SHANGHAI — It’s an unlikely sight in the grungy outskirts of one of the world’s most polluted cities: row upon row of organically farmed buttery Boston lettuce, fresh thyme, and crisp cabbages.
Just drive an hour north of Shanghai’s center, as massive apartment complexes fade into crumbling low-rise concrete buildings, and there it is – City Farm, a pioneer in China's burgeoning organic food industry.
“Many of our customers are foreigners and like to eat raw vegetables in salads," said Tony Guo, sales director of City Shop, the Shanghai grocery chain that owns the farm. "The sanitation of the local produce was not good enough."
Operating for nearly a decade, City Farm now has competition. Without much fanfare, China has in recent years revolutionized organic farming. Between 2000 and 2006, China jumped from 45th position to second worldwide in the amount of land under organic management. In 2006 alone, China added a staggering 12 percent to the world’s organically farmed land.
While the trend could eventually lead to cheaper organic produce worldwide, it may also spark far-reaching social consequences inside China. As millions of unemployed migrant factory workers stream back to the countryside in search of work, the increased revenue from organic food — it sells at twice the price of conventional produce — could help ease that labor transition.
“Now, there is a big gap in income between the farmer and the urbanite,” said Xiao Xingji, director of the Organic Food Development Center of China (OFDC), a part of the Ministry of Agriculture and a main driver behind China’s organic movement. “Everyone wants to get rich quick, especially poor farmers. But for the long term they don’t want to stay in the city. If they can get a similar amount of income they would definitely prefer to stay in the countryside.”
The tantalizing prospect of improving food safety and the environment, while helping raise farmers’ incomes, has spurred the government to action. Through organizations like the OFDC, China has invested heavily in research, development, and marketing of organic farming.
Local governments are also offering monetary support through training programs and subsidies, such as discounts for organic fertilizer that City Farm uses.
Despite the optimism, the organic boom here is not without its problems. Like many products in China, it’s hard to tell if you are getting the genuine article.
“Not many people, including myself, believe the organic label,” said Guo. “I think maybe 30 percent of farms that put the organic label on their food produce the real thing.”
With tainted milk sickening some 300,000 children, and numerous other food scandals plaguing the country, testing certified organic produce is not a top government priority. “I think in the future the government will improve testing,” said Guo. “But now, hygiene officers have so much work to do with essential food safety that they don’t worry about organic.”
Guo says that government officials visit his farm twice a year to test the soil and water for chemicals. But they don't always test the food leaving the farm. Lax enforcement and the difficulty of organic farming, Guo says, lead some unscrupulous farmers to mix organic and conventional produce together, passing it all off as organic.
There are other more mundane challenges, too, like keeping away pests and dealing with weeds. That requires a heavy time investment and leads to a higher risk of failed crops. City Farm, for example, is full of electronic bug zappers and hanging insect sticky paper — not exactly the most effective methods of pest control.
Strangely enough, these constraints have brought Chinese farming back to its communist past in one way that would make Mao happy: the rise of farm cooperatives. Xiao says groups of farmers are combining their parels of land, switiching a portion over to organic managment, then sharing in the costs and profits.
Even though challenges remain, China's demographics are promising. Increasing demand by young Chinese is likely to drive improved quality and better enforcement in the future.
“Organic food is really picking up in China," Guo said, standing outside his City Farm. "Older people don’t know much about it, but the younger educated class is beginning to really look for the organic seal."