From: Anna Lappé , Organic Consumers Association, More from this Affiliate
Published December 3, 2007 05:50 PM

Anna Lappe: We Are What China Eats

Straight to the Source 


At five in the morning in the small farming village of Dahokeng, a day's drive west of Shanghai, the alarm clock of rural communities everywhere rings: The rooster croaks cock-a-doodle-doo or, as they say here, goh-geh-goh-goh. The air is still damp with mist that hovers above the rice paddies and holds the faint, pleasant scent of farm animals. Kitchen gardens, with harvests of sweet potato, watermelon, green beans and peanuts, spring up between the white-washed homes. The fields along the valley are blanketed with mulberry trees and crowded with chrysanthemum plants, their white flowers aglow.

I'm here in Dahokeng with the development organization, Heifer International, to meet the subsistence farmers of this 400-person village and learn about the integration of organic practices on their small farm plots. And I'm here in China because, as someone who cares about food - the quality of it, who has access to it - I'm curious about this country's organics: are they safe? Are they expanding? I know that what happens in China matters, whether you live here or halfway around the world.



In the months before my trip, this obvious insight became even more glaring. Front-page headlines bombarded the public with news of Wal-Mart and even name-brand organic companies sourcing organics from China. There were disturbing pet food scandals and food-safety brouhahas that left a wake of destroyed reputations, sickened people and pets, and even an execution, when, by directive of the Central government, the head of China's Food and Medicine Inspection was sentenced to death.

It's no wonder then that before landing in Beijing, "organic" wasn't exactly the first word that came to mind when I thought of food in China. Sure, not too long ago - before the Second World War and the advent of the agricultural chemical age - most Chinese farmers were organic by default. But now, even in villages like Dahokeng, farm chemicals are the norm, not the exception. Today, China produces, uses and exports the most pesticides of any nation in the world, including types we've banned because of their toxicity, like the pesticide DDT.

Taming nature

This shift from organic-subsistence farming to large-scale industrial agriculture took hold in the fifties after the Revolution. With grave concern about food self-sufficiency, the government pushed industrial agriculture as a key to productivity.

"We were hot in the mind," said Li Ruilin, 72, a governmental agricultural scientist for more than five decades. "We had the mentality of a battle against nature. The saying was: 'Productivity depends on man, not the land.'"

Puffing on a cigarette in the lobby of a government hotel, Li explained that within a decade, this attitude and the industrialization it encouraged had caused severe environmental damage. Harvests were worse, not better. China was experiencing the same irony of the chemical agricultural age seen around the globe: the more chemicals used to tame nature, the more nature's own abundance is depleted, and its own basis for renewal is destroyed. "Input-intensive" industrial agriculture had made Chinese farmland, like so many before, addicted to water, fossil fuels and chemicals. The devastation was compounded by the fact that China is home to 22 percent of the world's population but only seven percent of the world's arable land.

But alongside the "Man vs. Nature" attitude Li described, many Chinese have also articulated a vision of a symbiotic relationship with the natural world. Consider the words of Chinese Taoist Lao Tzu, writing in the 6th century BC: Those who would take over the earth / And shape it to their will / Never, I notice, succeed / The earth is like a vessel so sacred / That at the mere approach of the profane / It is marred.

That's a pretty darn coherent environmental ethic if I've ever heard one. And it's this spirit that seems to be inspiring, at least in part, the nascent organic farming movement here. I saw glimpses of it in Dahokeng, where Heifer International is helping teach practices like using biogas tanks to convert manure into high-grade organic fertilizer. And I saw it in Li and his colleagues, who are promoting organic tea production in Anhui Province.

But while the spirit of Lao Tzu may be encouraging some of the efforts for organic agriculture here, another factor seems to be money. A big organics push is coming from a government that still controls most agricultural land and has its sights on lucrative export markets.

International organizations began certifying organics for export in 1990 and, in 1994, the government launched its own Organic Food Development Center. According to the most recent figures I could get my hands on, China is now third in the world, right after Australia and Argentina, in terms of total organic acreage in production. (A caveat to this colossal-sounding ranking: organic foods still make up only a fraction of total Chinese production. It's just that in China, even tiny is huge, and globally, all countries have a long way to go before organic production is commonplace).

Most of the organic food grown here is still shipped overseas, especially to Japan and to Europe, where China is the number one non-EU supplier for organic beans and edible seeds like sunflower and pumpkin. While I hear the domestic market is exploding, when my translator and I try to find organic items in a supermarket in Shexian Province, we get quizzical looks from the clerks. Eventually, we find a stash of tea with the organic seal, but most of the aisles look typically American, including one filled entirely with Tang.

Dirty water + down stream sludge = dirty food?

Just how organic are China's "organic" foods? Some Chinese consumer advocates have complained about faux organics filling the shelves, pointing to studies like one that found ten percent of "green foods" in Beijing stores were fakes. But a bigger issue is how China's environment affects the quality and safety of the country's organic production.

From Powerbooks to pacemakers, China is home to the majority of the world's heavy industries and produces the bulk of the world's consumer products. Most of the world's cement and flat glass and one-third of its aluminum and steel are fashioned here.

Waste from this industrial production coupled with the country's dirty coal-fired power plants and runoff from agricultural chemicals has turned water into a massive public health threat. Nearly 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste, and 190 million are sickened from contaminated water every year. According to the Xinhua News Agency, three-quarters of river water flowing into China's cities is unsuitable for drinking or fishing. Little wonder, then, that China's leading cause of death is cancer, which robs the lives of hundreds of thousands a year. 

Trying to grow chemical-free food in this environmental context is a tough battle. But with mounting international awareness about the country's eco-catastrophes, some in China and abroad are cautiously optimistic that a growing domestic consumer movement and high standards overseas will help force the central government to clean up its act. These higher standards can hurt the government where it feels it: in the pocket.

The farmers I met in Anhui Province know this first hand. In 2004, Japanese importers rejected their biggest export, honey, because of health concerns. It was a shock and a wakeup call, explained my agricultural informant, Mr. Li. In response, the provincial government has forced some of the most polluting factories to close. That same year, the central government published its first list of banned chemicals. Use them and your factory or farm could be shut down.

For the most serious violations, you could be jailed. Considering the government executed its minster for food safety, these threats have frighteningly real teeth.

Yet, despite these examples, as a rule, the government has not made environmental cleanup a priority. Just consider that its environmental protection agency has only a few hundred staff, while our EPA boasts 17,000.

As I flew out of Beijing, the ubiquitous blanket of smog served as a grim reminder of the Chinese government's paltry response to its environmental crises. But my concern was tempered by a seed, however small, of hope. It came from seeing Heifer project participants and agricultural scientists like Mr. Li bringing organic practices back to life. It came from stumbling on those tins of tea with the orange-and-green organic label tucked away in the supermarket aisle. And it came from the reports I had just heard about mounting popular unrest throughout the country. The Taipei Times reported that there were 86,000 pollution-related protests in 2005. A top environmental official, Zhou Shengxian, put the figure at 51,000, but that would still mean an average of 1,000 protests a week!

What does this have to do with us? For those of us who care about the integrity of our food, we must care about the environment in China. After all, we live on a very small planet, getting smaller every day. And if you're still not convinced of that: Just ask an Angeleno on a day that the EPA says one-quarter of LA's air pollution particulates have traveled all the way from China. As China becomes the world's largest exporter of greenhouse gases, getting things right over there will help us all.

Anna Lappé ( is the national bestselling author of Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, both from Tarcher/Penguin. She lives in Brooklyn, NY where she's at work on her third book for adults and a children's book series.


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