Heavy metals in vegetables, poisonous dyes in eggs and industrial chemicals in tainted milk – the litany of food horror stories coming out of China is well known.
But the unimpressive track record is helping drive sales in another food sector in China – albeit one which is still small in volume and value terms. Sales of organic produce (food grown without bug killers, fertilisers, hormones, antibiotics or biotechnology) are on the up.
“The food safety scares are a definite driver of people’s desire to buy organic, and I think that’s true in urban China as much as it is in other parts of the world,” says Paul Thiers, a visiting professor at China Agricultural University.
The problem? The price. Organic items are still a luxury beyond the means of most consumers.
Take the cost of organic food at Huazhe Store in Hangzhou; regular cabbage is Rmb4/kg, while the price of organic cabbage is Rmb30/kg; organic bell peppers go for Rmb36/kg, organic white mushrooms sell for Rmb135/kg.
According to Wang Guangbiao, chairman of Xianghui Trade Company, who supplies the organic produce to Huazhe: “The price of organic vegetables is generally 5-6 times that in the local markets.”
This has led locals to nickname organic products as the “Louis Vuittons” of the vegetable world.
But despite the steep price difference, there are people willing to pay a premium for organic vegetables, says Business Daily. Jiuguang Department Store in Shanghai, which includes a high-end supermarket that sells organic produce, sells over Rmb1 million ($146,000) worth of organic produce every month. The store manager told the paper that this is up from Rmb50,000 a month a few years ago.
China is expected to become a significant organic consumer, with domestic consumption increasing by 30-50% annually, says Netease News Forum.
Industry observers also predict that the supply of organic food will grow annually by between20-30% over the nextdecade, as the number of organicfarms also increases.
The industry needs to promotethe benefits of organic food morewidely, say the experts. And it would be helped by a clearer set of definitions and standards as to what organic food actually is.
“There are different standards and various organisations, which conduct the certification,” says Luo Min, an official with the China Organic Food Development Centre, one of the organisations providing the organic stamp of approval. “And some of the standards can only be applied to the domestic market.”
A sign perhaps that the industry has more work to do before it can start selling overseas too.
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