Nicole Sy is a Masters candidate in Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University, Beijing.
Mr Yan is Party Secretary of the township where Jinnong Organic Agricultural Development Limited Company is located, in northern Hebei province. This makes him the most important man in town, more important than the president of the company. Wearing a chequered, short-sleeved polo, he takes our group to a 'basement greenhouse' 1.5m below ground. No one wears suits in farming townships, not even party secretaries.
Five hours from Beijing, the company is an important supplier of organic food to the Government and to large institutions in the Chinese capital such as university cafeterias. Mr Yan tells us proudly about plans to expand to 1000 greenhouses in three years. Today, Jinnong Organic has 350 greenhouses producing 108 kinds of vegetables in three separate locations, meaning an annual growth of 42% to reach their 2015 target. A feasible goal, as the company started only in late 2010 and grew to 350 basement greenhouses by mid-2012.
Beijing locals tend to react negatively when asked what they think of organic food. While the growth of China's economy has led to a rise in standards of living, and with it concerns over health, eating organic food has not taken off as it has in the West.
One reason is the distrust of food safety standards among Chinese people. Understandable, as over the past five years, China has been besieged by food scandal after food scandal, some humorous like exploding watermelons injected with growth hormones and some fatal like melamine found in baby milk formula. There is a wariness from foreigners about food coming out of China but this lack of confidence has taken hold of nationals now.
The distrust casts a shadow over organic-labeled foods given a government seal of approval. As of March 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture had given 26 domestic private companies the right to certify organic food, but for many Chinese the labels have little value.
'Some organisations are dishonest in their practices', says Shi Shangbai, an independent certification expert in China. Organic food certification takes about three years to process, says Shi, a former researcher in the Chinese organic food industry. Shi quit after two decades in the system to become an independent certifier due to the large amount of corruption he witnessed.
'It is necessary to track the quality of soil, air and water of an organic food farm for a long period of time', he says. A long waiting period and high standards result in fraudulent practices including shortening observation periods and selling counterfeit labels.
On the outskirts of Beijing, small independent organic farms have sprouted up. Lejen Chen and her husband Shan En were worried about whether their food was truly organic and so started a farm of their own. 'It was my reaction to all the food issues', says Chen in an interview punctuated by rooster crows.
Today, Chen's Green Cow Farm is 6 hectares in size, grows more than 25 kinds of vegetables and produces free-range eggs. Membership is available for 20,000 RMB/year (A$3128), which buys a box of vegetables delivered weekly and gives your family access to the farm, as part of a goal to build up community-supported agriculture. Membership is limited to only 20 families.
Chen says the farm is currently self-certified and member-certified. 'Self-certification means that we do get the soil tested after every three years. Last year we tested the water again. We tested the soil and the heavy metals that we tested for is below the UK Soil Association's and also below the Netherlands' standards.'
On the Government's thoughts about fraud in organic certification, Mr Yan, the Party Secretary of Jinnong Organic answers gruffly 'yes, it is a concern', before quickly moving on to showcasing the advanced monitoring technologies Jinnong Organic has for each basement greenhouse.
In May this year, Chinese authorities announced that they were ramping up efforts to eliminate illegal activities such as certification misuse and counterfeit products. China Daily reported that repackaging of organic food and illegally using or creating counterfeit organic food licenses would be the main targets.
Despite this, Lejen Chen of Green Cow Farm thinks that finding truly organic food is still not easy. According to her, 'if you really want safe, clean vegetables you have to work for it. Either you have to grow it yourself or you have to go and find a farmer that can grow vegetables as if they were growing it for themselves.'
Photo by Flickr user Dan Zen.