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.
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.
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…
What is your experience with organics in China and Beijing? Have I left any farms off of the list above? Please leave comments below.
In your never ending quest for safe foods for your family while here in China, have you ever considered buying only organic foods? How about becoming vegetarian? These options may have seemed unlikely before China for some of you, but many expats choose these options as a natural conclusion to their search for balance and health. But does either option truly provide a healthier alternative? I’d like to offer my medical and personal opinion.
Becoming a vegetarian and choosing to give up most or all meats is a major lifestyle change, but many who do swear that they feel much healthier and energetic. I personally love meat and would have a tough time giving it up completely, but I have started to think twice about the massive environmental impact from raising animals, especially cows. I am not convinced that all ‘red meat’ is as bad as some say, but certainly our modern Western diet is greatly imbalanced with heart diseases we never had before as hunter-gatherers of grains and vegetables. And one major dietary shift over the last hundred years has clearly involved much more intake of meats and much less fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. Most animals are now bred unnaturally on massive agro-farms, often with hormones to fatten quickly and corn fed instead of natural pasture feeding. And quite a few doctors, supported by research, feel that we now eat far more omega 6 fats in meats instead of the much more heart healthy omega 3 from traditional plant, fish and nuts. And it’s this unbalanced omega 3:6 ratio which is now considered a major contributor to heart disease.
All this is a major factor why I now like the Meatless Monday campaign and thus try to avoid meats at least one day a week. This campaign was started by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and has slowly spread via word of mouth. You can find good information at their website at meatlessmonday.com, including recipes for kids, restaurant tips and easy to read handouts. I think this is a relatively painless way to get your family to break out of the cooking routine and also to discuss healthier lifestyle choices. It’s also a great test run to see whether you’d truly be interested in going further in exploring vegan and vegetarian options.
Organic food is the other hot food topic for many of us. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a statement on organics for kids, which should be a must read for parents. The AAP report concluded that organic food is not generally more nutritious than conventional food, and most kids do not benefit from an all-organic diet. This may surprise many of you! And while organic diet clearly lowered a child’s blood levels of pesticides, the AAP didn’t state this was automatically better for health as the best study results weren’t too clear on this. Some foods such as corn and onions typically don’t have much pesticides but apples and grapes have a lot, so those two especially should be bought organic if possible. They also felt that organic milk had no proven benefits over conventional, but theoretically drinking milk from antibiotic-free cows may help decrease antibiotic resistance, which is fast becoming an alarming problem worldwide.
While this AAP report may actually be reassuring to some, don’t forget that their conclusions are based on the American marketplace and farming culture. My personal feeling is that the pesticide use, chemical problems and antibiotic overuse here in China are far more serious than in the USA, and it makes more sense here to buy organics here if possible. Forget about the nutrition issue: do it to minimize exposure to toxins.
Does “going green” make you healthier? I believe it helps to frame this issue if we picture our bodies as a bulls-eye target for many poison-tipped arrows: we are exposed to dangerous levels of toxins via the air, and also via many foods and drinks we ingest. So, individual efforts to live a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle can directly benefit your body as well as your community.
Let’s first look at air pollution and efforts to clean the air. Air pollution worldwide is a major contributor to heart and lung disease, both short-term and long-term. All of our efforts for carbon reduction and pollution control will help the earth’s ecology directly, but they also directly improve our individual health when we breathe in cleaner air. One step you can consider is to switch to bicycling instead of cars for a commute. Your lifetime health benefits from this exercise are much greater than the risks from city pollution and accidents — this is supported in a very encouraging new study.
There are some easy, earth-friendly ways to improve your indoor air, and which literally are green: a trio of plants which help to scrub the air clean. The Areca Palm (风尾竹, fèngwěizhú) is good for creating oxygen; the snake plant (虎皮兰, hǔpílán) is good for bedrooms; and the money plant（绿萝, lǜluó）helps remove gaseous chemicals such as formaldehyde from the air. These plants are very common in China and are inexpensive, and they look great in any office, bedroom or school. These three plants are particularly effective for air pollution, but all indoor plants can create oxygen and filter your air.
Let’s move on to organic foods and your health. I’m a strong advocate of eating organic food as often as possible in China, as you get total control over which toxins you put in your body. China’s food supply has had numerous issues with food safety, many involving toxic levels of chemicals which could harm you. Organic production specifically avoids using the pesticides and growth chemicals that have despoiled countless acres of farmland and water supplies worldwide. Fruits and vegetables, in particular, have major problems worldwide from chemical use, and their organic versions should be bought as often as possible. For example, peaches and apples top the pesticide list for fruits, and peppers and celery lead the vegetable rankings. You can access the full list from the Environmental Working Group; they have a Shoppers Guide to Pesticides which you can download from their website at www.foodnews.org. They also offer a very useful free iPhone/iPod Touch application called Dirty Produce, which ranks all produce by pesticide levels. I find this iPhone app very useful while shopping for groceries, as it helps me decide whether a certain vegetable should always be bought organic or could I get away with the regular version.
Beijingers are fortunate that the market for organic food is growing rapidly — just this month I found new, locally made organic blueberries at most markets for only 15 RMB each box. Beijingers are also lucky that many farms, stores and markets are expanding their organic selections. You can find scattered organic farms around Beijing where you can order directly and even visit. The larger supermarket chains are also rapidly improving their selection of organic produce as well as meat. I now buy my organics almost exclusively from the large joint-venture hypermarkets such as Carrefour and Walmart and am happy with the quality and price.
By the way, readers should take note that organic food has many positives — but in general, most studies do not show a clear nutritional advantage with organics. So, an organic carrot may taste better but has the same vitamins and minerals as a non-organic carrot. This may surprise and disappoint some readers, but you still have strong reasons to choose organic food here in Beijing — of which the #1 reason is to protect your health.
I’m a big fan of organics and GreenFood here in China, but my concerns are more for food safety and health than for nutritional reasons. Many people assume that organics are more nutritious, but that debate is far from settled. In fact, the best recent evidence shows that most organic food has the same nutrition as non-organic. The most recent evidence is from the most comprehensive review so far on this subject, run by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, called Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review — American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and published in August. They reviewed every major published article over the last 50 years, and their findings may surprise you:
Results: From a total of 52,471 articles, we identified 162studies (137 crops and 25 livestock products); 55 were of satisfactoryquality. In an analysis that included only satisfactory-qualitystudies, conventionally produced crops had a significantly highercontent of nitrogen, and organically produced crops had a significantlyhigher content of phosphorus and higher titratable acidity.No evidence of a difference was detected for the remaining 8of 11 crop nutrient categories analyzed. Analysis of the morelimited database on livestock products found no evidence ofa difference in nutrient content between organically and conventionallyproduced livestock products.
Conclusions: On the basis of a systematic review of studiesof satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a differencein nutrient quality between organically and conventionally producedfoodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detectedare biologically plausible and mostly relate to differencesin production methods.
There are more links from the UK Food Standards Agency here, as well as PDFs of the above literature. There is also an excellent review of organics and food safety from one of my favorite sites, the Hong Kong Center for Food Safety. They also state evidence that doesn’t show much nutritional difference between organics and non-organics.
This article is the most comprehensive look so far at this issue, and the results are strong. However, there are many other reasons why people may choose organic, including environmental protection as well as better handling of bred animals. I choose organics mostly for food safety concerns. There are many concerns regarding not just proper chemical/pesticide use, but also improper wastewater irrigation, and food storage and handling. So I feel more comfortable buying organic or GreenFood from larger supermarkets as I assume there is much more government/private oversight of these products.
Read more previous posts on organics.
I find myself in an unexpected position here. As am American, I rarely considered Walmart a place to shop for general products, much less my groceries. I was fortunate to live in the natural paradise of Sonoma and San Francisco, and I had multiple produce stands along my commute to work everyday, with food straight off the farms attached to them (uh oh, nostalgia kicking in…must suppress…ok.).
But here I am, switching most of my organic shopping from Lohao City to the Walmart next to Wanda downtown. How did this happen? Well, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there’s a fundamental difference in presumptions here. Back in the states I rarely bought organic produce as it was too expensive, and in my neighborhood the majority of produce was of very high quality and safety. But here in China, there is indeed more uncertainty regarding food supply safety, and I was convinced that it was safer to go organic here as much for safety as for health. When I say organic I mean true organic as well as “green labeling” ( see my previous posts).
There are a few good places for good organic supply, and I usually went to Lohao due to convenience. Carrefour has a huge supply of organics, both produce as well as meats, but I hate how crowded it always is. Sooo…I discovered Walmart! Not only is it cleaner than Carrefour, but the crowds are less crazy. The overall shopping experience is more pleasant. And I admit I am very impressed at their organic selection, which includes dried products, produce, and an excellent collection of meats as well. The prices are very reasonable and not too much more than their non-organic partner. They even have a growing collection of “green label” snack foods! Plus, the underground parking and shopping cart ramps make access here really low-stress.
What About Their Reputation?
Yes, organics purists may get angry at such recommendations, as they comment back at home that Walmart, while pushing organics more, is squeezing their suppliers too hard and possibly destroying an overall purity of organics. I agree that if they’re shipping organics from China to the states, that certainly wouldn’t be desirable due to extra environmental costs. But let’s just step back from this hot-button issue and realize that the situation in China is different. Here’s a country rapidly changing in just 30 years, where food safety is a major issue that the government is aggressively working on, with the help of international agencies. But the average Beijinger has had very few options for stores that can offer more quality-controlled food at a price they can afford. So, a local Beijinger strolls into Walmart for the first time and is blown away — by how clean it is; by their huge selection not just of food but all products under one roof; and by the low prices. We expats may be blase or even contemptuous of Walmart, but for China such superstores are a massive upgrade.
And Walmart’s famous (infamous?) supply chain, while maybe squeezing out profits for American companies, at least here in China can offer a monitored supply and logistics chain that can guarantee food safety more than other supermarkets. Many people don’t realize that the cold supply chain in China is not fully developed; that means that many produce items that need to stay cold from farm to store are not shipped in cold trucks, and food may spoil along the way and bacteria may breed as well. Walmart, with their brutally efficient leverage among their suppliers, plus their huge stacks of cash, can monitor such basics much better than your local corner markets.
The bottom line is that I feel more comfortable buying food that has as much guarantee of quality as well as safety. For both, I would stick to larger markets, and I would always purchase organic or “green label” over non-labeled. And no matter where you shop, let’s all at least appreciate that the Chinese population deserves food quality and safety on a level as high as possible, and all steps in that direction are welcome.