My dad knows more about what’s going on in Yunnan province than I do, and he lives in Wisconsin. He forwarded me a link to this article in Businessweek this morning, which is ridiculous because I was interviewed for it, and quoted in it, but he still scooped me.
The article discusses entry of Chinese organic products into the US market from a fairly skeptical perspective. I can understand the sentiment, but I tend to have a more positive outlook — and I’d like to think, fairly well-reasoned. Of course, I went on at length about this in the email interview… to draw a line from the article,
Barbara Robinson, who oversees the USDA’s National Organic Program, says that her department has received no complaints about Chinese organic products entering the U.S. “I don’t know why everybody picks on China,” she says.
What do I really think about China’s organic agriculture? Glad you asked. My organization just held a seminar on this issue a few weeks ago, which solidified a lot of the perspective I gained in the last year over here, so the questions from Businessweek were very well-timed. Here is the verbatim of my original responses:
Q: How much pesticides (and fertilizer, if you have that) does China use each year? Is it going up, or down?
The data vary widely depending on who you believe. For example, data reported by the Chemical Industry Almanac in 2001 was 300,000 tons lower than that reported by the China Agricultural Development Report. China Customs’ data for pesticide production was 1.04 million tons in 2005. It is important to note that about 430,000 tons (nearing half of all production) was exported in 2005.
The trend, however, is very consistent no matter whose data you look at. There was a brief decrease in use between 1983-1985, as a result of new policies banning a big group of persistent organic pollutants and highly toxic chemicals (DDT, lindane, monocrophos) but since the late ’80s, there has been a continual increasing trend in pesticide production and domestic use.
Q: Does the country use chemicals that are banned in the U.S.?
There are a large number of agrochemicals that are heavily restricted in the US that are still sold without legal restriction in China. For example, in the US, only licensed pesticide applicators can purchase the herbicide Paraquat, while in China, it is widely available over the counter (and often used for suicides).
Another example is Methamidophos, a highly toxic organophosphate that is only available to licensed pesticide applicators under very special and restricted circumstances in the US, and may only be applied to certain crops. In China, it is technically banned for use on all fruit and vegetable crops, but still easily available to most farmers without oversight.
A third problem in China is that many chemicals which have technically been banned for more than two decades (DDT, for example) are still manufactured in China for export — a practice I consider ethically questionable — and since there is a supply manufactured in China, it is still available from many pesticide retailers in rural areas. The ban is enforced in high-population areas, urban areas, and places producing crops for export, but in some small villages, DDT is still sold and used. In casual conversations, just about any pesticide retailer will openly admit this, and with a rural population of 700 million, the ban is difficult to fully enforce.
Q: What effect are these chemicals having on farmers and food? Are there any statistics on deaths, etc?
Pesticide is the primary means of suicide in China, since guns are illegal/almost completely inaccessible here. Suicide rates are highest among women in rural areas.
Acute poisonings on a large scale happen on a semi-regular basis, but the Chinese government doesn’t often pinpoint pesticides, instead citing deaths or hospitalizations from the very non-specific “food poisoning.”
Pesticide residue data is collected on a semi-regular basis, but these results may only be published annually in a national-level academic report. Some of the best case reports of pesticide residue on Chinese produce are those found in the Hong Kong media, since there is some residue testing at the border, and regular reports of poisoning due to black-market produce coming across from Guangdong province.
There has been some concern over the import of organic food because of fears that the regulations aren’t strict enough. Do you think those concerns are valid?
Organic farming means something very different in China than it does in the US. In the US, “organic” brings to mind small-structure, possibly family owned and managed farms that go organic due to a set of personal, ethical or health reasons. In China, organic products destined for export are usually grown on large-scale farms where farmers are organized and managed by either local governments or private companies. Plots of land are too small for one “family farm” to bring products to export, and in these places, the decision to go organic rarely lies with the farmer. This means they may not be invested in the idea of organic products, and therefore more likely to bend the rules.
The problem isn’t with the regulations per se, as with possible corruption during enforcement/certification. What I have seen of SMALL SCALE organic farming in China has been very positive and in compliance with regulations — but companies and governments still have the capacity to get away with a lot.
That being said, I don’t really see much of a health risk posed by eating China’s organic foods. They may not be as pristine an “organic” as US products, but they are still likely to be far “greener” than non-organic produce from the US. These food products are randomly tested for pesticide residue before exporting anyway, as both the US and the EU demand it.
Q: How should American consumers view organic food from China?
Organic food from China is a greener choice than off-the-shelf produce from the US. Pound for pound, even non-organic Chinese farmers are using only a fraction of the insecticides and herbicides used by US farmers. On the other hand, if a consumer’s goal is low environmental impact, they might want to consider the effects of shipping organics across the Pacific.
My personal opinion is that anything that can help to make organic farming in China a profitable choice will do the world an immense service. Production and use of pesticides is very much on the rise here. Local governments are actively promoting pesticide use in rural areas, using funds targeted for “scientific development” to host “experts” from pesticide companies that basically show farmers how to use more pesticides. Many consumers still have no idea what “organic” means. Profitable, export-oriented organic food products that are popularized by American consumers will give consumers a choice, and show farmers an alternative to dumping more toxins on their (and our) food.