By Diane Brady
Given China's widespread use of toxic pesticides, you'd think organic fans would cheer anything that encourages less chemical use there. But the country we expect to export low-cost TV sets and stuffed toys is getting skewered for churning out cheap organic food.
Critics claim China's fledgling organic industry is plagued by lax standards, inadequate oversight, exploitation of workers, and practices such as using human waste to fertilize fields, which isn't the kind of "organic" the USDA and most consumers support. One U.S. consultant working there considers meeting U.S. Agriculture Dept. standards a joke, since "U.S. laws do not work in China."
For all the fuss, few problems have arisen with China's organic exports so far. The most highly publicized case happened four years ago when pesticide residues were discovered on "organic" spinach exported to Japan. Barbara Robinson, who oversees the USDA's National Organic Program, says that her department has received no complaints about Chinese organic products entering the U.S. "I don't know why everybody picks on China," she says.
The critics say it's simply hard to reconcile chemical-free farming with a nation that continues to make DDT and use pesticides on a mass scale. And China's organic farms aren't exactly the small, family-run enterprises many consumers expect.
Even Pay, a fellow at the Pesticide Eco-Alternatives Center in Kunming, explains that "organic products destined for export are usually grown on large-scale farms where farmers are organized and managed by local governments or private companies." Moreover, she says, "the decision to go organic rarely lies with the farmer."
Purists argue that shipping food halfway around the world wastes energy and violates the idea of organic. They wonder whether workers are fairly compensated on the labor-intensive farms. Activists and academics also charge that the organic boom could harm the environment as farmers clear new terrain to sidestep the three-year transition period required by the USDA to convert conventional farms to organic.
They worry that the lure of profitable exports comes at a cost to locals in a country that's already short on arable land. "The issue is China feeding itself," says Sjoerd W. Duiker, a professor of soil management at Penn State University, who notes that extra land is required because organic farming typically generates lower yields.
Ultimately, it's up to companies and government officials to ensure that USDA standards are met. The likes of Costco Wholesale, Eden Foods, and Stonyfield send people to China to inspect fields and crops.
Independent certifiers from agencies accredited by the National Organic Program check that rules are followed, though critics say inspections aren't sufficiently frequent or independent. And food from all foreign markets is spot-tested before it crosses the U.S. border.
Even with these safeguards in place, however, making sure that every carrot, cabbage, and strawberry imported from China meets USDA standards is impossible.
Brady is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York