China is rife with food scandals, so it’s no surprise that many families – both expat and local – are turning to organic products. The organic industry is still a fledgling one, but growing concerns over sustainability and environmental issues is pushing many Beijing residents to make the switch.
According to an October 2012 report by market research firm Mintel, 80 percent of urban Chinese think organic products are worth paying more for. “Some 56 percent of urban Chinese consumers claim to have upped their spend on organics,” says the report. The most popular products were fresh milk, cooking oil, pork, beef, and chicken.
“Organic” foods are defined as those grown or derived from organic farming, which emphasizes soil and water conservation as well as pollution reduction. Usually, organic farmers don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, choosing instead to manage weeds and parasites through low-impact practices like natural pest control.
Studies have shown there’s no real evidence to support the claim that organics are better for your health or taste better than traditionally-grown crops. However, many make the transition because organics contain fewer pesticide residues and food additives, and have a lower environmental impact.
But there’s much confusion over what constitutes “organic,” especially in China. In the US, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) enforces strict government standards for how food is grown, processed, and handled. In China, however, there’s no real government oversight despite the proliferation of seals and labels on packaged foods.
According to marketing and branding firm the Bergstrom Group, there are currently two official national seals for organic foods approved by the Certification and Accreditation Administration of the People’s Republic of China (CNCA). The first denotes organic products and the second signals soon-to-be-organic products, meaning the facilities are in the process of being converted to organic standards.
But here’s the tricky part: There are 23 organizations authorized to certify products with the CNCA’s organic seals. “This means that most organic products from China would have at least two different seals,” says the Bergstrom Group report. “This is only for products from China for China, additional seals connoting exportability or different countries of origin or organizational approval notwithstanding.” In addition, it’s unclear what organic standards the CNCA is working from.
Beijing residents are fortunate to have access to many organic farms and at least one regular farmers’ market. Here’s a rundown of where to buy organic products.
Several organic farms allow visitors to pick their own produce, but consider community-supported agriculture (CSA) if you agree with the farm’s vision. In a nutshell, the CSA model means the consumer invests a larger lump sum upfront to finance the farm’s operations; in return, they receive regular deliveries of fresh, seasonal produce throughout the growing season. They share the farmer’s risks and rewards, whether it’s a good harvest year or a bad harvest year. Most are located in Pinggu and Changping District.
One of the most transparent is the Green Cow Organic Vegetable CSA Club. Located near Shunyi, Green Cow Farm was started in 2004 by Lejen Chen, the owner of Mrs. Shanen’s restaurant. The farm claims four greenhouses, 80 additional acres of land, ten cows, 30 pigs, and over 300 chickens and geese. The soil and water are contaminant-free, and the farm doesn’t use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Baskets are delivered once a week for 50 weeks and usually contain at least ten kinds of vegetables. The amount of produce is appropriate for a household of two to three people. Any waste is taken back for composting at the next delivery. Organic eggs are also available but at an extra cost.
A CSA family membership for 2014-2015 costs RMB 20,000 per year for 50 deliveries of large boxes or RMB 12,000 for 24 deliveries. An individual membership costs RMB 12,000 per year for 50 deliveries of small boxes. Sample boxes are available for RMB 400 each (family size) or RMB 250 each (individual size). The farm also has a new restaurant in Jiuxianqiao called the Green Cow City Cafe.
If you’d rather not make such a big commitment, there are other options. TooToo Organic Farm is a well-run outfit in Changping with numerous greenhouses. TooToo has an English website where customers can order their produce as well as organic products from other suppliers. Though the farm doesn’t offer a CSA model, its membership program grants a discount of 3-5 percent on the entire purchase if customers spend a certain amount of money within six months. All orders are processed within 24 hours, arrive in refrigerated vans, and delivery is free of charge if the order totals RMB 98 or more.
There are many other organic farms around Beijing, including De Run Wu, Little Donkey, and Shared Harvest. Many of them are part of the Beijing Organic Farmers’ Market (see below). Whenever possible, speak to the farmers directly and visit the farm to find out more about their practices.
The first Beijing Organic Farmers’ Market (also known as the Country Fair) first took place in 2009 outside The Orchard, a Shunyi-area restaurant, as part of the Hegezhuang Village Fair. This “floating” market is held at different locations two to three times per week, including Chongwenmen, Sanlitun, Indigo Mall, Sanyuanqiao, and Shunyi. At the market, farmers sell organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, honey, cheese, jam, baked goods, and dried fruits.
“We have witnessed increasing interest in organic produce in the past three years,” says organizer Tianle Chang. “Here, people can get organic – though uncertified – produce. More importantly, they can buy it from farmers directly. The sense of trust and mutual support gives the Farmers’ Market more charm than supermarkets. People can put a face on their food; it feels like visiting old friends every week.”
The Farmers’ Market opened its first community center and grocery store in Phoenix City (Sanyuanqiao) last December, with plans to continue raising awareness of sustainability issues through corporate and public events such as speaker series, organized farm visits, and children’s activities.
In addition, Chang says that the Beijing Farmers’ Market is working with the International Federation for Organic Food Movements (IFOAM) this autumn to develop a Participatory Guarantee System in China, which is “more democratic, transparent, and small producer-friendly than the third-party verification system.”
Sticker Shock: Organic Labels
You’ll find a dizzying array of organic labels and stickers in Chinese supermarkets. We decipher a sample here.
China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment (CNAS) 中国合格评定国家认可委员会
The governmental body that authorized two organic seals for use in China: certified organic and conversion organic.
Organic Certification 中国有机产品认证
This is the CNCA’s seal for certified organic products.
Conversion Organic 中国有机转换产品认证
This CNCA seal is used during the three years it takes to convert to organic standards.
Certification and Accreditation Administration of the People’s Republic of China (CNCA) 中国有机产品
Consumers can visit the CNCA’s website at ogasearch.food.cnca.cn to verify the authenticity of their organic products.
Green Food 绿色食品
Though not strictly an organic label, “Green Food” denotes foods that weren’t produced with any chemical or synthetic substances.
Organic Food Development and Certification Center of China (OFDC) 南京国环有机产品认证中心
A certification body registered with CNAS.
China Organic Food Certification Center (COFCC) 北京中绿华夏有机食品认证中心
Another certification body registered with CNAS.
Most of the supermarkets that sell organics are major chains, including April Gourmet, Ito Yokado, Jenny Lou, Jenny Wang, Carrefour, and more. For a complete list of addresses, see Directories under Shopping.
TooToo Organic Farm 沱沱工社
Machangying Village, Machangying Town, Pinggu District (8610 6589, 135 5214 2991, email@example.com) shop.tootoo.cn 平谷区马昌营镇马昌营村
De Run Wu Organic Farm 德润屋
Strawberry Fields, Xinzhuang, Xingshou Town, Changping District (8459 0809, 153 0002 8686, firstname.lastname@example.org) 昌平区兴寿镇辛庄草莓园
Green Cow Organic Farm 绿牛有机农庄
Donggezhuang Village North, Houshayu, Shunyi District (8046 4301, 135 0113 6920, email@example.com) www.greencowfarm.com 顺义区后沙峪蕫各庒
Green Cow City Cafe
Courtyard behind Bldg 13, San Jie Fang, Jiuxianqiao, Chaoyang District (6435 9561) 朝阳区酒仙桥三街坊13号楼后平房（酒仙桥社区服务中心左侧)
Beijing Organic Farmers Market (Country Fair)
This farmers’ market takes place two to three times per week and is held in different locations. To join the mailing list, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This monthly market held at CISB brings together farmers, restaurants, small business owners, and designers to sell vegan and vegetarian products, fresh produce, green clothes and accessories, and more. For more information, email
Beijing Organic Consumers Association (BOCA)
This Yahoo group allows Beijing residents to exchange information about nutrition, health, and organic resources. health.groups.yahoo.com/group/beijing_organic_consumers