Sowing Change in Chinese Produce

On any Saturday between 10am and 2pm, the basement of the Dreamport Shopping Mall in Haidian, Beijing is transformed from overflow space into Beijing’s only organic farmers market. Since the market’s founding in 2010, locals have filled the stalls searching for fresh fruits or vegetables, eager to eat produce grown locally and without additives or pesticides. In a country that has been rocked by a number of food scandals, those with resources often see foreign products or local organic goods as the only safe alternative to tainted corporate goods.

Beyond the farmers market, the last five years have seen a proliferation of organic farms in the regions surrounding Beijing, many of which are Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms—locals can buy memberships that entitle them to deliveries of fresh vegetables on a regular basis. While not as affordable as shopping at traditional grocery stores, the programs present a refreshing alternative for those with money to spend.

One of the well known CSA programs in the Beijing region is the Little Donkey Farm, just outside of the city center. The local government supports the farm, and memberships range in price from 2,000-4,000 RMB (300-600 USD) for delivery service of a weekly selection of vegetables. The farm’s produce is available on Taobao as well, in order to take advantage of China’s robust online grocery business. In order to further integrate the concept to the modern world, the farm’s website includes discussion forums on specific vegetables, recipes, and growing methods.

Little Donkey Farm is far from the only option when looking for organic food in Beijing—Finding Organic Beijing, a website that lists and promotes organic farms and restaurants throughout the city, lists many others that consumers may choose from. Green Cow Farm, started by a native of Brooklyn, offers a wide range of Chinese and Western vegetables, and caters to the wealthy foreign population of Beijing. The owner, Shanen, originally began farming in order to supply ingredients for her restaurant in Shunyi, as she was dissatisfied with what she found in grocery stores. The success of her restaurant and the interest of her customers in the organic produce lead her to open up the farm to the CSA model, supplying the vegetables directly to the consumer. Shanen now offers tours of the farm as well, for those desperate to escape the smoggy streets of Beijing.

Organic farms near large Chinese cities have a high level of visibility amongst city residents. A number of Chinese students studying at the University of Oxford in the U.K. could easily name 2-3 organic farms in the area surrounding their home city. One of the students interviewed mentioned that in her hometown of Shanghai, people often will buy organic fruits and vegetables from well-known farms online. She further mentioned, however, that often they do not buy the more expensive produce to eat themselves, but rather as gifts to friends and family, or even to 贿赂上级 (bribe superiors).

Another student from Guangzhou noted a similar sentiment, adding that it was often wealthier Chinese that bought organic produce. Many of the farms mentioned throughout interviews with Chinese students had many features similar to the farms mentioned in Beijing. Tony’s Organics, located just outside Shanghai, entices visitors to its large farm with a new tourist information center and activity areas for children. The farm additionally has a restaurant located in downtown Shanghai with food made using their own organic produce.

Despite the success that the CSA model has found in a small local range, it is unclear whether or not the practice could be scaled up to make a significant impact on the greater Chinese food industry. Much of the appeal of the community-based farms is their local and eco-conscious ethos, which is difficult to export or grow. Many customers and visitors to the small farms are foreigners who have both the money and the desire to seek out organic foods. For the vast majority of those living in Beijing, the CSA model is both more expensive and more inconvenient than shopping at the nearest grocer. The farms are smart to fully utilize the advantages presented by the Internet, as it may be their best bet at gaining widespread visibility and appeal.

Whatever difficulties the farms may face, there are clear correlations between their success and the emergence of other food trends in the country. Many of the healthy living food trends that have emerged in America, where organic eating is well established, have made their way across the Pacific. Avocados, kiwis, kale, yogurt, and olive oil have all seen recent spikes in sales and popularity in China. According to a Financial Times report, avocado imports to China alone have multiplied by over 160 times since just four years ago. The Chinese middle class is looking towards the west in their consumption habits, which points towards an increased awareness of the origins of their food.

Although not yet widespread, the existence alone of these organic farms is a promising sign for the future of Chinese agriculture. In a country looking for environmental successes to advertise to the world, the sustainable farming model may fit smoothly into the zeitgeist of the current decade. The younger and more eco-conscious generation of Chinese consumers is changing consumer values throughout the country, and the beginning of inclinations towards organic food is just one of many canaries in the coal mine indicating greater future change in the country.

Alex Herkert is a current MSc Candidate in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Contact him at alexander.herkert@stcatz.ox.ac.uk

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