Organics or genetically modified? China decides
Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
632Trip End Dec 31, 2011
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Don't panic, it's organic: nature knows best
By Erik Nilsson (China Daily)
Beijinger Wang Liping says it was more than the taste of her first organic meal that amazed her three years ago.
"I felt really good after eating it, because it's perfectly natural," the 53-year-old says as she tucks several packages of organic grain under her arm at a Green Dotdot health food kiosk on Beijing's Wangfujing Street.
"Since then, if I can buy organic, I do."
Wang has joined the ranks of a new dietary trend spreading across China's tabletops. Mix rising concerns about food safety, health and the environment, throw in a dash of increasing income, and you get the recipe for China's growing hunger for organic fare.
Domestic organic market sales increased from zilch in 1995 to 73.3 million yuan in 2006, says Zhou Zejiang, senior advisor of the Organic Food Development Center of China (OFDC), under the State Environmental Protection Administration.
"China is probably the only one among exporting countries that also has a strong domestic market," he says, adding the export sector increased from $300,000 to $450 million in the same period.
Today, China cultivates 2.3 million hectares of land - the second most in the world - for certified organic food, while about 30.4 million hectares are uncertified but are still organic, Zhou says.
As patrons scour Green Dotdot's shelves, manager Guo Jingyun explains most customers are educated women aged 30 to 50. Younger people have been slower to go for organic, partly because they cook less overall, she says.
Chen Jingxi, 26, says she hasn't tried organic food but came to Green Dotdot to investigate the rows of tins and packets.
"I've heard from family and friends that it's healthier, so I'm going to have a try today," the Jiangxi province native says as she places a can of dried cranberries on the checkout counter.
Guo explains most of the information about organic food currently streams to the mainland from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The firm has more than 30 stores and about 800 shelf displays in Hong Kong, where it was founded eight years ago, but only a handful of stores in Beijing and Shenzhen, where it opened its first mainland shops three years ago.
"In the last two years, awareness of organic food on the mainland has increased dramatically," Guo says.
One of the biggest changes in the sector, she explains, has been the growing number of local consumers versus expatriates.
"Now, 70 to 80 percent of our customers are Chinese. When we started, it was the opposite."
Zhou says about 50 percent of Chinese urbanites know the difference between organic and conventional food, while about 25 percent can distinguish between organic and green food.
"However, most of them only know that organic means no chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers. A few of them also know organic should have no genetically modified organisms."
A unique consequence of the scant, albeit mounting Chinese awareness of organic food, is that few retailers advertise.
Lohao also hosts activities at local schools and invites student field trips to its farm to raise awareness.
Guo says: "We advertise in Hong Kong, but not in Beijing yet. We're still establishing a presence, and instead use pamphlets, exhibitions, window displays and word of mouth."
Zhou explains that 70 to 75 percent of organic consumers, including expats in China, are high-income, while 20 percent are middle-class people "willing to pay more for food safety than for housing, clothing or entertainment". The other 5 to 10 percent are consumers by default, who unintentionally eat organic, for example when the food is gifted.
"Some of our customers, especially Chinese, aren't rich but insist on organic," Lohao City Organic Health Food Store corporate development manager Cindy Yin says.
Fresh organic produce can cost 50 to 100 percent more than ordinary produce, while imported goods can be as much as 200 percent more, Yin says.
"There's a gap in processed foods - that sector is not as developed yet in China," Yin says, adding that Lohao imports about 50 percent of its processed goods.
Guo says most of Green Dotdot's 400 products are imported and then packaged in China.
"Some are easy to find in China, such as beans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, rice, fruit and vegetables," she says. "But other things are hard to find, like wild red rice, which we get from Canada and Thailand. If we can find them locally, we'll buy them locally."
Beijing-based Green Cow Organic Farm owner Lejen Chen says that currently, it's less profitable for her to grow organically.
"We need about five times more labor," Chen says. "That's what makes it more expensive."
Her 10 permanent staffers, plus additional help hired at harvest time, remove weeds and insects by hand at the 7.3-hectare organic farm in Beijing's Shunyi district.
The vegetables supply Green Cattle Farm Vegetable Club, which provides a weekly box of vegetables for 15 member families and the company's Mrs. Shanen's restaurant.
"We also want to contribute to the health of the earth. It's something we want to promote and is worth doing," Chen says.
"It's more than growing organic vegetables. It also involves thinking about saving energy, not polluting and not hurting the animals."