Is organic food from China safe?

While organic agriculture is big in China, concerns about food safety and quality are starting to arise

Greener pastures

Nelson Ching/Bloomberg/Getty Images

In the new China, everything is big. Drive south on the wide highway from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and for hours you will see field after field of vegetables with farmers stooped over crops, and pass trucks, motorized tricycles and bikes overflowing with fresh cabbages, onions and greens. This farmland outside Kunming is one of dozens of vast agricultural areas in the country that grow about half of all the world’s vegetables, an increasing number of which are now certified organic. Over the past 10 years, China has converted millions of hectares to organic agriculture—between 2005 and 2006, the amount of organically managed land went up more than tenfold. Today, China has more organic land than any other country, positioning it to be the world’s largest organic producer.

This potential to grow a lot in one place is what motivated Gary Lloyd to look to China in 2000 to source organic peas, spinach and other produce. Lloyd’s company freezes and packages the produce on behalf of other brands that then sell it under their own names at supermarkets in Canada and the United States. He was one of many who saw opportunity in China’s rapidly growing organic export industry—today, Canadians eat a wide range of organic produce from China. The country supplies one-third of all the green peas we eat, both conventional and organic, and much of our apple juice.

But while organic agriculture is big in China, so too are tainted food scandals—think melamine in milk and, more recently, exploding watermelons—and now concerns about food safety in the country are starting to push production back to Canada. Chinese exports of organic fruits and vegetables may be on the rise, but the question is, how long will they continue to be?

It makes sense from an economic perspective for companies to ship organic vegetables here from the other side of the planet because they can still make a profit. “Vegetables traditionally are labour intensive,” explained Brian Revell, professor of agriculture and food economics who studies the country at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire. And organic vegetables are doubly so because chemicals such as herbicides are often replaced with hand weeding. In Canada, those labour costs can push the price of organic produce way up, so with cheap labour there is a payoff.

A Dutch company was the first to see the business opportunity, and in the early 1990s started producing tea without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on a commercial scale in China. Export organics grew and quickly spread to pumpkin and sunflower seeds; a number of organizations began to offer organic certification that met international standards, such as our own, so the food could be sold in Canadian supermarkets. That’s why you can buy organic ketchup made from Chinese tomatoes that bears the USDA logo. And why that ketchup can be so cheap.

It’s also why the arrival of inexpensive Chinese organics in Australia has been called a crisis by farmers who now compete with a 42 per cent rise in fresh vegetable imports from that country. There are no definitive numbers here on organic imports from China; Statistics Canada started tracking them in 2007, but not all foods are captured by the system. However, producers can look to what happened when inexpensive Chinese products such as apple juice and garlic began flooding the market, running many Canadian farmers out of business and prompting many local apple growers to tear out their trees.

However, organics in China are different. Whereas the organic food movement in North America (and Europe) grew out of a grassroots interest in producing environmentally friendly foods for a community, in China organics has been about business from the start. Farmland is communally owned, so a foreign business, often working with a Chinese agent, will approach a village council and propose a farming arrangement. After a community vote, the entire village contracts with the company to supply the agricultural product. The farmers agree to use the seeds and other inputs the foreign company provides, but they’re not motivated by any romantic notions of farming sustainably.

Still, experts say, while food safety issues have hounded China’s domestic food industry, these export crops are part of a separate food system. The vegetables sold in China by the old-fashioned fruit and vegetable sellers at wet markets as well as at the modern, international supermarkets all come from the country’s network of wholesale markets, said Scott Rozelle, a professor at Stanford who studies Chinese agricultural policy and markets. However, vegetables headed abroad are monitored along the food chain: farmers grow the organic vegetables on plots of land that are often less than an acre, then bring the harvest, usually by hand-pulled cart, to a company processing plant, where it is inspected. Plant employees, who tend to be women whose husbands have left for factories on the east coast, wash and prepare the vegetables—all by hand. Before leaving the factory, the vegetables are put through a double metal detector. “They do a great job,” said Lloyd. “We never have had a problem in China.”

“The Chinese are super careful,” echoed Rozelle. The vegetables destined for foreign supermarkets are inspected by government employees before they leave the country. “They know if they get to the port and find residues, it will be rejected.”

Nevertheless, concern about the quality of organics doesn’t come out of nowhere. When melamine was found in milk after the Beijing Olympics, the scandal drew international headlines. To this day, stories of tainted and poisoned foods remain a regular occurrence in China. In April, several Guangdong noodle factories were shut down after they were found to be using industrial dye and paraffin wax to fraudulently manufacture sweet potato noodles. Earlier this year, the country’s largest meat processor was found to have produced pork containing a banned drug, and last fall a number of people fell critically ill after eating foods made with baking soda tainted by thallium, a toxic metal.

Also, at least in China’s domestic food system, what is purported to be organic is questionable. “If there is a label on it, more likely than not it’s fake,” said a woman who works in an NGO in Beijing that focuses on agriculture and the environment. Revell has heard similar skepticism. “There’s always the question of verification,” he said. His colleague was taken on a tour of what was supposed to be an organic farm in Shandong. “He could see empty cans of agrichemicals around the place, so he wasn’t really convinced.” It’s no surprise foreign consumers and companies would be concerned about such trends crossing over.

After the melamine scandal, Lloyd lost a contract with a major American supermarket that had total sales four times the size of Canada’s, and he said another looked instead to Mexico for stock. Lloyd is now turning back to Ontario for his vegetables. He plans to start sourcing his organic vegetables in the province this summer to sell in Canadian supermarkets. Other conventional frozen vegetable brands, such as Green Giant and Arctic Gardens, have “Grown in Canada” lines. “Demand is pushing local. People are getting more educated about food in general,” said Lloyd. “Times change.”

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