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Veg Out: Organic Food in Shanghai

As we all know, almost all food in China is injected with anthrax and cat Aids before it reaches the table. But there is another way...
Last updated: 2015-11-09

Recent reports have claimed that organic food may be no better for you than regular stuff grown with pesticides and raised on hormones. While the jury is still out on all that, it may still be wise to eat organic in China due to lax food safety standards here and the use of toxic chemicals by unscrupulous producers.

We’re always hearing stories of companies dumping melamine in their milk and restaurants using gutter oil to cook their dishes, of beef loaded with borax, mushrooms filled with bleach and eggs made from cluster bombs (OK, we’ve never heard of eggs made from cluster bombs, but surely it’s only a matter of time?). But what does it mean to buy organic food in China? Are the standards for organic as stringent as in the West and how do we know organic farms are what they claim to be?

We asked a load of people who work in the field (the field of organics, not workers out there in the fields), and the short answer seems to be that organic certification standards are indeed very stringent in this country, perhaps even more stringent than in the West, but it's often hard to verify that producers are as clean and green as they claim to be.

Here it all is in more detail...

What does China consider organic food?

In order to call their produce organic, companies in China must be certified by the government. In 2005, the government issued The National Standard for Organic Products, which states what food producers may legally label organic in China. This law is “based on international norms with added emphasis on contamination by pollutants and prohibited materials and quality management systems, especially record-keeping and traceability” according to the International Trade Center, a UN and WTO-sponsored body that does riveting trade-related work.

The international norm they are referring to is one set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, which is a body that issues certifications for organic goods. In other words, Chinese standards are based on international standards. All well and good.

The certification process is predictably laborious. Receiving the certification involves heavy amounts of paperwork, self-assessment, on-site inspections by the government, and a significant wait, upwards of three years. According to international norms, if you want to call your food organic, your fields must have been pesticide-free for three years.

According to Amy Ye at BioFarm, a 100-acre organic farm out near Pudong airport, in 2012 the rules become significantly stricter in China. Ye says the certification process is now much more expensive and that serves as a deterrent to small farms that are trying to produce organic foods. For imported organic products sold in China, foreign companies now have to re-certify every year (a process that costs around 3200USD per product) to continue to market goods as organic. Even if companies importing goods to China are certified by their home country, such as having the US Department of Agriculture Organic certification, they will still have to complete the Chinese certification process every year.

Kimberly Ashton, whose company The Wellness Works, specializes in healthy lifestyle education, confirms this, saying the annual re-certification process for imported organic food has been driving the prices of organic products up considerably.

According to the USDA Foreign Agriculture Services, since 2012, there have been several major changes in the certification process for winning the Chinese Organic Standard. The most interesting new rule states that: “Once a product receives the organic certification, it will be assigned an authentication code. Each SKU [Stock-Keeping Unit] will have a code. Consumers can use this code to check whether the product is truly certified organic.” So, presumably, in the near future you should be able to check every product that claims to be organic to see if it actually is.

So, all this sounds reassuring. Chinese regulators understand what it means to call something organic and are taking bold, high-tech steps to ensure organic food is truly green, though we won't hold our breath for that authentication code scheme. But the question remains, in a nation blighted by corruption, where cutting corners to save costs and remain competitive is standard operating procedure in some industries, how do we know farms aren’t just lying on their packaging or buying these credentials from bent officials?

How to Find Genuine Organic Products

Experts in Shanghai admit this is sometimes tricky and suggest consumers get active, build relationships with the organic food suppliers and engage with retailers. According to Sherry Poon, the founder of Wobabybasics, a company specializing in manufacturing organic cotton clothing for children, “It is important for consumers to engage companies and ask questions about their products and the company's motivations.”

Jeni Saeyang, the founder of Eco & More, which produces environmentally friendly home products like soap, shampoo and other cleaning products, agrees that customers should ask plenty of questions about what is the actual percentage of organic material in the product, what are the guidelines used by the factories, etc. The same goes for Kimberly Ashton. She suggests consumers go out and meet the people who are growing in order to build trust with the producers who handle the food.

All of them advise us to ask about retailers’ certifications, ask about where products are grown or produced, and ask about the factories that produce the products.

The good news is that there is ample opportunity to engage these companies and the community as a whole. Companies like The Wellness Works and Eco & More routinely have workshops and film screenings discussing green issues in Shanghai. Places like BioFarm and the nonprofit Roots & Shoots also host programs and classes. Every year there is the Eco Design Fair, which provides an arena for sustainable innovations and design in Shanghai. Several times during the interviews for this article, the fair was mentioned as the big place for meeting people heavily invested not only the organic movement but in the environmental movement as a whole.

So, if you are interested in organic food and products, there is a dedicated community in Shanghai to help you achieve just that. It may mean more work, but this kind of community action crap is good for the soul, it stops us turning into corporate drones. It’s also probably wrong to assume the worst about organic food here just because it can be tricky to verify all claims. Take some solace in recent comments by Lawrence Busch, a professor at Michigan State University who specializes in product standards and organic certification, who told The Seattle Times that: "Probably the vast majority of Chinese stuff that meets the organic label does so legitimately.”

Most people involved in organic food production and trade are doing it because they care about the environment and food standards, not to make a quick buck, so why assume the worst.

Next week we'll stay on this topic and look at some of the products available from home-delivery services in Shanghai that specialize in organic and green produce.

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