Sign In


[In-Depth]: Organic Food In China

A month spent digging in the dirt to find out just how organic Shanghai's "organic" food really is.
2015-10-16 12:13:12
You've probably seen the word "organic" in Shanghai recently -- maybe in a menu, restaurant name, or a grocery aisle. Maybe you spent some money on that word because it's the "healthy" option. But what does "organic" really mean in Shanghai? And more importantly, can it be trusted? I spent the last month traveling to organic farms in Chongming Island and Shanghai's outskirts to find out.

What Does It Mean To Be Organic In China?

The answer begins on the farms. Like anywhere else in the world, for food to be labeled organic (有机, youji) in China, it must be produced at a certified organic farm. Here's how this works in China -- bear with me for a moment while this gets a bit technical.

First, there's the Certification And Accreditation Administration (CNCA) of the PRC. They're the ministry-level organization that overseas all government certification and accreditation, including that of organic food. Organic food laws are regulated and enforced by the CNCA.

Then there's the China National Accreditation Service (CNAS), an affiliate organization of the CNCA that grants accreditation to the certification bodies that inspect organic farms. Certification bodies are private or government affiliated companies that certify organic farms and register the farm's records with the CNCA. Only these certified, registered farms can produce food labeled as organic.

Starting an organic farm is a difficult and financially risky process. Even in China, it is a multi-million dollar investment and requires a two to three year soil conversion period, depending on the type of crops being planted. If the farm can show that no prohibited materials such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers were used on the farm for two years, then the time can be shortened1. During the conversion period, however, the farm must operate with organic practices but cannot sell food with an organic label. This prohibition is only lifted when the period has ended and the farm receives an organic certification.

Mahota farm is a 43-hectare organic farm on Chongming Island that first received its organic certification from the Organic Food Development Center (OFDC) in 2014, after a two-year conversion period. Since then, it has been producing a variety of vegetables, and they run a grocery store/restaurant on Huaihai Lu.

“We chose OFDC because it is the most well known and one of the hardest to pass,” says Tom Chen, who’s been involved in organic farming for over 10 years, and now works as the Senior Manager of Agriculture at Mahota Farm.

Mahota's choice makes sense. Of the 23 certification bodies in China, the OFDC is considered to be the most well known and respected2. It lead China's organic movement in the '90s1, and in addition to being accredited by the CNAS, the OFDC is accredited by the International Federation Of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). IFOAM is the nonprofit umbrella organization of the international organic movement that works directly in conjunction with the United Nations and other international bodies and governments to promote organic food. The OFDC is the only certification body to be accredited by IFOAM in China1.

Many farms in Shanghai are certified by the OFDC. Each year, these farms -- like all organic farms -- must renew their certificates. The renewal process involves an inspection from the certification body. During the inspection, samples are taken and tested. The farms' soil must not have any pesticide or chemical fertilizer residues; water and air must contain low levels of contaminants; and seeds cannot be chemically treated or have GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Mahota's self grown fungi -- their organic pesticide.

Chen estimates that about 50% of farms applying for certificates fail inspections. Having pesticides, GMOs, or chemical fertilizers results in a default failure. Since organic farms can't use these methods of farming, they have to turn to natural and organic solutions. Chen grows his own fungi and bacteria and experiments with lemongrass oil and baking soda to protect against pests and plant diseases. Mahota also has a pig farm that is not organic, but the manure produced by the pigs is. They compost the manure to produce their own organic fertilizer.

"In other countries it’s mainly an environmental movement, whereas in China it’s mainly motivated by food safety fears and wanting to avoid pesticide residues."

Biofarm, located in the outskirts of Pudong, is another OFDC-certified organic farm with virtuous motivations. In partnership with the UN Messenger Of Peace, Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots, Biofarm has been running a project that teaches children about the benefits of organic farming since 2006. They also have an internship program that brings in young people from China and overseas to learn how to farm organically and sustainably.

"It doesn’t matter what you do here, you always have to start by being a farmer,” says Jane Tsao, who began as a farmer at Biofarm after moving to Shanghai from Taiwan. Now she works as Biofarm’s Director of Business Development.

But sustainability isn’t the primary mover of organic food in China. A 2014 survey found that 80% of Chinese people are unsatisfied with food safety in the country. As Fred Gale, a USDA economist and Chinese agricultural expert, explained to me, “In other countries it’s [organic food] mainly an environmental movement, whereas in China it’s mainly motivated by food safety fears and wanting to avoid pesticide residues.”

Zhou Zejiang, the President of IFOAM Asia agrees with Gale. “People are still worrying about food safety. In this case, they see that there is a special product prohibiting the application of chemicals and GMOs and they think this their salvation.”

The demand for food safety certainly exists, but when the distrust is in the system itself, there are still questions about whether organic food is safe. For example, in 2011, it was reported that organic labels could be purchased on Taobao for a couple of cents each.

"The market is there, but in China, when it comes to organic food, there are doubts in people's hearts. When I spend the money, can I really buy organic food?" Tom Chen says, acknowledging the problem.

In response to the public's fears, the CNCA has heightened organic requirements in the last few years. In one respect, the organic regulations in China are stricter than anywhere else in the world. The CNCA issued a new traceable sticker system that requires any crops receiving the label to be tested and specifically applied for. Under this system, the farm must show the certifier that the crops they applied for have actually been planted. The crop must also be tested by organic standards, and only a set amount of stickers will be given based on the estimation of yields. If the farm requires more stickers later, they must apply and bring the certifier to inspect the farm again3.

The major difference between these stickers and the Taobao stickers? They are near impossible to reproduce. These stickers include a Chinese organic food emblem, the certification body logo, and a unique 17-digit code. The first three numbers of the 17-digit code are the certification body's number. The next two are the year. And the rest of the numbers are created by the CNCA which you can enter into the CNCA's website.

You can also scan the sticker's QR code with your phone and that will send you to a webpage with information on the type of produce, the amount per container, the production location, the producer, and the certifier. If any of this information doesn't match up with the produce that the sticker is labeling, then consumers can call the phone number of the certifier that is also provided in the QR code link.

Can Organic Food Be Trusted In Shanghai?

China's food certification process is robust and meets international standards, but still, certification bodies like the OFDC only check the organic farms once a year, usually at a predetermined time. Local government bodies do random checks too, but not frequently. When it comes to bigger farms with demand to meet and contracts to uphold, there are incentives and opportunities to cut corners -- especially if the farm's goals are more about money than health and sustainability.

In addition to Mahota and Biofarm, which are midsized farms, I also visited one of the largest organic farms in Shanghai. This farm supplies thousands of families with organic food. I attempted multiple times to schedule an interview and a tour with the farm, but was repeatedly denied. But this farm -- like most organic farms -- is open the public, so I showed up as a normal visitor on a weekday.

I was given a short tour by the reception office of the farm that included a visit to a garden built to educate tourists on the organic methods used and a greenhouse with crops grown inside. Afterwards, I was given leave to explore the farm on my own, and that’s exactly what I did.

After wandering the farm for about 30 minutes, I came upon these two farmers spraying a clear liquid onto the crops of one of the greenhouses as shown in the picture above. I asked the farmer what the liquid was, and he told me it was just water. This seemed unlikely, as the greenhouses have watering systems, and the container holding the liquid had warnings that said to keep children and pregnant women away.

As they worked, I started a conversation with the second farmer operating the hose. He claimed to not know which liquid was being used. We spoke about various other topics as they worked through the different greenhouses. Then I asked him again. "It’s a pesticide, but you can eat it after four hours," he told me. Two minutes later, a woman on a scooter pulled up and started yelling at the farmer to stop talking with me.

"It’s okay," he said -- "He’s an American!"

The woman seems nullified by this but still unhappy. She got back on her scooter and rode off. I took that as my cue to leave that area of the farm.

Next, I came upon a group of farmers pouring clear liquids into the tanks pictured here. I also asked them about the contents of the liquid. They didn't reply immediately, one quietly asked, “Why is he asking us that?” After a moment, another responded to me, "It is just nutrients for the plants."

There is no way for me to know what these farmers were actually using. It is entirely possible that they were spraying organic pesticides or "nutrients". No claims can be made about the organic authenticity of this farm, but this experience would affect my purchasing decisions as a consumer.

"If there are animals, birds, bugs, the type of things you would find in a natural farm, then that shows that the farm is truly organic."

What About Restaurants And Produce?

Farms aren't the only places where problems might exist. Many restaurants in Shanghai claim to be organic, but there are no organic regulations on restaurants. That means that any restaurant can claim to be organic without actually using any organic ingredients. The CNCA is currently considering ways to regulate organic food in restaurants, and the OFDC is drafting a proposal1.

Produce can also be lacking in transparency and quality. Although China has a strict labeling system, some vendors do not follow the rules. These places will sell food as "organic" without the required stickers as pictured in the photograph below.

Selling produce advertised as organic without traceable stickers is illegal, but the general population in China are uneducated about organic food and its laws, so sellers can get away with it. And without the stickers, it is difficult to know where these crops really come from. After all, if they really are operating a legit organic farm, why not do it the legal way? That said, you will generally find correct labeling and advertising in major supermarkets.

Food Safety And Sustainability

If you are worried about food safety and stick to places with the appropriate stickers and avoid restaurants, the quality of the food ultimately depends on the farm. Both Biofarm's Jane Tsao and Mahota's Tom Chen advise that consumers go visit the farms they are buying from to see the evidence of good organic practices for themselves. As Tsao puts it, "The certificate is the most basic proof. But the ecosystem, and the people coming to are farms is the real proof... If there are animals, birds, bugs, the type of things you would find in a natural farm, then that shows that the farm is truly organic."

When it comes to going organic to solve the problems of food safety, there is more than your own personal safety to consider. As IFOAM's Zhou Zejiang advises, "Please do not only consider your own health -- the consumer's health. The first benefit is not consumers; it is the farmers. Because it is farmers that apply the chemicals, and they are hurt by the chemicals much more seriously -- hundreds more times than the pollution you'll receive. So if you are organic, you are helping the farmers."

There is another reason to visit the farms. Not only do visits promote further accountability, they also allow consumers to build a relationship with the farmers and farm owners through community supported agriculture (CSA).

"The nature [of community supported agriculture] is that there’s a direct connection between the supplier and the community. It’s built on trust, it’s fundamental to the relationship," says Gale.

Under this direct relationship, the local farmers get local support and don't have to put all their financial reliance on third party sellers. Community supported agriculture grows the local economy and decreases food transportation emissions. And if the farm is using pesticides or other harmful products, it becomes a bit harder to give that damaged produce to a family that they know personally. The result is a mutually beneficial relationship where farms are supported and held accountable, and consumers are safer and healthier.

You might choose to go organic for a number of reasons. Food safety might be your motivation. Or perhaps you want to build a better, more sustainable future. Either way, you should visit these farms on your own, make your own conclusions, and support them if they run good operations. In the end, the food you consume comes from farms and the people that grow it, so it's worth getting to know them if you can.


1. Zhou Zejiang, telephone interview by XZ Palmer, September 27, 2015
2. Fred Gale, telephone interview by XZ Palmer, September 23, 2015
3. Tom Chen, interview by XZ Palmer, Mahota Farm, September 15, 2015