Securing our food — and our future

Food safety is being discussed across China. With concerns about contamination growing, says Jiang Gaoming, it is time for producers to think seriously about protecting the environment.

My article "The truth about dead chickens", published by chinadialogue on June 14, attracted widespread attention in the Chinese press. A report and an interview with me appeared in the newspaper Southern Weekend on July 19, and aroused further public debate on food safety. Thousand of articles commenting on the matter have been published, with Google finding 355,000 related articles. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao recently held a special meeting of the State Council to discuss these product quality and food safety issues.

Dead chickens continue to enter the food chain, thanks firstly to farming methods that go against biological principles, and also due to an unreasonable system of retail pricing. Ensuring food safety requires guaranteeing the environmental security. Only a clean environment can produce quality food, and only when the products in question can command a decent price can sustainability be guaranteed. This will mean that the price differential between various products needs to be greatly increased, reflecting vastly different levels of consumption across the country. Using the money in the pockets of China's rich urbanites to promote environmental protection can lead directly to safer and healthier food for the country.

The total assets of high-income families in Beijing currently stand at 23.56 billion yuan (US$3.1 billion), with fixed assets accounting for two-thirds of this figure and financial assets accounting for the other third. There are between 150,000 and 200,000 yuan-millionaires in the capital. They are the people that Deng Xiaoping said would "get rich first", and the vast majority of them live in China's largest cities; in the end we must accept their existence, regardless of any doubts we may have about how they acquired their wealth.

But look at some other figures, and you will notice that China still has 200 million people living in poverty, a figure second only to India. The population of China that does not have adequate food and shelter numbers 23.65 million. The poor tend to live in agricultural areas; while the villas of the urban rich might remind you of Europe, China's remote villages are more like Africa. However, the worst environmental problems are suffered by the cities, and the poverty-stricken actually enjoy China's best environment. How can we balance this strange inequality?

Money, as they say, cannot buy you everything. China's rich may have cars, houses, exercise equipment, pets and purified water, but they cannot buy clean air and safe food. Supermarket shelves may carry green or organic produce, but the environmental limitations of the places they are produced — and the products' lacklustre supply — dashes any hopes of products of superior quality or flavour

The poor economic performance of rural areas is due to low levels of industry. This also means a lack of pollution, and less of the waste generated by high levels of consumption. The sky stays blue, the water crystal clear and the air clean; food produced in these areas is bound to be safe. Economically undeveloped areas are to be found mainly in China's west, where the air, water and soil are the envy of the east. Sustainable economic, social and environmental development should not allow us to build factories in these areas; if we do, we will not find anywhere to produce uncontaminated food. And if we use market forces, so that the consumption of the rich actually benefits the poor, we can not only protect the environment but also realise social harmony.

The rich have ever higher demands for food safety; they want food free of genetic modification, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Even if fertiliser-free harvests are half the size, they can command prices 10 times higher than normal, ensuring a good profit for both farmers and merchants. And the rich can have genuinely organic food.

The sheep and cows of Inner Mongolia eat natural grass, and taste far better than their straw-eating counterparts in Shandong province or Hebei province. However, market limitations and an inadequate information mean that city-dwellers do not get to eat the real thing; livestock from Shandong province is often moved to Inner Mongolia and passed off as local produce. With the cost of livestock from both regions being the same, herders desperately try to increase the number of animals they keep. In the end, the environment suffers greater damage, and more investment in grassland management is needed. This is because better products do not obtain better prices; dairy firms know that most of their cows eat straw rather than grass, but still claim their milk comes from "grassland cows".

In a similar fashion, hens are often raised in dark and confined spaces, where they consume fodder contaminated with additives and pesticides. A single hen can lay up to 250 eggs a year, when free-range hens can lay no more than 50. However, since these free-range eggs can be taken to the city and sold for 10 times the price of battery-farmed eggs, herders can profitably give up their cattle and produce free-range chickens and eggs. This will mean the herders can resume their nomadic lifestyles; they can also relieve some of the ecological pressure on the grasslands, which are faced with growing desertification, and Beijing will suffer fewer sandstorms.

Ultimately, the wealthy should curb their pursuit of further riches; after all, money is nothing more than a set of numbers after a certain point. The lower levels of demand from poorer areas are actually helping to protect the environment. If China's poor all drove cars and built factories, polluted the air and contributed to global warming, how long would our planet have left?

But are people really willing to pay 10 times the price for environmentally friendly products? In fact, the wealthy will work it out for themselves: do they want to pay for safer food, or medicines when unsafe food makes them ill? Moreover, what percentage of their annual income will it actually cost? Even if a single egg costs two yuan (US$0.26), it only comes to a few thousand yuan a year for a family of three – insignificant when your income is measured in the millions. And buying free-range eggs will help protect the country's environment; the rich will realise they can look after the environment and still make a living.

So, how can we guarantee "green" food really comes from environmentally sound areas? It will require the help of far-sighted entrepreneurs, who can cooperate with scientists and locals to build trust in their customer base. Consumer confidence is the lifeblood of any company, and when you can ensure that, the returns will be enormous.


Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Also about food safety on chinadialogue:

China's food fears

Facing up to "invisible pollution"

Homepage photo by Alex Vinter