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Chinese Urbanites Bring Organic Farming to the Countryside

(Beyond Pesticides, November 8, 2010) After numerous scandals involving China’s industrialized food supply, a new movement is afoot in the world’s most populous nation toward local, organic, and sustainable food. According to a promising Washington Post report, “Young Chinese farmers sowing seeds for organic revolution,” many of the organic farmers working to meet the growing demand are urban professionals seeking an escape from fast paced city life.

The overuse of pesticides in industrialized agriculture has created numerous problems for people and the environment. Pesticide use has been linked to many diseases including numerous types of cancer, Parkinson’s, and learning disabilities. In addition pesticides are also dangerous to wildlife. Pesticides often kill non-target organisms that may be beneficial to farmers, such as predatory insects.

Organic agriculture is an ecological approach to farming that does not rely on or permit toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Instead of using these harmful products and practices, organic agriculture utilizes techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and composting to produce healthy soil, prevent pest and disease problems, and grow healthy food and fiber.

Just as in the United States, demand for local and organic food is growing in China, and organic agriculture in China faces a unique set of challenges. For centuries, farming in China was viewed as work for impoverished peasants. Despite the fact that under Chairman Mao Zedong, farming was elevated to a noble profession, today it is once again considered one of the worst jobs in the country. When Shen Hui and her husband Chen Shuaijun decided to start farming, they were ridiculed by their neighbors and were furious to hear of their son’s plan to quit his job in the Shanghai banking sector to return to farming. Once they started the farm, things didn’t get much easier. Mr. Chen insisted on farming without any chemical pesticides or fertilizer, and many people scoffed at their methods. The work is incredibly physically demanding for the couple, and making things more difficult, since the farm has not turned a profit, the two still maintain their office jobs.

Several organic farmers in China also find it a challenge to deal with rampant pollution. While organic farmers do not rely on synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides, their soil or water supply may be laced with all kinds of pollutants. A government report found pollution makes 43 percent of state monitored rivers are unsuitable for human contact.

Marketing organic crops is another difficulty in China. Regulation of organic certification is weak at best and farmers say some agencies will certify anything for a price. As a result many organic growers don’t bother to certify their products, and instead just call them natural. The regulatory aspect of this is a huge issue, particularly in light of recent scandals with the food supply that have left many around the globe concerned about the safety of their food. In 2008, over 1200 babies became sick from milk powder formulated with the cheap industrial compound melamine. Other scandals involved vegetables infected with dangerous bacteria, fish poisoned by pollution, and cooking oil tainted with sewage.

Despite the difficulties of organic, farmers have plenty of reasons to be persistent. For organic grower Shen Hui the biggest draw of farming was the food safety: she wanted to know where her food came from, and what went into it. Organic food is also a luxury trend. China’s new super-rich consume organic food, because it has become a status symbol. Shen Hui and Chen Shuaijun also state that the simple joys of escaping city life and eating the produce they grow outweigh the challenges.

Source: The Washington Post


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