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Skeptical of China’s Organic Farmers? CSA Helps Transition

organic CSA in China

Farmers learn organic techniques near Beijing. Credit: Shared Harvest

My friends abroad hear about the food safety crises that erupt either in China or from food products grown and manufactured in China, and they assume all food in China is toxic. So they’re always surprised when they learn it’s not all exploding watermelons, milk infused with melamine or dumplings stuffed with cardboard here in Beijing. I eat organic-grown and locally sourced food nearly every day. Brought to my door on a weekly basis, I have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization called Shared Harvest (or Fenxiang Shouhuo, in Chinese) to rely upon this fall season.

Organic food is growing in popularity in China, so it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that I can eat food grown without chemicals. According to the state-run China Daily, Lohao, a leading retailer of organic food, sales revenue increased by about 30% during 2011. A story in TriplePundit indicates that, “in 2010 alone, 345 companies obtained a certification from the China Organic Food Certification Center (COFCC),” which was an increase of 18% year on year.  In June 2008, Greenpeace commissioned Ipsos Marketing to conduct a survey of consumers in Beijing. The study found that 68% of consumers buy organic food and 80% “state that they definitely would buy organic food in the future.”

Hurdles for China’s organic farmers

What is unique about Shared Harvest, the CSA I trust to deliver me 4 kilos (8.8 pounds) of fresh veggies every Wednesday afternoon, is that the organization is training farmers, on their own land, to cultivate crops using organic methods. This is unusual in Beijing, where organic food suppliers, like these 60 identified by Greenpeace in 2008, typically either purchase or rent private arable land and then hire farmhands to work the land with organic methods. With Shared Harvest, farmers retain control of their land, receive organic training, and then are assured a steady income through the community of Beijing-based consumers who commit to long-term delivery schemes.

Note that “organic” differs from “organic-grown.” These farmers do not yet meet the rigorous organic certification standards because the lands haven’t spent three years sans chemicals. As such, we CSA participants are not only educating the farmers and giving them reliable income; we are also helping them through the choppy learning and financial transition phase leading to organic farming.

During my master’s dissertation field research in Yunnan province in southern China, I learned that one of the biggest factors keeping farmers from turning away from the use of chemical pesticides during food production is the need for certainty. That is, “certainty” that crops will grow regularly, regardless of weather or pests; and “certainty,” therefore, that they will be able to make money when selling products on the market.

Farmers know that organic goods can fetch a higher price, which is an incentive to grow them, but the lack of reliable methods to ensure consistent yields means they can’t confidently sell every season. Moreover, as there is complete lack of trust that labels on products made in China are actually what they claim to be, organic produce often is overlooked by consumers who would rather not spend up to 300% the price of regular produce just to get duped. In turn, the organic market is only growing in fits and starts and won’t necessarily ensure steady income for farmers.

There are reliable organic methods for growing produce, but the Chinese government, for various reasons, doesn’t provide the training needed to help these farmers learn best practices nor to purchase or implement new sustainable technologies. Of course, it is a long, complicated and paperwork-laden process to attain any official organic certification (be it from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement, or China’s homegrown bodies China Organic Food Certification Center and the China Green Food Development Center).

A personal connection with China’s organic farmers

While my 12-week package with Shared Harvest is two to three times more expensive than what I would pay at the local market, it is absolutely worth the cost. For one, I have the opportunity to support and build a relationship with local producers: I receive updates in Chinese and English on how things are going on the farm, and there are regular trips to work and cook with the farmers and to observe farming practices myself. Perhaps more important, at least to me as consumer, I am confident that what I’m getting is actually organic-grown, which can’t be overstated because mislabeling is rampant.

Last week, tucked alongside my produce I found a browned piece of paper, the weekly “Shared Harvest Newsletter” outlining the produce I received: “sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin [squash], beets, kohlrabi, lettuce, spinach, coriander, choy sum, bok choy, shallot, and a selection of green leaves.” The newsletter also provided useful tips on how to store vegetables and an explanation that the chickens are not laying eggs as regularly during the cold months and so customers who also order eggs might need to be patient.

The newsletter thanks readers for trusting in Shared Harvest as it develops, explaining, “It seems like we are families rather than just business and customers.” I can’t imagine a better message for Thanksgiving.

Top photo: Farmers learning organic techniques in Beijing. Credit: Shared Harvest

Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at