How to eat organic in China: the truth behind Chinese farms

Written by Bianca Thiglia

When I chose China as destination for my university exchange I realized that I would have to apply several exceptions to my eating and consuming habits. Everything I heard or red about farming and agriculture seemed to confirm the challenge of finding any kind sustainable product that is accessible or at an affordable price. The motivations are various, from “organic is for rich people” to “Chinese people are too many” but mostly “we don’t have that as a value in China”.
By the time of my departure I was ready to give up animal products for the semester and live on transgenic tofu.
However, when I arrived I discovered that things are different from I expected. Not worse, not better – just different.

Can’t help but stating that tofu is way tastier than our western version. It was a relief but the surprise was even greater when I could read on packaging something like “derived form transgenic soy beans”, a declaration bout the use of GMOs. Such a practice is unusual Europe and the matter is incredibly delicate in the US, where companies donate to prevent the Government from making GMO labelling compulsory. Here in China, GMO labelling is already compulsory.
As soy is one of the most GMOs intensive cultivation in the world and buying organic soy is almost impossible here, I was delighted when I found one brand of tofu stating the absence of transgenic beans in its spicy snacks.

Once in the local university, I’ve started hearing about international professors having their own organic vegetables delivered once a week. So an organic alternative actually exists however no supermarkets, not even western chains with their shelves packed with imported food, is supplying such products in my area.
Local people don’t buy in malls, just outside the city centre it is possible to see cultivated patches in every green spot, from the sides of parks to suburbs; these small farmers sell what they produce to local markets. And here domestic animals, mainly chickens, roams and eat what they find. Cant’ say they are not free ranged.
Paying more attention, I started to notice even in malls a not so small section dedicated to “farm eggs”, “wild chicken eggs”, “free-ranged duck eggs”… actually these areas are pretty big, especially if compared to what we are used to - since I don’t remember having seen any “free range” section in European supermarket. Here Walmart has one. These eggs directly come from the urban or rural animals mentioned above and Chinese people still value natural products, to the point of paying a little bit more for their not being industrial.
Actually grandparents’ generation is still mainly composed by farmers, including the share now living in bigger cities. It’s not hard for me to meet students telling me about their grandpa’s ducks and hens or the delicious dishes they have when they go back home from holyday since their families are still used to consume farm eggs, fruit and vegetables as long as meet. They share the perception of this kind of food as of higher quality compared to the average supermarket one. They reassure me about their awareness, that people is starting to care more – if not for animal welfare or health at least for quality.  And what I got is that there may be more people here than in the western world that value traditional farming practices, as a smaller amount of time separates them from a rural reality, a reality they are still linked to through their elders. Actually, even in cheaper restaurants, I can find in menus dishes based on free ranged duck, wild pork or river fish.
This care for quality and freshness pushes restaurants to expose cages containing alive birds (from hens to pheasants), rodents and turtles or malls to provides tanks from which customers can pick the animal they want to purchase. An eerie alternative to industrial products but still given by the diffidence toward an intensive reality.

Still, I couldn’t find a place to buy organic in. Mainly because Chinese organic certification is ridiculously expensive to get for average farmers and the demand mainly comes from foreigners that don’t trust the rural alternative.
So I tried another approach and contacted a self-certified farm, arranging a visit.
A few minutes drive away from one of the busiest part of the city, almost on the road and under the polluted grey sky there are its greenhouses and fields. The only way to be sure about the methods used was to believe our hosts but, seeing and entire greenhouse of strawberries affected by a disease making the whole crop uneatable, I started to weight more the option of their real refusal toward the employment of chemicals.
As for animals, I was surprised and enthusiastic in seeing that sheeps were completely free, eating directly –and probably not so efficiently- from the cultivated fields. There was a bunch of calves at a long chord, not completely free but able to walk around and browse grass. It must be said that people here are not as obsessed about hygiene standard and healthy eating: that very grass was mixed with plastic and other garbage.
Chickens and ducks were almost in the same condition, with direct access to the river however the water directly carried the pollution form the city.
But I understood that the interest for animal welfare is not what drives these choices when the pigs were shown. Two different breeds were held in dark pits. The smaller were active and able to walk on the bare cement –I was used to western standards that provide an appropriate surface, not as dangerous and difficult to walk on. I was told they were allowed outside two hours a day. The members of the bigger breed, all laying on the ground, were clearly unable to move or stand up, both for the conditions of the pit and for the total lack of strength. As their cell is half flooded, they have spend days in the same position over hard cement, mud and incredible cold and humidity. One of them was motionless, half drowned in the most overflowing part of the pit, isolated from the others. I realized the animal was alive when an ear moved toward us, too weak to even lift the head. I still wonder for how long had the creature stayed in that conditions and how more it will require for that situation to end.
When I asked about how the farmers are going to manage the issue, I was reassured multiple times that the meat of the pig will not be sold but never once of the care required and the possibility to remove the animal from that inconceivable condition.
The moment we exited, we were approached by a second farmer accusing our host of showing the pigs as his and claiming its ownership over them.

Chinese people are totally aware of the poorer standards offered by intensive farming and agriculture. This may be due more to a quality concern rather that to empathy but surely their understanding of the added value of natural and small scale practices is even deeper than our own. The rural reality intermingles with the urban and customers are still used to pick and choose what they are going to eat and purchase, be it from cages exposed on the road or outside restaurants or in the “live” sectors of supermarkets.
However, organic per se is little more that a western mania. Our auto-certified hosts flaunted their importing techniques from Japan. Having to admit that the price of organic can be higher also for us, I must say that the price gap in China is ridiculous: I’ve never seen any product less than three times more expensive than the non organic alternative.