Greenpeace China’s campaign to push one of China’s biggest retailers to purge pesticides triggered food safety reform across the whole of Shanghai. Now we’re fighting to take it nationwide.
Five years ago, I walked into a meeting with the top management of Lianhua, one of China’s biggest supermarket chains.
It was a tense affair: after 3 years of persistent pressure, rounds of investigations and exposés against leading brands, it was the threat of a lawsuit that had finally brought us to this point.
Filing a lawsuit in 2011
Stating our case to 10 stony-faced middle-aged managers, the idea that they’d take our demands seriously suddenly seemed impossible.
But, incredibly, the CEO agreed to act on all the problems we presented. Lianhua promised to drop 46 of the most harmful pesticides from their produce; call urgent supplier meetings and revise all their contracts, forcing growers and suppliers to drop the pesticides.
Stepping out of their headquarters, I was ecstatic. We’d just scored a mammoth victory for food safety! What we didn’t know then was that this breakthrough had created a ripple effect that would change Shanghai’s entire food system.
Banned pesticides discovered in a Zhejiang tea plantation
Greenpeace China first started campaigning against pesticides in mainland China’s supermarkets in 2008, the year the melamine milk powder scandal broke. Food safety dominated every headline and the entire country was gripped by an acute new awareness that the food and water we depended on could be causing us serious harm.
As we fought for better food safety standards, scandals continued to break across the country. With terrifying stories of toxic ginger, lead-contaminated rice and exploding watermelons filling up their social media feeds, people could no longer ignore that our entire food system is dangerously broken.
Farmer spraying crops in Jiangsu
And neither could the government. In 2015, China’s Ministry of Agriculture finally took a stand against pesticides. One of the greatest steps was a new nationwide policy of ‘Zero Increase of Pesticide use by 2020’.
But the most astonishing change actually stemmed from that lawsuit 5 years ago. After Greenpeace East Asia sued Lianhua, the Shanghai government established a city-wide traceability system for fresh produce, based on the changes we demanded from Lianhua.
Shanghai’s food system is now unrecognisable. 50% of Shanghai’s fresh produce is sourced locally, and the traceability system ensures that consumers can find out exactly where their produce comes from. Shanghai now enjoys a far higher level of food safety and while far from perfect, is a model for the rest of the country.
Hou Xueying, an organic farmer from Shanghai
It is time to move to a cleaner future for food. Our latest round of supermarket testing shows that we have a long way to go.
From May to August this year, we sampled produce from 6 supermarkets in 8 cities across China. The results weren’t pretty. A whopping 87% of samples tested showed excessive levels of pesticides.
And think again about buying your way out of the problem. Our tests showed that the clean looking vegetables wrapped in plastic wrap contained the highest levels of pesticides. These ‘VIP’ veggies are actually worse than their grubbier, loose counterparts.
Fresh produce in one of the supermarkets we tested
We’ve been led to believe that industrial food production and drowning our pesticides in tons of chemicals is the cost of having enough to eat. But that’s simply not true. If in just a few years, we can establish greater levels of food safety and accountability in a megacity like Shanghai, we can do it anywhere- and we’ll keep piling on the pressure to make sure that happens.
As for us, we know that a clean and safe future is possible in China, as long we don’t stop fighting for it.
Wang Jing is a Food and Agriculture Campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia