Organic Farming With Chinese Characteristics

As part of the Aspen Institute/Asia Society sponsored US-China Forum on the Arts and Culture, some of the leading American organic advocates were in China last week. Chez Pannise founder and “California cuisine” pioneer Alice Waters brought her postmodern culinary craftsmanship to Beijing with her, and the Wall Street Journal posted an article about her thoughts after arriving in China:

For Alice Waters, buying organic food in China isn’t as difficult as she thought it would be.

The chef—whose Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse is a symbol of locavore activism, serving only organic foods that are grown in season—is in China this week. At a diplomatic dinner whose guest list included author Amy Tan, filmmaker Joel Coen and both Chinese and U.S. diplomatic officials, she aimed to inspire the country to develop a viable organic food industry and culture.

The relative ease of finding organic carrots, squash and radishes to make her multicourse meal has given Ms. Waters hope that China, a nation that prizes food as part of its culture, has a chance of cutting through the 30-year slog the U.S. has taken to get better fare on American plates. “China, after all, still has families who sit down and eat together,” Ms. Waters said.

China is at a critical juncture, she added. The world’s most populous nation has thousands of years of understanding the relationship between food and health. But the relationship has been compromised as the economy has surged. Greater wealth has given Chinese more access to food, contributing to the rising number of obese citizens. China is now home to the second largest population of diagnosed diabetes patients, according to the World Diabetes Foundation. Meanwhile, the government has responded to growing food demand by subsidizing pesticides.

The article compares American and Chinese food cultures, noting that they both have their unique set of strengths and dysfunctions. The Los Angeles Times has more on what it was like for Waters to prepare an organic and locally produced feast in Beijing:

If Waters was turned off by China’s wave of stomach-churning food scandals — the cooking oil recycled from sewers or the steroid-laced meat — she was too diplomatic to say. She responded to questions on the subject with a tight-lipped “Mona Lisa” smile.

She did acknowledge that Beijing’s northern climate was a challenge to her exacting standards for local ingredients, so she had to widen her range — to southern China’s Guizhou province for the organic oranges in the dessert, apple and candied orange galette with honey ice cream.

Given there are only a smattering of organic farms in China, procuring her ingredients would require some serious “foraging” — the term Waters prefers for what the rest of us call “shopping.”

Food-and-society guru Michael Pollan was also part of the forum’s “food and culture” panel, and had the opportunity to visit some organic farms in the Beijing area. PRI’s The World describes Pollan’s encouragement with the burgeoning food movement in China:

“I think there’s a group of Chinese, still quite small, that’s beginning to question the industrial food system here, largely because of concerns over food safety,” Pollan said. “I’m amazed at the levels of distrust of food. There are people who ask, ‘are you eating at restaurants in Beijing?’ – as though they were talking about unprotected sex.”

[…] “I’m really impressed with the diversity of these farms, how many different crops they have, and combining animals and plants, and taking advantage of the recycling abilities when you can produce manure to feed your crops, and produce feed for your animals,” Pollan said. “When you can close that nutrient loop, you can have real sustainable farming.”

But how to do that profitably, at scale, remains a challenge, in China as in the United States. This farm, at 100 acres, is on the large side for an organic farm in China – and there still aren’t many.

For more information about last week’s US-China Forum on the Arts and Culture, visit the Asia Society website.

November 24, 2011 4:57 PM
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