Strategies and Initiatives Addressing Food Safety Problems in Contemporary China


COHD Team, China Agricultural University
Foreign sociologists tour the Little Donkey Farm in Beijing.

Public concerns around food safety have recently exploded in China, following a series of food safety incidents and scandals reported in the media since 2008. When it comes to food safety, retailers, manufacturers, foodservice operators, caterers, industry associations, technical experts, and governments all recognize that they are facing a crisis of trust in China. Hence, many strategies and policies have been enacted to improve consumers’ confidence and build a more positive image for food products and companies.

The Chinese government has taken actions to reduce social anxiety after the frequent occurrences of food safety problems in the past years.  Key participants in several of the scandals were severely punished, a politically powerful Food Safety Commission was created, and, in 2009, a sweeping new food safety law was enacted.1 Some national overhauls in sectors including milk products, cooking oil, health foods, meat, and alcohol have also been launched to fight against the illegal use of additives in food, detailing measures to intensify supervision, upgrade safety limits, and increase penalties for violators. At the same time, new standards relating to production environments and processes, as well as permissible levels of potentially harmful substances in food, have been established. Some scholars and civil society organizations have also proposed other strategies to address the food safety issue. For instance, the introduction of mechanisms for improving traceability and accountability through vertical linkages along food supply chains or the scaling up production and processing operations; the advancement of technologies to enable rapid and accurate measurement of food safety indicators; ensuring personnel, equipment, and funds for grassroots regulatory departments; involving third-party accreditation and testing systems; and combining a self-discipline system with independent monitoring and surveillance.2 Increasing public awareness and improving transparency via media reports have also been encouraged to strengthen public engagement in discussions about, and the implementation of, food safety measures.

However, there are still great challenges and barriers to the implementation of these solutions due to the complexities and the interlinked nature of the problem, particularly when the whole country is still in the pursuit of GDP-oriented development. Some radical scholars and activists have realized that current solutions addressing food safety issues generally protect larger-scale, standardized industrial food suppliers, depreciating smallholders and small-scale producers as an impediment to monitoring and regulation of the use of pesticides and other inputs, therefore translating the solutions of food safety problems into a regulatory or technical issue. This can only lead to a further industrialization and capitalization of food production processes and also assumes a continuation of existing food safety issues. While the concept of food sovereignty, which was developed by the international farmers’ movement, is prevailing in some other parts of the world, grassroots initiatives have emerged in China to address food safety problems by exploring by-passes of mainstream food production–circulation–consumption paths and creating new food systems.

Production Oriented Solutions: CSA Farms and ‘New Farmers’

The first typical category of cases would be community-supported agriculture, or CSA farms. Originating in the U.S. and Canada, CSA is an alternative, locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution. It originally referred to a particular network or association of individuals who pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA members, or subscribers, pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they periodically receive shares of produce. New CSA arrangements in China (such as Little Donkey and Shared Harvest) preserve the broad goals of producing and consuming food in an ecologically balanced manner, but the direct links with producers have an added appeal to Chinese consumers searching for safe food. Within the CSA framework, the food production process is essential to be managed as organic, natural, biological, sustainable, pollution-free, ecological, and healthy. Generally, some CSA farms also seek to explore their multifunctionalities, like agro-tourism, organic restaurants, research and training on agro-ecological production, and so on. It aims to involve more participation of consumers in the food production process, so that they can share the value of organic production while also gaining a retreat from intense metropolitan life and an educational base for their children.

Bridging Production and Consumption: Farmers’ Markets/Country Fairs

COHD Team, China Agricultural University
A shepherd moves his flock through the mountains near the village of Hebei, China.

The second type of initiative puts more emphasis on the organization of food circulation, particularly food delivery systems. Besides considering environmental, ecological, and healthy features in the production process, they are attempting to establish direct marketing linkages between producers and consumers and enhancing their mutual understanding and trust around the common concern of food safety through face-to-face communications and transactions within new acquaintance communities. The Beijing Organic Farmers’ Market (a country fair) is one of these initiatives that has worked together with a number of peasants and some CSA farms to develop short supply chains since 2010. The market manager makes arrangements with organic farmers who sell their own produce, including organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats, poultry, honey, cheese, jams, and baked and dried goods. It has grown from 10 venders to more than 30 farmers who sell fresh organic produce and 10 shops for other products. The clients of these markets are mainly the new Chinese middle class and foreigners looking for high-quality, fresh, organically grown food but who don’t commit to joining a CSA. Certification is not yet common, but the market is in the process of setting up a participatory guarantee system (PGS).4 They organize several field visits per month to farms with consumers, agricultural experts, representatives from public media, and NGOs as well as other producers to guarantee the production process. Activities of this country fair have also extended to seminars and workshops for sharing, learning, and harvest sharing potlucks, among other events. Today, similar organic farmers’ markets have emerged in other big cities as well.

An Integrated Solution: Nested Markets

By emphasizing food production and circulation, the emergence of these new pathways has created a robust alternative food system and a strong resistance to the mainstream, industrialized, and corporation-controlled food system. These alternative pathways advocate environmentally friendly, ecologically sound, and sustainable farming; bring back people’s trust and social cohesion; provide healthy food; and, create an option for people to live farming lives. However, the aforementioned categories of solutions are mainly driven by the demand for safe food from the urban mid-upper classes. The ‘new farmers’ involved in these solutions are mostly young and passionate about farming and farm management in suburban areas, but pay little attention to the livelihoods of peasants living and working in rural areas.

Accordingly, a third category of initiatives could be classified as more multifunctional, that is, not only as responses to food safety problems but also as integrated solutions to cope with a series of social problems in contemporary China, such as ‘de-peasantization’ and widespread rural poverty; the destruction of rural society, culture, and ecology; and, the degradation of rurality. Thus, the solutions within this third strand are not limited to addressing specific nodes of the food supply chain, but challenge the greater food production–circulation–consumption system, striving to advocate public awareness of healthy food and mobilize more peasants to participate in the reconstruction of the rural villages.

In recent years, the nested market approach proposed by a Dutch sociologist came into practice in several villages and communities of Hebei and Beijing.5 It seeks to construct an alternative to industrialized agriculture from multiple, ecological, and peasant perspectives. It is based on peasant farming for poverty alleviation and sources of safe food in order to cope with the impoverishment and health risks caused by current production systems to reduce the insecurity, instability, volatility, and dependency created by global commodity markets. The nested market approach operates in both rural and urban spheres and helps to build bridges between producers and consumers, experimenting with more sustainable ways to revitalize the countryside, protect agro-ecological environments, and trigger active innovations of food systems from local actors.

The construction of the nested market started from organizing peasant and consumer groups aiming to motivate and strengthen capacity building within these groups. Then, each peasant group was equipped with a computer and a digital camera, a website, and other platforms of cyber-interaction (more recently, the popular platform Wechat in particular) were established to encourage the connection, trust, and mutual care between producers and consumers. Frequent field visits provide the chance for urban consumers to observe the production of agro-products, experience rurality, and interact with producers onsite. Peasant groups also attend relevant colloquiums and conferences to share and learn methods, both domestically and internationally. Assisted by a university project, they are able to exhibit and promote their agro-products in urban residential communities twice per year, in the summer and autumn. People who are interested can then sample the food and join cooking and tasting parties. At the same time, consumers and producers organize workshops to discuss issues of production, pricing, and distribution of products for the nested market. As a result, consumers learn local food culture and production characteristics so as to respect local customs and follow the farming seasons, and rural peasants can adjust some of their production means so as to accommodate the needs of urban consumers.

Food transportation and distribution are core activities in the nested markets. In the beginning, agro-products from the villages could only reach the urban consumers when they visited these locations. Later, the peasants started to deliver their produce from the villages to the cities after nearly three years of practice and facilitation through new social media outlets, such as Wechat. The peasant groups managed all orders and completed deliveries independently, and consumers and producers could communicate directly to express both positive and negative feedback on the platform. Some of the consumers, as well as university students, join in to do volunteer work for the distribution process and the daily observation of production processes. The products that are supplied in the nested market include fresh fruits and vegetables, free-range chicken and eggs, pork, mutton, glass noodles, dried fruits and vegetables, and so on. All these are produced with minimal or zero non-organic factors, and they are the same products as the peasants themselves eat.

COHD Team, China Agricultural University
A member of the nested-market peasants’ group stands beside his goats in Hebei, China.

Besides field visits, observations, and interactions during workshops, there are several other practices to build and maintain mutual trust around food safety. One is self-monitoring inside the peasants’ groups, as people know each other in each village, and every individual values their local reputation. Similarly, an internal tracing system for all agro-products has been established. Tags with the names of producers and consumers, as well as information on the products, are attached to the boxes or bags of products prior to delivery. In this way, a consumer can choose to order food from a specific farmer. In return, many urban consumers also send books, clothing, toys, and other items back to the villages when they pick up their food boxes. The producers and consumers gradually come to consider each other as friends, and they have attained some consensus about food production and consumption to avoid many food safety problems. Within a nested market, the producer and the consumer know who are producing what kind of products and for whom.

Prices for the agro-products in the nested markets are quite lower than those organic food products sold in supermarkets, at CSA farms, or from country fairs. This enables many mid-lower income urban residents to afford higher quality food. Further, incomes of the nested market households are improving decisively, with an average annual increase of 10 percent resulting from agricultural products sold directly to consumers. At the same time, more than 200 families in the cities now enjoy food produced with more emphasis on coproduction with nature and minimum or zero use of artificial growth factors.

Other efforts to revitalize the countryside and advocate for healthy food production include demonstrations on ecological cultivation/husbandry, training, and extension; the construction of a live agricultural museum; various public cultural activities like traditional dancing, fitness aerobics, and traditional dramas, organization of elderly and women’s associations, the construction and maintenance of village libraries and activity centers, and movie shows.

The Role of the Internet and New Social Media

The development of the Internet and new social media platforms played a very important role in exposing and identifying food safety problems in China as well as in exploring solutions and strategies to addressing these problems. For CSAs, different media channels and social interaction tools are essential to promote and advocate the idea of organic production and risk sharing among producers and consumers. Microblogs and Wechat are indispensable marketing tools for the country fair to announce various activities and reach subscribers in a timelier manner. Similarly, the nested market initiative has adopted a combination of different online channels for education, communication, and research. Other creative ideas about agriculture and food are published on crowdfunding websites to attract attention, funds, and knowledge.

It should be noted that these solutions are not universally valid for all food safety problems, and they are still in the initial stages and should be tested over longer time periods. In the meantime, we should notice that there is obvious differentiation among social classes in the pursuit of high quality and safe food from alternative food systems. In some cases, new initiatives are just seizing opportunities to engage with farms and to occupy rural areas. Some big E-commerce platforms, online food stores, and logistic companies are also stepping into the organic food supply system with quite different purposes.

References

  1. PRC Food Safety Law. NPC [online] (2009). http://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/cwhhy/12jcwh/2015-04/25/content_1934591.htm.
  2. Global Food Safety Forum. The China Path to Global Food Safety [online] (2011). www.globalsafefood.org.
  3. Gale, F & Hu, D. Food safety pressures push integration in China’s agricultural sector. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 94(2), 483–488 (2012).
  4. Hitchman, J. Community supported agriculture thriving in China. AgriCultures Network [online] (2015). http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/rural-urban-linkages....
  5. van der Ploeg, JD. The New Peasantries: Struggles for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization (Earthscan, London, 2008).