Kunming's sustainable food scene, an interview with Mira Qi

By in Features

Mira Qi is in the process of completing her master's degree in community development at the University of California, Davis. Her research focuses on sustainable agriculture and alternative food networks, especially those in and around Yunnan's capital city.

Much of her on-the-ground fieldwork revolves around consumer co-ops in Kunming where people are trying to build trust between buyers and growers while also enhancing fraying rural-urban relations. Qi lived in Kunming for more than ten years and is active in broader alternative food movements in both the Spring City and communities in northern California.

GoKunming caught up with her via email recently to find out where things stand with organic farming and the slow food movement here in central Yunnan. During our conversation, Qi explained the difference between organic and 'ecological' produce, where farmers attempt to grow the latter to organic standards but have not yet garnered government certification.

Image credit: Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op
Image credit: Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op

GoKunming: Can you bring us up to speed on the details of your research in Kunming?

Mira Qi: I conducted fieldwork focused on ecological farming and sustainable food systems in Kunming and in three surrounding Hmong [Miao minority] villages. Our current industrial food system has so many problems, including a dependence on chemicals, the monopolization of seeds and other resources by multi-national corporations, and the exploitation of small farmers.

In Kunming, there is a group of consumers, producers, NGOs, and other stakeholders that are building alternative food markets that differ from mainstream models. The major difference is the former are based on mutual trust and aid. I examined how these alternative markets are forming and what difficulties they may be encountering.

GK: Over the course of your investigations, what did you find?

Qi: I observed an active, diverse, and multi-stakeholder alternative food network in Kunming. There are farm-to-table restaurants that use local food and cook without any chemical additives, and there are rural development NGO-supported farmers markets that help link disadvantaged farmers to local markets. But additionally, Kunming has active consumer purchasing groups and co-ops, as well as some community and online stores operated by NGOs and social enterprises.

All of these platforms are trying to provide safe food for customers while supporting ecological farming methods and improving grower incomes. There is also the added attempt to rebuild healthy urban-rural relations and create a more just and healthy food system.

Image credit: Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op
Image credit: Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op

GK: Was there any specific group or NGO that caught your attention?

Qi: I particularly focus on the development of food co-ops in China, and followed a newly established cooperative in Kunming called Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op [润土帮帮城乡互助消费合作社]. I volunteered in their store and spoke with customers to learn about their operation model. I also observed the interactions between customers, producers and Bangbang's staff.

I visited a few Hmong villages to learn about what life was like there for those engaged in organic farming. I wanted to see how they manage pests and care for their pigs. I wanted to hear about the challenges that they're facing and the changes that ecological farming methods have created. I also assisted some NGOs in organizing workshops about alternative food networks that brought different stakeholders together. All of this allowed me to hear many different voices.

GK: Can you outline what makes a co-op different from something like a local market?

Qi: A consumer co-op is a social enterprise that is jointly owned by members who make decisions democratically and share any profits. Although food co-ops might appear to be no different than normal retail stores, the characteristics of collective ownership, democratic decision making and commitment to community development make them fundamentally different when compared to conventional grocery stores.

According to co-op principles, every member has the right to vote and be elected, and one member only accounts for one vote no matter how many shares the members have. Although the food co-ops aim to make profits, local community is always their focus. For example, Bangbang co-op built a community kitchen and provides free public space for its members, and many activities like a culinary skills exchange and a Chinese medicine study group are held there. Members have begun to visit even when they don't need to buy anything, showing how a sense of community is gradually building.

Image credit: Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op
Image credit: Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op

GK: So outside of examples like Bangbang, what is the general state of co-ops in Yunnan and China?

Qi: Compared to the western cooperative movement, which has traditionally focused on working class and urban areas, China's co-op movement had a stronger focus on rural areas and peasant farmers. I think the current litany of food safety issues in China provide an opportunity for the development of consumer co-ops, because the people involved can become a powerful transformative force if they unite and demand safe and reliable food.

However, there are not many food co-ops in China now, and many newly established ones are facing challenges from different levels, such as lack of policy support and intense competition from mainstream commercial markets.

GK: Bringing it back to Kunming, what did you find during your time with Bangbang?

Qi: At the Bangbang co-op, I observed a relationship between consumers, farmers and staff that exceeded a typical buyer-seller relationship. This is illustrated by how they describe themselves as the "Bangbang family" and called each other family members. When the staff are busy, buyer members who don't normally work would help clean the store and greet customers.

The co-op has also designed a mechanism to help farmers get through production losses when they encounter severe weather or pest outbreaks that affect production. Some producers told me Bangbang consumers come to their village often, and that they understand the farmers' lives and situations. "We are like a family", they told me, "how could I feed my family food that contains pesticides and chemical fertilizers?"

Image credit: Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op
Image credit: Runtu Bangbang Urban-Rural Mutual Aid Consumer Co-op

GK: Is this sort of inclusion typical in co-ops?

Qi: The transformation of interpersonal relationships is one other focus of my research. Some scholars describe alternative markets as "warmhearted". By that they mean a market that is not only driven by profits but also guided by social values. Consumers and growers become acquainted or become friends through face to face interactions, and trust is gradually built. Producers take on growing safe and reliable food as their personal responsibility, and buyers don't consider price as the only factor in their shopping decisions.

In my interviews, some consumers emphasized their willingness to purchase agricultural products with higher prices to support local farmers and the environment, and they also highly respect the hard work the farmers do. The Bangbang producers told me that the common saying "the customer is always right" is not, in fact, correct. Patrons and producers should learn to respect each other, they explained.

Certainly, the alternative market is not utopian, and there are conflicts, disagreements and contradictions that are difficult to deal with. I hope my analysis about the social relations going on at Bangbang can provide an intimate perspective that shows people, especially practitioners, the complexity of the market. We cannot simply assume that the scaling-up of alternative markets will solve the food safety problem and improve the lives of more disadvantaged farmers.

GK: You just mentioned "conflict" and "contradictions". Can you give examples?

Qi: Generally speaking, many problems that we have in our food systems are due to the over-commercialization and over-reliance on markets to try and solve problems. For example, small farmers are becoming increasingly marginalized because of the monopolization of grain markets and agricultural inputs like seeds. Some scholars suggest that China's current alternative food movement is a social one built on market mechanisms. So, in essence, we are trying to use a marketized method to solve problems caused by the market to resist the monopolization of big capital. This is what I mean by 'contradictions'.

Members of Bangbang Co-op participating in a peach tasting event (image credit: Bangbang Co-op)
Members of Bangbang Co-op participating in a peach tasting event (image credit: Bangbang Co-op)

GK: Is it the farmers who are taking it upon themselves to move toward sustainable farming, or is it government or private sector pressure and encouragement?

Qi: There are two types of farmer participants in Kunming's food movement. One includes new farmers, and many of them are 'back-to-landers' who move out of urban areas and return to the countryside to start farming after realizing the destruction industrial agriculture can inflict on rural areas and the environment. The other group includes traditional peasants.

The peasants have a very low capacity for resisting risks and lack the resources and capital needed for true ecological or organic farming. In Yunnan, many ethnic minority villages are far from markets, transportation costs are very high, and this makes their agricultural products less competitive. These peasants try ecological farming cautiously under the support and encouragement of NGOs and local governments, and they hope to increase their incomes by doing so.

GK: So what is holding more countryside people back from switching to this type of agricultural production?

Qi: Encouraging disadvantaged farmers to convert to ecological farming is a very difficult task. It requires specialized farming skills, involves longer production periods and has lower yields. Conversely, the labor inputs are usually two or three times more than conventional farming. Some producers are interested in ecological farming, but they back away after understanding the major labor and time investments required.

For them, wage labor might make more sense, because they could rest after work, but have work to do all the time if engaged in ecological farming. Certainly, it also brings some benefits. Farmers have more control over their time and more autonomy, and their products can be sold for higher prices. To help individual farmers deal with challenges and risks, some government entities and some NGOs are organizing producer co-ops. In this way, farmers can help each other and face the risks together.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is how labor is distributed in terms of gender. It makes sense that ecological farming requires much higher labor inputs than does farming relying on chemical inputs. I found that women were the ones bearing most of the burden of increased labor demands. Thus, consumer choice alone, and higher demand for ecological agricultural products, would not address the labor issue. It could even exasperate gender inequalities in rural areas. We shouldn't be overly romantic about ecological farming, but rather remain critical and continue to consider unintended results.

Field trip to a consumer supported farm in Dali organized by the Pesticide Eco-Alternatives Center
Field trip to a consumer supported farm in Dali organized by the Pesticide Eco-Alternatives Center

GK: So you've discussed the growers side, what is the current state of public awareness about sustainable farming practices in Kunming and Yunnan?

Qi: It is not easy to answer that question. I'm doing a qualitative case study, and not a quantitative study involving a large number of consumers. Even though I interviewed about twenty shoppers, they are already willing participants in alternative markets. Many of them are housewives and moms, and they are seeking a reliable food market because of their concerns with food safety issues.

Many of them have strong civic consciousness. For example, some of them visit producers regularly and they not only investigate growing conditions, but also try and better understand the market. Consumers even participate in some small community development projects.

GK: How far are the people you spoke with willing to go in terms of personal involvement?

Qi: What really made an impression on me was how deeply some consumers understand the marginalization of small farmers by the way current agricultural production and distribution channels are set up. For the people I talked to, the participation in a co-op and other alternative markets is a way to resist big capital and its negative effects on small farmers. They therefore see participation in alternative markets as a way to follow their own personal values.

However, I have to point out that the price of more responsibly grown food is two to three times more than conventional methods. It can even be seven or eight times higher if it's an organically certified product. Therefore, these prices greatly limit the participation of low income consumers. In addition, compared to mainstream markets like traditional wet markets and supermarkets, the scale of alternative food markets is small. Many organizations only provide limited varieties of agricultural products at certain set times during the week. Thus, people have to make some sacrifices and compromises concerning their buying options and how they arrange their time.

Of course, the consumers that I just described are a very small group. There are many other people who have the ability to purchase ecological or organic food but don't care enough to do it. What I believe is more important is that the majority of people involved are very aware of China's food safety issues and the harms of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Most cannot participate or buy organic food because they can't afford it. Fundamentally, the current problem with our food system is not consumer consciousness. No matter whether the consumers have the awareness or not, eating healthy and safe food should be considered by everyone to be a fundamental right.

Image credit: Mira Qi
Image credit: Mira Qi

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Now this seems to be very good idea. As to the cost of production and the cost to the consumer, etc.,, it should be obvious that the cost of food by what she calls 'big capital' don't begin to be calculated accurately by ordinary economic measurements, which seem to be based on 'common sense' but which in fact leave out of calculation things like effects on health and the environment, which are compensated for in the eyes of profit-takers by the larger profits they themselves get out of the overall process.
Best wishes to this effort. It deserves to grow, but it will not be an easy road, and will be a hard sell for people with low incomes who have to eat bad cheap food, a phenomenon that smacks of, well, larger and more fundamental concerns that need to be dealt with.

Excellent and informative article on evolving China's food chain in a multilaterally responsible manner.

Good to see cooperatives making a comeback, even in a small way. Coops were big in China in the late 1930s and in the 1940s. The Indusco movement was supported by both the KMT and the CCP. The New Zealander Rewi Alley was a leading member. There were thousands of coops at the time. Peter Goulart the author of Forgotten Kingdom was sent to Lijiang to work for the cooperative movement. The expression Gung Ho entered American military English from the Chinese Gonghe ... via the Dixie Mission to Yan'an I think ... at any rate via US troops stationed in China. Indusco didn't survive the 1950s but was revived during the reform and opening up period. There's an office in Beijing. I wonder if local groups have any contact with it.

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