Category Archives: Wellness

Wellness is a general term for keeping your body healthy on all levels, including spiritual and mental health. This is a collection of all articles discussing ways to optimize your health.

Why I Became a Family Doctor

I am a family medicine doctor – but that is only a small part of who I am. Father, husband, photographer, social media guru, writer, singer — these are only a few of the many ways I define myself. But when I am on my deathbed, hopefully many decades from now, and looking back on my life, what will I list as my top accomplishments? What will resonate deep in my heart that I’ve lived a full life? Would it be my career? Actually, yes, this would be partly true. Of course my most satisfying moments will be a legacy of family and children, and I’m happily on that path. I am sure that I won’t find any more joy than surrounding myself with my wife, children and future generations. But regarding a career, I am extremely fortunate that I truly love my job and derive deep satisfaction from my 9-to-5 career. Very few people can say that about their job. Can you? And if you can’t say that, then perhaps you should do what I did – change your career path. It’s never too late.

Becoming a family medicine doctor was a second career for me, a life-changing decision that I made far after my undergraduate years at Columbia University. I never grew up thinking about becoming a doctor. My wonderful parents were very American in their approach to raising their four children – very hands off, letting us all figure out our career paths on our own, no matter how late we were in deciding. I almost wish my parents did have a bit more Chinese “tiger mom” strict parenting style and had guided me with a firmer hand while growing up. But now that’s neither here nor there, and I consider myself a much more well rounded person by becoming a doctor later in life.

Alex at my clinic

My desire to have a career helping people started during my high school days with two pivotal events. The first was my two year stint in Peer Ministry, where I and other students hosted weekend or overnight events and meetings with other teens, from schools across our state of Massachusetts. Our mission was mostly to help other teens cope with typical teenager struggles: parents, relationships, self esteem and the like. During these wonderfully open sessions, I blossomed into a self confident young man, finding deep satisfaction in helping others with their problems.

My second pivotal event occurred during my sophomore year of high school, during a student trip to the poor towns of West Virginia state, filled with old, abandoned coal mines. We helped rebuild homes and also assisted in teaching Bible school to a group of seven year old kids. They were too young to really understand Bible stories, but I had loads of fun dressing up as a cow and crawling around the gymnasium floor, with two dozen adorable kids happily crawling behind me, mooing and ringing their bells. I felt a deep emotional satisfaction bringing joy to those kids, and even right now I can still remember that feeling I had during that all too short week.  A child is a miracle of hope and happiness!

Ever since those two pivotal events in my life, I had tried to find a career that could recreate that deep emotional satisfaction from helping others. In high school I enjoyed and excelled at math and science and was considering becoming an engineer (not a doctor). I also was thinking that if I became skilled at these sciences, I could later become a professor and teach others. So I was thrilled that I got into Columbia University’s College of Engineering, and off I went to New York City.

annual tailored health check

New York City was an intense new world for me, but I definitely felt like a “country mouse in the city,” overwhelmed by the city’s intensity. It took me a while to find my groove, and I soon realized that my Columbia College friends were having a lot more fun than I was in Engineering. My liberal arts friends filled their days reading classic books, taking in the theatre, and discussing politics. How much more exciting for me! I decided to switch from the Engineering College to the Liberal Arts College, eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I especially loved my senior year, sitting on the great lawn in Central Park and reading Plato and Hunter Thompson in the glorious spring sunlight. It was there at Columbia that I honed my writing skills, mostly focusing on creative writing and drama. I especially loved my senior year when I wrote and acted with a hilarious and talented group of students for a comedy TV show. We called it “The Velveeta Players” because it was so cheesy! (Velveeta is a famous American brand of processed cheese).

I graduated from Columbia with an English degree and great enthusiasm for my future, but I still wasn’t sure which career path was best for me. I still loved the idea of teaching, but I didn’t feel like a master in any subject enough to teach. I loved to write and edit, but even a Columbia grad needed to start entry level in a publishing house, slowly climbing the career ladder.

I moved back home, looking for editorial work in Boston, when my identical twin brother volunteered for a sleep research study at Harvard University School of Medicine, spending 35 days and nights there. He made quite a bit of money doing this, and the doctors were thrilled at the chance to perform sleep deprivation tests on identical twins. So I also volunteered, and we both spent 11 days and nights inside their lab, in separate rooms, completely isolated from all time cues from the outside world, with no windows, TV or radio (this was pre-internet). I was literally poked and prodded every couple hours, constantly monitored with machines and blood tests, saliva samples, video cameras, memory tests and mood scales. Every night they glued a dozen electrodes to my scalp and monitored my brain waves. I found out later that they had us on a 22 hour day, thus cutting away 2 hours a day from normal life and flipping our sleep cycles completely in a week. At the end, to reset us back to normal, they kept us upright in a bed, forcing us to stay awake for around 50 hours using any means possible; we played a lot of cards and sang silly songs. It was all quite surreal and strange and fascinating, and it was my first true foray into medicine. All the lab workers were medical students or doctors, and they loved their work and the science. I was hooked on medicine for the first time! But I still wasn’t ready to become a doctor.

It took another year or so, after moving to wonderful San Francisco and still struggling to find a decent editing job, that I again found myself in the medical world. This time I was an editor and desktop publisher for a private medical company deep in the foggy cliffs of the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital. Again I was surrounded by doctors and medical students doing fascinating research, loving their work, and getting paid well for it. And finally it clicked: I should become a doctor!

Medicine was — and still is — the perfect mixture of my skills and desires: I could help people every day, in truly life-changing ways. And as a family doctor, I would never get bored, even forty years later, as every patient would be a new dilemma, with a new story.

I went back to school part time and aced my premedical classes, volunteering at Shriner’s Hospital for Children and other places to get more experience. I vividly remember my first real test: watching a person get open heart surgery. I’ll never forget the surreal sound of a saw cutting open his rib cage, or the smell of his burning flesh from a cautery gun stopping small bleeding, or looking down into his open chest, watching his heart beating. Many people would just pass out at that moment — but I thought, “wow, this is really cool!”

Richard Saint Cyr portrait

I eventually took the grueling and exhausting MCAT exam and soon got accepted into Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine. I had finally found my calling – and I remain thankful that I pursued this dream. In my life choices, my number one most important decision was asking Joanna to marry me; my second most important was deciding to become a doctor.

Many people ask me why I decided to become a family doctor and not specialize in something like cardiology or neurosurgery. I especially got this question while living in China because almost all doctors specialize there, and there really isn’t even a developed program for primary care doctors in China. Most Chinese people don’t realize that family medicine actually is a specialty, complete with extra training and our own medical exam and certification.

The classic American view of a doctor is of a small town doctor who the community knows and loves dearly, who has delivered generations of babies over their 40 years of practice. A good family doctor is deeply involved in their community’s health, their schools, their public safety. I always loved that classic American image of a doctor, and that’s what I strive for each day in my practice. I see people of all ages, from newborns to the elderly, and I follow them for years. It’s a deeply satisfying career, a true honor to deeply understand a patients’ health and history, and to do all I can to keep them thriving and healthy.

(this is an excerpt from my book translated into Chinese. I moved back to the USA last summer and now work at Swedish Bainbridge Island Primary Care Clinic in Washington state.) 

Safe Salmon in China? Yes!

 

I love the unique taste of salmon, which is fortunate for me as it’s truly one of nature’s superfoods. Salmon is packed with heart-healthy omega-3 oils EPA and DHA, protein and vitamin D and also is low in dangerous metals such as mercury. I oftentell people to eat oily fish such as salmon at least once a week to dramatically decrease their risk for heart disease. A 2006 review study in JAMA  shows that a daily dose of only 250-500 mg of omega-3 fatty oils can lower your risk of sudden death from heart disease by 36%, and from all-cause mortality by 17%; more than 500 mg daily actually provides very little extra benefit. And as 100 grams (3 ounces) of farmed salmon has over 2 grams of omega-3 (more than wild salmon has), even one serving a week may be enough because the healthy oils can remain in our tissues forweeks. This is all great news, right? But when I tell my patients in Beijing this fantastic news, they usually reply the same way: “I’d love to eat more fish here, but I never know which store I can trust.”589px-Salmon_sashimi

When my wife and I first arrived in Beijing nine years ago, we first bought our fish and other meat from the large international supermarkets Carrefour and Walmart, mostly because we assumed (for better or worse) that these stores would have superior quality control and safety standards, especially with imported foods. And that worked well for many years, especially as these markets slowly started to sell more organic options. Later on, we discovered the German-run Metro 麦德龙 hypermarket, and we immediately switched almost all our meat and produce purchases there, due to their outstanding logistics and traceable food chain. In other words, we trust them, and trust is a really big deal here in China. Metro’s salmon is mostly from farmed ponds in Faroe Island, a very safe area in the north Atlantic which is antibiotic-free and also certified by the non-profit Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Ikea, just up the street from Metro, also has an impressive selection of imported frozen salmon from Scandinavian waters, again all certified by the ASC or MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), and at very reasonable prices. Both stores sell their salmon for ~60-70 RMB/500g. So for those of you who don’t trust your fish in Beijing: there’s my answer.

omega-3 Fatty Acid Fish Safety Doses
Comparison of omega-3 and mercury levels in various fish

We still love Metro and Ikea but our #1 choice now for salmon is the monthly group buy, called GroupBuyByBianca, organized by the staff formerly from the Chef Too restaurant. Once a month they’ll trek to Beijing’s wholesale fish market; choose farmed salmon from Norway, Canada, or Faroe Island; de-bone and vacuum pack and then deliver to your door in chilled containers. It’s a fantastic service, and we usually get half a salmon every couple of months which we store in our freezer. Bianca and the team also sell imported cod and other meats in season. To sign up and order, follow their WeChat ID “GroupBuyByBianca” or email [email protected]. The cost depends on market prices but recently is usually ~45RMB/500g plus 10% and a flat 65 RMB processing fee.

Our other newer options for buying fish and meat are again online. The first is the wonderful local organic farm TooToo, which I’ve mentioned before as a very trustworthy, internationally certified local organic farm with a terrific distribution chain, easy online payment, professional delivery service and unbeatable value of organic produce. It’s an awesome resource for Beijingers — plus their website at tootoo.cn has English and Chinese! You can buy 200g bags of Norwegian salmon for 36-50 RMB each. Besides salmon, they now offer a large selection of meats from many different sources — check out their long list of imported fish here. We’ve had particular success with shellfish from Europe — mussels from Scotland and shrimp from Ecuador were delicious.

 

Where? Cost (RMB) per jin Notes
Ikea 69/500g ASC certified, Atlantic
Metro market 60-70/500g ASC (Faroe Island: Bakkafrost)
Carrefour market 128/500g Faroe Island
Jingkelong market 78/500g
Tootoo.cn online store 90/500g (36 RMB/200g) Norway
Group Buy by Bianca ~70/500g (~95/kg+10% + 65RMB) Farmed: Faroe Island, Norway or USA
April Gourmet 123/500g (245/kg) Norway

 

Besides TooToo, there are now a bewildering number of players in China selling foods online via apps and websites, with ridiculous amounts of investments from all the big internet players and finance companies. One such store my wife uses often is called yiguo (易果) at yiguo.com. We liked them initially for their imported fruits but they also have a decent selection of meat, including a special section for imported beef. Other large sites like yihaodianWomai and JD.com’s grocery store are notable because they both have their own supply chains and distribution centers, which in theory could provide consumers better quality and more traceable products (with quicker deliveries, I’ve noticed). Amazon China also has their own online grocery store. All of these e-markets carry a big selection of imported foods of all types, far more than you would ever see in any local market.

Many expats get their salmon and meat from the small international markets such as April Gourmet or Jenny Lou’s, and that’s fine of course, and it’s certainly convenient for many on the way home from work. I just think the prices can be a lot higher than other options (see the comparison chart below), and I also worry about low sales volumes in small markets in terms of food safety. Many people also buy salmon at local markets like the popular Sanyuanli market, but I personally feel they have extremely inadequate food safety there; most vendors’ meats sit in the open air at room temperature, uncovered, on wooden slabs, with flies buzzing around. Do I really need to break down how many violations of basic food safety I just mentioned in that one sentence? I wouldn’t recommend buying meat from any market anywhere in the world if it’s sitting at room temperature for more than two hours.

ikea-salmon
Notice the ASC certification label…

Besides making your own salmon, eating in restaurants is definitely the next best option. All you sushi lovers can easily get your weekly omega-3 fix with even a few slices of salmon. Beijing is blessed with plenty of excellent Japanese restaurants and salmon dishes. Our favorite sushi place is a small Japanese market called yuqing (鱼清) just next to Yotsuba along the Liangma canal waterfront across from the Four Seasons Hotel; you can choose your raw fish from their shelf and the chef will prepare it right there for you to eat in the store.

What about the big percentage of readers who take a daily supplement of fish oil, including myself? This indeed has been long recommended even by the American Heart Association, but unfortunately the most recent studies, much larger than earlier studies, disturbingly show very little benefit from the supplement. There must be something else besides omega-3 in the actual fish that provides the heart-healthy benefit. Anyway, when my supply runs out, I won’t be continuing that anymore.

So there you have it; I hope I’ve convinced some of you that healthy fish = healthy heart. And for Beijingers, it’s not nearly as hard as you may have thought to add safe salmon into your diet, even at a reasonable price. For those of you in China out of the tier one cities or not near a good market, now there are plenty of online options to get salmon delivered right to your door. If you’re really worried about trust, sustainable fishing, and seafood free of chemicals and antibiotics, just stick with vendors that have ASC, BAP or MSC certification stickers on the fish packaging — Ikea and Metro would be your safest bets.

In terms of general value, here’s a nice graph from the JAMA review showing relative money spent on different types of fish to get your daily 250 mg of omega-3:

Estimated Costs of Consuming the equivalent of 250 mg/d EPA + DHA From Fish

 

Did Beijing’s Pollution Cause My Asthma?

Now that months have passed and I’m basking in our summer sun, I can safely confess that I had a miserably unhealthy winter.

It started in November with my first ever broken bone, a silly bike-vs-oil-patch accident which broke my clavicle and brought me surprisingly distressing pain for more than a month. But far worse was when I was diagnosed with asthma last December and needed two inhalers to breathe better. It started insidiously, when I began to wake up deep in the night with achy chest pains. I initially thought it was just rib bruising from my bike tumble, but then I also started feeling short of breath. One morning I woke up suddenly gasping for air, and I finally went to a colleague at my clinic. My chest x-ray was normal but I took a breathing test which showed my lung function only 60% of normal, and she said I probably had asthma. I’ll never forget those moments after taking those first two puffs of albuterol: in just a few minutes, that elephant-like pressure on my chest for a month quickly lifted away, and I filled my lungs with precious, polluted Beijing air, its acrid smell never tasting sweeter.

So I was fairly certain I had asthma. And while I was incredibly relieved to feel better, I was shocked and disturbed by my diagnosis. It’s not common at all for adults to suddenly get asthma, and of course my overwhelming thought was to blame it on air pollution. Finally, after eight years in Beijing, gasping through multiple airpocalypses, and despite all of my obsessive attempts to shield myself from air pollution, I believed the inevitable had caught up to me. I felt like a fool for ever thinking I could avoid pollution’s long-term health effects. All of my blogging about masks and purifiers; my TEDx talk about healthy living in China; my book discussing healthy lifestyles in China — all of it suddenly felt like sugar-coated wishful thinking, and my rose-tinted glasses finally shattered to reveal the truly ashen hues of my city’s “yellow fog”.

I felt trapped, helpless against the choking evil oozing invisibly and inexorably through window and door cracks, always finding a new hole after my frantically plugging another one. Anxiety filled my days, distracting me at work and home. I was no longer fully present with my family, my patients. I frantically retested all my air purifiers, added one in my office, and upgraded from N95 to N99 masks for my bike commute. Incense at our home during meditation suddenly devolved from a relaxing tool to an anxiety-provoking source of PM2.5. I even considered the previously unappealing but blindingly obvious “cure”: fleeing from China.

I didn’t take it very well, as you can see. “Disease produces much selfishness”, as Samuel Johnson once said. “A man in pain is looking after ease.” I even wrote a long blog article about my new illness and its profound impact on my life here, chronicling my desperate attempts to shield myself from pollution. I felt a massive release of catharsis after finishing the final draft, satisfied that it perfectly captured my state. And then I held off publishing it so I could revise later.

Now, a few months later, I’m relieved I never published that article, because what was diagnosed as asthma is now completely gone, for many months already. And now I know that my symptoms may well have had nothing to do with China’s air pollution — it had all been an infection, the sort one likely could contract anywhere in the world.

A stunning turn of events led to this discovery. I actually had been feeling much better after a few weeks with my inhalers and steroids, but mid-February I started again to get wheezy, along with very strange and seemingly disconnected symptoms such as muscle aches and frequent headaches. Then the night aches came back, and on Chinese New Years Eve I woke up gasping for breath yet again, this time with fever and headache. So instead of preparing dumplings and watching the annual TV gala, my family spent much of the night with me in my hospital’s emergency room. There I was diagnosed with an atypical pneumonia and started on antibiotics. Seven days later, all of my symptoms were gone — including the symptoms of asthma. I haven’t touched an inhaler since then.

Antibiotics kill bacteria. So as this medicine completely cured not only my pneumonia but also my supposed asthma, it’s apparent now that I had been walking around for months with a bacterial infection in my lungs, causing all of my symptoms from the chest pains at night all the way up to the more traditional pneumonia symptoms at the end — including my wheezing and asthma.

Looking back, it certainly wasn’t an illogical assumption for me and my colleagues initially to blame air pollution, as my initial symptoms had none of the typical features of a pneumonia infection. And the evidence is quite strong that air pollution can worsen asthma — but there’s actually less clear proof that it can cause new asthma in an otherwise healthy person like myself. Yes, many studies do show an increase in hospital admissions for pneumonia during pollution spikes, so perhaps from this indirect pathway, air pollution was still partly to blame for my illness — although last winter’s air pollution was in fact much better than previous winters.

 

As I now reflect on those rough months, I’m disturbed how I was far too ready to play the popular “blame China” game. It’s such an ingrained reflex for Beijingers, both foreign and local, to complain about our many environmental troubles. Scandalous stories are so common that we’re hard to shock and easy to believe the worst. So of course, it seemed totally natural to me, my colleagues and my friends to think that air pollution caused my suspected asthma. But we were wrong.

My unpublished article thus has transformed both in tone and intent. No longer a simplistic screed, it’s become a more nuanced debate on environmental risks versus epigenetic predestination. But more importantly, it has become — at least for me — a cautionary tale about a person’s unpredictable reactions to pain and illness and the vulnerabilities it exposes. During my most serious illnesses ever, I was anxious and needy, retreating into a shell of survival. I was desperately searching to find some meaning, some positive outcome to my unexpected sickness. Looking back, I am a bit disappointed in myself, for reacting so negatively to what was honestly a not-so-serious diagnosis, especially in comparison to so much of the suffering I see in my own patients in clinic. I found that my emotional reserves in the face of illness weren’t as deep as I had hoped.

But from this humbling, grounding experience I have found more than a few positive sprouts, and thus the entire ordeal has proven to be an unexpected blessing. I now have a deeper compassion for others with illness, and I understand how a person’s perception of their illness is perhaps even more important for a doctor to “heal” than the actual illness. I’m more aware than ever of the deep connections between mind and body, between physical and mental health, both intertwined and inseparable.

I also I never want to be so unprepared again for pain and illness, and I continue to reflect how I can improve whatever inner strengths I may need in reserve, even on a spiritual level. As The New York Times columnist David Brooks says in his new book, “The Road to Character”, suffering “drags you deeper into yourself.” And as I now again revel in the pure joy of my wife and playing along with our two miraculous sons, I am filled with gratitude at everyone’s good health, now knowing how fleeting that can last.

 

This article was edited and translated by Jonathan Ansfield and Ke Xu originally for the New York Times Chinese edition, published there in my health column at http://cn.nytstyle.com/living/20150612/tc12healthblog

Yoga Helps Prevent Heart Disease

Yoga Near Lighthouse

I’ve written a couple of times about yoga’s health benefits, but I just had to share a brand new study which convincingly shows some great news — yoga may help reduce heart disease as much as moderate exercise! Yes I know, it’s a bit hard to believe, as we always hear that you need moderate exercise — getting out of breath — to prevent heart disease, and most yoga classes don’t provide this cardiac burst. But this review and meta-analysis (published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology) reviewed 37 well designed studies called randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Most of these studies compared yoga (usually asana-yoga) to a non-yoga control group, or an exercise control group. In their results, those in the yoga group had significantly lower body mass index, weight, and blood pressure, and improved cholesterol numbers. They also found that the improvements from yoga were essentially equal to improvements from exercise. Even better, many of these studies were performed on people who already had medical issues such as heart disease or diabetes, and the improvements were the same.

There wasn’t an improvement in diabetes numbers such as lower HbA1c, but actually the diabetic patients seemed to get the most benefit in reduction of blood pressure and some other important markers. That’s great news for diabetics who usually are overweight and don’t exercise much, if at all. All of the study’s lab tests are very important biomarkers and risk factors for heart disease, which is the world’s #1 killer. So anything free, fun and non-prescription to help all of us prevent heart disease is a wonderful thing. Yoga definitely fits the bill.

These conclusions are still preliminary, and even the authors say that their findings “are limited by small trial sample sizes, heterogeneity, and moderate quality of RCTs.” But for the great percentage of my clinic patients who are overweight and don’t do any exercise, with many of these above metabolic risk factors, starting yoga is a lot better than continuing to do no exercise.

And this study certainly begs more studies to answer the most obvious, most fascinating question: just how could yoga help our bodies in this way? Does something about yoga’s stress reduction help our immune system in a more profound way even more than cardiac exercise? Stay tuned…

 

Organic Farms in Beijing: My Adventure Finally Begins

Tootoo organic farm beijing I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it’s taken seven years, but this spring I am finally checking out the local organic farm scene. My wife and I have ordered from two farms and taken one tour, and we already know that we are never going back to our old routine. Our quality of life here has just taken another empowering leap forward. We have the organics bug!

I’ve blogged a few times about my experiences with organics in Beijing, from select products at Lohao City and hypermarkets to making my own organic yogurt. For years I had heard about small farms like Derunwu and more recently had started to see a lot of Tootoo mentions. Now that my son is old enough to eat solid foods, my wife and I are determined to minimize his exposure to harmful chemicals, and we finally are seriously checking out the organics scene. I’m pleasantly surprised that there are many more options than even just a couple of years ago.

We first tried Derunwu 德润屋生态农场, a farm up in Changping which is often mentioned. They aren’t officially certified organic apparently due to the high cost of getting this, but I am told that they follow the same standards. You can easily order their foods and pay online at their new website, which is handily in both English and Chinese. We loved their greens, and their homemade tofu was simply outstanding. Their prices are very reasonable, averaging around 10RMB per jin before delivery fee.

Inspired by this first success, we next tried the big kid on the Beijing block: Tootoo 沱沱工社有机食品, a large farm out near Pinggu. They are owned by a NASDAQ-listed Chinese company so their infrastructure is quite deep, they have their own cold chain distribution, and they can also afford the annual organic certifications by China’s COFCC and also the European group Ecocert (their certifications are online here). Their website is definitely the best I’ve seen in Beijing for organic shopping, both in English and Chinese. But their organics selection is far easier to discover on their Chinese site, providing much clearer information about their farm’s large selection of organic vegetables and fewer organic fruits, so I strongly suggest you try the Chinese version first (plus Google Chrome browser to auto-translate if needed). Tootoo delivers every day, while Derunwu delivers on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Their homegrown organic selection is very large, with generally reasonable prices, and we’ve also been impressed by their professional delivery team. And of course the taste has mostly been excellent.

tootoo organic farm beijing

We took advantage of a rare blue sky Saturday and visited Tootoo’s farm near the Pinggu peach fields, and Alex had a ton of fun grabbing leafy greens and staring at a wobbly four day old lamb snuggling with his mom. The staff was very helpful and gave us an educational tour. After this inspiring outing, my wife and I were even more committed to ordering as much produce as we can from organic farms such as this, and we can’t wait to tour the other farms.

We also recently went to a Beijing Farmers Market, which rotates places but this time was at the Indigo Mall. We were quite impressed with the range of farms and products. I also was nicely shocked last month discovering my first permanent farmers market in China, this time in the basement of the Capitaland Taiyanggong Mall in Beijing. Both of these brought back wonderful memories of the farmers markets in San Francisco. And while they are only in rudimentary stages, I clearly see growing momentum for quality farms which may finally be hitting critical mass.

Safety and Certification

My chief reason for buying organics is for environmental safety, not better nutrition. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in their 2012 report on organics, state that “organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease. Organic farming has been demonstrated to have less environmental impact than conventional approaches. However, current evidence does not support any meaningful nutritional benefits or deficits from eating organic compared with conventionally grown foods”. Given the increasingly scary data about chemicals and health, especially regarding children, it’s a no-brainer to do everything I can to limit my family’s exposure to heavy metals, pesticides and who knows what other chemicals are out there. 

Beijing organic farmers market Shared harvest

But trust is a major concern, and as I follow the “trust but verify” doctrine, I would definitely choose Farm A over Farm B if they can prove to me that their soil, their water and their products are independently tested to be free from hazards. I’ve seen some of this data from Tootoo and Shared Harvest, and such transparency is a major deal-maker for me.

Many organics consumers prefer the intimacy of smaller mom and pop farms, and I certainly see the appeal of the new wave of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), based on trust and familiarity between farms and their customers, and exemplified locally by the Beijing Farmers Market. I also love the locavore philosophy of eating from nearby farms to help environmental sustainability (I shudder to think of the true environmental cost of those organic blueberries from Chile). If I were back in sunny California surrounded by happy cows I’d be a lot less strict about this. But here in China, I must admit that I would prefer to buy from a farm that’s big enough to pay for official certification from the national agencies in China as well as from international groups like EcoCert and IFOAM-accredited COFC. (You can search EcoCert’s database of certified farms here, which include Noah and Tootoo in Beijing).

The Journey Is Just Beginning

I’ve only in the early stages of my research and I’m quite excited to see so many sustainable or organic farms we may check out. Besides the many CSA farms represented at the Beijing Organics Farmers Market (weibo and blog), here are other farms my wife and I definitely plan to visit. It’s going to be a great summer!

  • Organic Farm 有机农庄 — here’s a good video of them from Caixin. They’re a big one, selling in hypermarkets like Carrefour
  • Organic and Beyond 北京市密云东绍渠镇 — certified by EcoCert, also IFOAM member. Another biggie, here’s their list of products available now
  • Noah Organic 诺亚农业 — just up the street from Tootoo, they also have certification by EcoCert and also have an open farm (weibo)
  • Green Cow  绿牛有机农庄 — run by the owners of Miss Shannen Bagels in Shunyi
  • Little Donkey  小毛驴市民农园 — a CSA cooperative farm
  • Shared Harvest  — another CSA coop in Shunyi; here’s their taobao store and their published report of soil testing on their blog
  • Tony’s Farm 多利农庄– I thought they were only in Shanghai but their website seems to say they also deliver in Beijing
  • Sanfendi 三分地有机农场 — another CSA farm in Shunyi, with ordering online in Chinese
  • UUlive 悠悠生活网 — not a farm but an online organic shopping site. I just heard about this, does anyone know more? Stay tuned…

Reader Comments

What is your experience with organics in China and Beijing? Have I left any farms off of the list above? Please leave comments below.

 

Blue skies, warm sun, earthy smell, Alex resting on me…priceless.