it requires more space, organic farming does offer a partial solution to the long-term consequences of pollution and degradation of farmland, which are perhaps more serious problems in contemporary China than food security.

Given the country’s harmful agricultural past, a more holistic approach to agriculture is not only advisable, but necessary. Already having been through its population boom, China offers a cautionary tale to the developing world, where regulations are largely nonexistent and forces like climate change pose a pressing threat to existing arable land.

China’s understanding of the global demand for organics has preceded a national understanding of the concept itself, but that doesn’t mean such a shift isn’t underway.

Organic farmers’ markets have existed in major international cities like Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai for over a decade now, and they have an established customer base. Tianle Chang, who runs the Beijing Farmers’ Market, says around 5,000 people buy organic produce at the market weekly. Many of the farms who supply the market, meanwhile, do the majority of their business, some up to 90 percent, as home deliveries paid and scheduled through WeChat, China’s most used multipurpose smartphone app with over a billion monthly users.

However, this customer base does not extend to Hong Kong, where people tend to prefer organic produce from local farms or from countries like Japan that are perceived as high-quality producers, unlike mainland China.

“People are more trusting about organic produce from Hong Kong, and a big reason for that is proximity to the farms and marketing,” says Sonalie Figueiras, founder of the popular Hong Kong health and sustainability site Green Queen. “Organic produce from China is not trusted at all — there is a perception that organic labels are fake and the produce is tainted.”

The distrust of Chinese food products has a sturdy foundation. In 2016, 2,500 kg of tainted pork from Jiangxi Province was recalled in Hong Kong. In 2012, “eggs” made of synthetic materials including paraffin and resin were discovered, and 2008 saw the deadly melamine-laced baby formula scandal.

These scandals helped lead to increased food safety regulations and the stringent organic certification requirements that exist today in China. As Mr. Kwong admits, corruption when it comes to certification is still an issue, but he says the marketplace is moving in the right direction.

In a 2013 report by the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), researchers found that the standards for accreditation and certification in the EU and China were comparable in many ways. The report’s author concluded that China’s new standards for applying for organic product certification, implemented in 2012, “are considered among the strictest in the world for organic agriculture”.

As an example of these strict regulations, Mr. Kwong says that residue amounting to .01 parts per million of a petroleum-based chemical on a supposedly organic tomato will cost a farmer his certification — if not more. On the other hand, he explains that the threat of severe consequences such as large fines or jail time scares some farmers out of attempting organics at all.

Legal progress, however, does not clear the fog of dangerous chemicals and past indiscretions surrounding the concept of Chinese organics. Farmer Ray Kwok of Hong Kong farm Evergreens Republic says he has received multiple requests to deliver across the border.

“People in China have called saying their doctor recommended buying vegetables from us,” says Kwok. He and his partner decided on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification because “people seem to trust it invariably.”

Neither the Kwongs in Qingyuan nor Tianle Chang in Beijing are hopeful that heightened regulations will build trust in Chinese organics. Both insist that personal experiences, like tasting produce at local sustainable restaurants and interacting with farmers at markets, is paramount to achieving this.

“This is how we are building trust,” says Chang. “Customers can shake their farmer’s hand and look them in the eyes. They can ask questions about their process and try to understand it. That means more than certification in Beijing.”

Global consulting firm McKinsey and Co. estimates that 75 percent of China’s urban consumers will be middle class by 2022, accounting for roughly 550 million people. With this nation-wide increase in living standards, awareness of health issues is on the rise, and with it, appetites for safeguards like organic produce. As these appetites materialize outside of international hubs Beijing and Shanghai, behavioral scientist Thomas Talhelm says that the trust solution has to be scalable in order for domestic organic products to compete with imports from more widely trusted producers in Europe and Australia.

Talhelm, whose research includes a study analyzing the behavioral differences between wheat and rice farmers in China, agrees with Leung Hayes, the food advocate, that transparency will be the biggest factor in establishing trust between producers and consumers of organic food in China beyond the hyper-local level.

Though Talhelm acknowledges that “generalized trust is lower in China,” he notes that systems which require consumer trust and can be digitized tend to work well here China. For example, the QR codes and seventeen-digit barcodes that are required on every food item sold as organic in Chinese supermarkets give consumers access to the origins of their produce from the estimated yield quotas to final sale.

In cities like Hong Kong and Beijing, local and expatriate chefs who prefer fresh, high-quality ingredients are inspiring clients to think twice about holding firm to inflexible, negative views on food from the mainland.

Max Levy is an American chef who is unusually well-acquainted with organic produce in China. Aside from opening four establishments in Beijing, he has also co-owned organic pig and vegetable farms outside the city. When Levy opened his newest restaurant, Okra, in Hong Kong, the high-quality Chinese products he serves received overwhelmingly negative reactions from customers.

“We serve a French brand of caviar that is very popular with Michelin chefs,” says Levy, “and when I serve it to people here I say, “This is a hyper-caviar from Sichuan and everyone – everyone –  says ‘What! Is it safe?’ Then I show them the French label and explain that there is no Sturgeon in France; it is only aged there. These companies have been sourcing their eggs from China for the last thirty years — it just isn’t known about. And then they say, like they are really surprised, ‘Oh, it tastes so good’.”

While just over 1% of food consumed in China is organic, even less farmland is devoted to the practice – a tiny .59%. USDA economist and Chinese agricultural expert Fred Gale predicts that this percentage will not go beyond 1-2 percent anytime soon.

Gale says that the costs of implementing government requirements for all farmers to go organic would be “very high” in a country like China, where the vast majority of farmers rely heavily on chemicals.

China may not be joining countries like Austria and Sweden, where more than 15 percent of agricultural land is organic, in the near future, but there are indications of an increased sense of agricultural responsibility overall. Gale says the Chinese government is well aware of its shortage of natural resources and is increasing sustainable regulations and food imports as ways to be more sustainable at home.

“In the past, their food security policy was to maximize production, and now they are adopting a more nuanced policy,” he explains. “They want to give people a higher standard of living and more choice in regards to food while adopting more sustainability criteria.”

Importing more food, organic or not, may work from a food and resource security perspective, but this step leaves farmers like the Kwongs out of the equation. Like Chang’s farmers in Beijing, they will still rely heavily on being able to look people in the eyes, and on chefs like Levy who dare to use Chinese-grown organic produce.

For now, eating organic may be a highly individualistic choice to exert control over personal health in a part of the world with dangerous pollution problems, from the soil to the rivers and the air. But researchers like Gale and farmers like the Kwongs say that they don’t think it will stay that way, that on an admittedly small scale, people are starting to speak of the health of the environment.

“When you start to care about the earth,” says Mr. Kwong, “you aren’t going to want to eat vegetables from Australia and the US, you are going to want something from your backyard, or from farmers like us.”

Article and pictures by Viola Gaskell.
Editing by Mike Tatarski.
Illustration and infographic by Imad Gebrayel.
Audio story by Mukundwa Katuliiba.

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