The Other Organic in China

James Harkness of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an organization that advocates for family farms around the world, has recently been in China researching organic farming, and he’s been writing about it for the IATP’s blog. It’s fascinating reading.

China has 8.6 million hectares of land that are farmed organically; the United States has 2.2 million. Much of the production from that land is shipped abroad: produce largely to neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea, commodity crops like soy to American companies. Harkness says there’s a lot of skepticism about the real meaning of organic labeling in China, and he’s been visiting farms and consumers who “represent the beginning of a domestic backlash against industrial export agriculture in China.” Harkness is a fine writer—after talking to a newly evangelical organic grocery clerk, he writes, “I was still basking in the sunshine of the clerk’s organic moral universe …”—and his reports aren’t always what you’d expect.

Visiting a cooperative grocery in a massive minicity in Beijing—100 30-story apartment buildings in a few square kilometers, housing 300,000 people—Harkness discovers that the grocery isn’t able to regularly stock fresh food: “So the basic idea of setting up a co-op to meet the food needs of a community has gotten lost in the mix, and instead of cabbage and carrots they’re selling dried fungus and diced deer penis.”

The diary’s also moving: After touring a sustainably run farm that Harkness calls “radically non-interventionist”—the owner forbids workers from killing bugs even with their hands—there’s this exchange:

Just before I hopped out, I asked what subject Ji had gotten his PhD in. ‘Nano-Materials,’ he answered. To which his wife added, ‘for guided missiles. He made weapons.’ We were all silent for a moment and then Ji said, ‘Arms are only beneficial to some people, but food is good for everyone.’

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