Sat, Oct 25, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Chinese farmers cash in on need for organic food

By Nao Nakanishi  /  REUTERS , SONGYUAN, CHINA

As consumers in the West grow increasingly hungry for organic food, Chinese farmers see a niche market worth cultivating.

In this corner of rural China, the word is out that more and more people abroad are willing to pay extra for what they believe is a healthier and more environmentally friendly diet.

Sales of organic food in the US alone reached US$11 billion last year and are projected at US$13 billion this year, and farmers are ready to get their hands dirty to reap the benefits.

"Farmers are very keen. They even pick out worms by hand," said Wang Tingshuang, general manager of a farm in the key northeastern agricultural province of Jilin.

"They earn more money. They don't have to worry about sales. They don't have to worry about storage. There's no reason why they shouldn't go for organic farming," he said.

Wang's farm, the Fuyu Farm for Returned Overseas Chinese, is a long way from any trendy restaurant with a healthy menu. But that is where its output could easily end up.

The farm, with 350 workers, is converting part of its 2,000-hectare area for conventional crops into land for organic soybeans, corn or kidney beans for export to Japan, Europe or the US.

Organic farmers work the land without the aid of chemical agents typically used by farmers to control insects and weeds or to fertilize fields.

Industry officials say foreign buyers pay Chinese farmers at least 30 to 50 percent more for organic food, knowing they can get large premiums from sales in developed countries.

Growing minority

In China, where farmers account for more than 70 percent of the population of 1.3 billion, organic growers are only a tiny minority.

And these are no hippie farmers shunning conventional farming practices for the sake of the environment. They are poor farmers who could never easily afford expensive chemicals used in intensive farming, going organic to boost their meagre incomes.

For Beijing, improving living standards of the largely impoverished rural workforce is a key concern. So the government is understandably supportive of organic farming as a way of lowering input costs while tapping high-value markets.

There are no figures available for China's output of organic food, which is still an alien concept for most Chinese consumers, but demand in the West has been growing sharply.

In the US alone, sales are projected to hit US$20 billion by 2005, up from the US$13 billion forecast for this year.

In China's neighboring agricultural provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang, which together are about twice the size of Norway, there is a growing number of certified organic farms.

"This is a green area. We don't have to worry about pollution. The business has developed very quickly," said Liu Ning, a food scientist and trader at China Jilin Organic Food Co, the contractor of the Fuyu farm, which was set up in 2001.

"The government is supportive as farmers can increase their income," Liu said, adding she had just returned from a farm near the border with North Korea where her company had harvested organic blueberries from a trial project.

Environmental risk

Organic farming systems are widely regarded as ecologically safe, although some environmentalists in China worry they could encroach on local forests and grassland.

As experts in the organic field flock to Jilin and Heilongjiang to train and to contract local farmers, there are also some fly-by-night investors who risk damaging the sector by expanding it too rapidly and recklessly.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top