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Organic Food in China

There is a lot of hype surrounding organic food and whether it's better as opposed to normal foods. CHI gives the low down on organic food and whether it's really worth paying extra for.


As a result of increasing incomes and a more acute awareness of what is on our dinner plates, organic foods have gained a huge following around the world, and China is no exception.

Given the constant barrage of reports about food safety risks that have plagued the country over the past several years, it is easy to understand why anyone living in China, local or expatriate, might be concerned about what they are feeding themselves and their family.

What Is “Organic”?

Depending on where you are from, organic can mean many different things, and “certified organic” labels are now slapped on not only our food, but also on clothing and beauty products.

To begin with, organic is not really the best word to describe the products that most people think/hope/believe they are buying when they purchase organic meats or vegetables. The word “organic” actually just means from living organisms, which should describe all our food and any other plant-derived products. Nowadays, the term “organic” has come to mean something different: a food with reduced exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, hormones or fertilizers. When you buy organic, you are ultimately trying to reduce your own intake of these chemicals.

In China, the issue remains as to just how organic the organic-labeled foods really are. This is partly due to lack of enforced regulation, especially in the farmer's markets located in every village, town and city throughout the country where most people buy their raw ingredients. These markets are widely held as the freshest and usually the lowest priced places to shop and, at least in this writer's opinion, for the most part they are. However, the question of finding authentically organic produce comes in how far you trust your vegetable market stall manager. Simply writing “有机” (organic in Chinese, pronounced youji) on a scrap of cardboard and tucking it into the corner of a bin of oranges does not always instill confidence.

The other problem with organics in China is corruption. It's easier and cheaper to sell your products as organic than to actually make sure they are. As a result, shopping at a brand name supermarket does not guarantee legitimate organic farming practices were used to raise the “organic” products in question, and these shopping outlets too have been the subject of investigations and news reports exposing corrupt store managers and producers passing off regular foodstuffs as organic.

The issue of real versus fake organic, and what even can be considered “organic” in the first place, will doubtless continue well into the future, and it is hardly a problem that is isolated to just China. Similar discussions and reports are common in Australia, North America and Europe as well.

Should You Buy Organic?

This has been a hot-button topic since organics first started to become popular. Opponents to the organic movement claim that the chemicals involved in normal food production have been in use for years, and no one ever complained in the past, so the “organic craze” is nothing more than a clever marketing ploy to sell overpriced apples.

In some cases this is probably true, but like all things there are two sides to every story. While we may all have grown up eating chemically fertilized, protected or enhanced foods, some people simply don't want to keep doing it, since anything unnatural that you put into your body will invariably have some metabolic effect, however slight it might be.

This is an important point to understand: organic foods are not inherently healthier, they are simply grown or produced without the introduction of unnecessary chemicals.

Now, back to argument of price. It is almost inevitable that organic products will be exponentially higher than their visually identical counterparts (save for a sticker or package proudly proclaiming its organic status). In China, the price differential is even more extreme than in many western countries, and organic products can be as much as three to four times higher than regular produce, largely due to demand and the “luxury appeal” of organics. To fill the buying public's demands, there are now plenty of online and retail outlets to buy organic goods from in China, but choosing to only eat organic in China is still a pricey decision.

How Can You Choose?

Any normal person living in China will have to accept that there are times when concessions must be made. When eating in a restaurant, there is a good chance that organic food options will be quite limited in all but the most expensive restaurants. Furthermore, not every food item in the market or grocery store will have an organic option available. Like most imported items for sale in China, imported organic foods will be much more expensive than they would be in their country of origin.

A good rule of thumb to apply when deciding whether or not to buy organic foods is to consider how often per week you eat the particular item in question.

Here's an example: If you eat a banana everyday, but only one mango per month, the overall positive effect on your health of eating organic bananas when compared to organic mangoes will be about 30 times higher, so buying an organic mango is fairly useless.

To tackle the issue of price, be a comparison shopper. If you eat both potatoes and broccoli roughly twice a week, but organic potatoes are four times more expensive than regular potatoes while organic broccoli is only twice as costly as regular broccoli, then you will save some money by buying the better value organic product; assuming your budget forces you to choose.

On the other hand, if you smoke (strangely, cigarettes and tobacco are subsidized by the Chinese government and therefore very cheap) or drink heavily, and eat out quite often in local restaurants of questionable health and safety standards, then buying organic fruits and vegetables is not going to make much difference in your overall health, and you would be far better served by giving up other unhealthy habits first.

Where Can You Get Reliable Organics?

Depending on your location, organic foods are available from a variety of sources in China. In major cities, some specialty fruit shops have started to sell organic fruits by the piece or by the carton, and many supermarkets will have an organics section where individually packaged fruits and vegetables are sold.

As mentioned earlier, online organic grocers now offer delivery services, either as a weekly prepaid service to your home or office, or on a single-purchase basis (organic fruits are a popular holiday gift). If you don't live in a major urban area where specialty shops or supermarkets are readily available, ordering may be the simplest solution. Otherwise, a look around your neighborhood may provide a good source for undocumented organics, since locals often still grow lots of their own seasonal vegetables in small gardens and may be willing to sell them to you at a reasonable price. Think of this as the “old school organic.”

If you are really concerned with the processes used to raise your organics, a lot of the organic farms in China are happy to allow you to tour them and have a look for yourself, and many even let you buy direct from the farm.

There are no absolute guarantees that what you will get is going to be 100% Organic, but at least by putting forth a reasonable amount of effort, you can limit the chemicals consumed in your foods. Then, all you have to do is find some organic air to breathe...but that's another blog article for another time.