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What does organic mean in China?

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There have been a number of shops popping up all over Kunming over the last few years proudly claiming to sell 'ecological' (生态产品), 'green' (绿色食品), 'pollution free' (无公害农产品) or 'organic' (有机食品) products. But what do these terms really mean in China?

There are currently three types of agricultural production with associated legal standards in China. The level with the strictest standards is organic, while the next level is green, and the third and final is pollution free. In addition, ecological products (生态) have recently flooded the market, causing an additional level of confusion.

Today, Chinese consumers are mostly buying organic in response to food safety concerns, rather than from environmental concerns. The results can be seen in the organic labelling on vegetables wrapped in three or four layers of plastic to create consumer confidence about supply chain controls.

Depending on your personal motivation to buy organic, the amount of non-recyclable packaging involved in these products can be a real turn-off. An alternative to plastic-heavy supermarket organics is to find organic producers and buy directly from them. But this will require a certain level of Chinese language ability. Here's a quick primer to help out with your next trip to the market.

Organic food

These are the strictest standards and require organic certification bodies, inspectors and operators to comply with Chinese national organic dictates and protocols. Imports of organic products must also meet these national regulations. No synthetic chemical additives or pollutants are permitted, and genetically modified organisms cannot be labelled as organic.

All organic products must display the label above, and full traceability is provided by a unique barcode. According to the Chinese government, organic agricultural methods not only avoid synthetic additives but must also follow ecosystem based methods such as crop rotation and natural pest control practices. Chinese organic standards are currently some of the strictest on earth.

Green food

Green food production is a specific Chinese standard allowing limited quantities of synthetic additives to crops and the land on which they are grown. Green food is a compromise between organic and standard food production and must meet the following criteria:

• The farmland should meet the highest grade of air standards in China
• Heavy metal residues are restricted in irrigation, water and soil, which involves testing for mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead, chromium and other elements
• Irrigation water must meet national drinking water standards
• Chemical applications are restricted and regulated, and some of the most poisonous pesticides and herbicides are banned.

Since the green food certification was first introduced, no claims were made that it was an organic label. Rather, authorities stressed that the Green Food logo ensured a strict control of chemical use and guaranteed the safety of the product.

Pollution free food

This is the final standard with labelling and inspections in China — pollution free food. It is a set of compulsory standards of production quality that seeks to control unsafe farming practices. Pollutants, additives and toxic residues must remain within limits set by national standards for safety.

These rules are intended to become the basic standard for all agricultural production in China. This followed a number of food safety related incidents that compromised the trust of Chinese consumers, as well as trade restrictions imposed by other countries over similar concerns.

Ecological products

Ecological shops and products have exploded in number in recent years, driven by growing consumer awareness of pollution and pesticide risks in food production. However, ecological products do not follow any national or local standards, are subject to no inspections and do not need to meet any limits on additives or chemicals. The "ecological" in the name can be viewed in the same way as any "green" or "eco-friendly" label on products in any country that do not need to follow any set legal standards.

Kunming outlets

Below is a list of restaurants, markets and shopping centers advertising the sale of organic, green or pollution free items. We've divided them by municipal district, with the omission of Chenggong. This list is by no means exhaustive. If you have a favorite place to buy produce and dry goods with a more natural bent, please mention it in the comments section below. Thanks! And happy shopping.

Anning City


Guandu District

Beidahuang Lefu (Century City location)
Beidahuang Lefu (Hangkong location)
Carrefour (Yunfang location)
Carrefour (Century City location)

Panlong District

Beidahuang Lefu (Dashuying location)
Beidahuang Lefu (Wanhua Lu location)
Carrefour (Baiyun location)
Lazy Birds Cafe
Vegetarian Garden
Wal-Mart (Beijing Lu loation)
Wal-Mart (Huancheng Dong Lu location)

Wuhua District

Beidahuang Lefu (Sujiatang location)
Beidahuang Lefu (Xiaoximen loation)
Carrefour (Longquan Lu loation)
Carrefour (Zhengda location)
Jiansu Healthy Buffet
Nongchanpin Center
Tusheng Shiguan
Wal-Mart (Guomao location)
Wal-Mart (Daguan location)

Xishan District

Beidahuang Lefu (Xingyuan Lu location)
Carrefour (Nanya location)
Gugeng Farm
Uncle Yang's Mini Market
Wal-Mart (Qianxing Lu location)
Wal-Mart (Xingyuan Lu location)

Editor's note: Article author Rachel Hemingway has been working internationally for 15 years focusing on the interactions between environmental policy, conservation and poverty alleviation. She is currently based in Kunming, where she studies Chinese.

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Just curious, for Chinese organic farms, also three years of non-contamination in the soil like in the West?

A related question: anybody know of results of any studies of Kunming's tap water?

A store we frequent for vegetables and meat is Q+Life in B1 level of TKP Shopping Mall (Beijing Lu / Baiyun Lu). My wife has bought for their green advertising, I cannot vouch either way but I'm satisfied with the quality.

kunming water contains dihydrogen oxide which has been known to kill people.

@dazzer: I believe you, but then so does alcohol. Question is, how much? Nowhere is tap water sterile or without compounds other than H2O.

Time, is, without question the largest killer. There must be a campaign to raise awareness, scare people to death and ban time.

Old age is the number 1 killer. Shopping at Wal-Mart will also shave 5 years off your life.

@nnoble: you may be right. However, note that organic time is different from clock time, and that the faster you go the less time you have.

They also say time is a healer, and it takes time to grow. While time does get peope killed, it also helps greatly in reproduction. Without time, we would not have gotten where we are now - nor would we get to develop into extradimensional beings bound by neither space nor time, if we ban it now.

What I propose, is that we do not ban time, but instead develop ourselves beyond time, so that we no longer depend on it, and becomes indifferent to us.

On a related but more serious note, should humanity also develop beoynd organic in our feeding patterns?

For most people, things like "organic" or "free range" has already developed past hunting wild game and gathering roots and berries. For the minority that still practises such, our current methods to grow our food must appear as strange as eating protein grown in reactors would sound to many of us.

Since solar panels on road lights have been faked, wouldnt bet too high on the organic stuff.

Maybe its like buying a packet of condoms, some are what the packet says, some are recycled used condoms (like that news article wrote few months ago).

Grocery bill is probably at least 30% higher if you buy everything organic. perhaps it's not feasible economically for many. Perhaps reducing junk food is more feasible to try to maintain health.

At the request of users, we've added a bio-line for the article's author, Rachel Hemingway.

And here are some of the sources she used, apart from exploring the city and mapping the organic places in Kunming in person:

www.chinafile.com/media/china-organic-food-gaining-ground Organic Food in China
Cogent Food & Agriculture, 2:1; Farmers' adoption of pollution-free vegetable farming in China: Economic, informational, or moral motivation? Ying Xiong, Xiao Li & Peng He | Fatih Yildiz (Reviewing Editor) (2016) DOI: 10.1080/23311932.2016.1240022 www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311932.2016.1240022

Dept of Geography & Environmental Management, University of Waterloo, Canada The Evolution and Structure of China's Organic and Ecological Agriculture Sector Summary of Research Findings Dr Steffanie Scott, Aijuan Chen, Theresa Schumilas and Zhenzhong Si Updated July 2012

GeoProgress Journal, vol. 2, n.I, 2015 45 Organic food in China: the law behind lüse shipin and youji shipin RICCARDO BERTI

International Trade Centre (ITC) Organic Food Products in China: Market Overview
Geneva: ITC, 2011. xii, 36 pages (Technical paper) Doc. No. SC-11-196.E

Please feel free to add additional resources in the comments. Thank you for all your positive feedback!

It's one of them zero % sugar, 50% aspartame things isn't it. About as organic as the dems are democratic. Just have more common sense than having to rely on Chinese packaging information.

Yeah, like western companies aren't shady with packaging information. They invented the game.

Hey all, the local farm we work with has organic Roma tomatoes in season now and if you want to pick some up we will have them available at Salvador's for 12 yuan per 500 grams. We'll also be using them in our dishes while available. Stop by if you're interested. We also still have locally soured organic yogurt, coffee and now quinoa if you are looking for some other groceries to add on. Cheers

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