Last year China Daily reported on a farmer in Yunnan who admitted that he would never dare to eat the vegetables he sells, due to the amounts of chemicals pesticides and fertilizers used on them. Instead he grows a separate chemical-free patch of vegetables for personal consumption. A practice that is unlikely to be restricted to this farmer alone.
Just in the last year Greenpeace has exposed several pesticide scandals: we found banned, toxic pesticides in tea (including Lipton) and banned pesticides on vegetables being sold in several major supermarket chains, or at levels that are illegal (including Tesco). It's sadly not so surprising considering we're living in a country whose pesticide use is, per unit area, 2.5 times the global average.
But there is something you can do about it: eat organic.
Not only is it better for your health, but you'll be supporting a far more environmentally friendly mode of farming. (Think about it - poisoning pests also means poisoned soil and poisoned water.) The more people in China who eat organic, the more we'll see a shift away from chemically-intensive farming and an improvement in the country's soil and water quality.
What is organic food?
Production of organic food doesn't allow for the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, growth regulators, feed additives and genetically engineered organisms. Organic food producers often use sustainable farming practices that protects bio-diversity, such as crop rotation and conservation methods.
How can I tell if food is organic or not?
Look out for these certified organic stamps:
These stamps means the food has been certified by one of the 23 organic food certification groups in China. While these are independent institutions, they've all been accredited by the Chinese government's Certification and Accreditation Administration. In order to qualify organic producers have to produce a range of records and have a traceability system in place in order to ensure their goods sit in accordance with national standards for organic products. Certification bodies are expected to conduct tracking and surveillance of these goods, with certification inspectors carrying out spot checks.
Yeah, but is it really organic?
Well, like anything in China, supervision and control systems can be lax, and cheats and frauds (like Wal-Mart) occasionally manage to find a way of getting their goods onto market. That said, organic food products are still far more likely to be better than non-organic (in terms of having none or lower amounts of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and hormones).
What else can I do to avoid pesticide consumption?
Besides eating organic, buy fruits and vegetables that are in season - they are less likely to have needed chemical enhancements. Here's an article that highlights Chinese fruits and veggies by season (and their health benefits according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.) Remember, when you see a ginormous, bright red tomato - out of season - there's a good chance it's been pumped full of chemicals.
You can also peel your food, although this isn't a foolproof method.
You can also go shopping at supermarkets which have decent traceability systems and pesticide control systems. Greenpeace's supermarket ranking guide will come in handy, with our 2011 edition listing Carrefour, Auchan and Shanghai City as the country's best options.
Image (cc) foxxyz