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Building trust in food

Community supported agriculture projects may have started to help address Chinese consumers’ fears about food safety, writes H Frederick Gale.

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After a string of toxic-food incidents in recent years, some commentators in China describe the nation’s food industry as facing a crisis of consumer confidence. Many consumers feel they can no longer rely on the usual means of identifying “safe” food after reputable companies with special “inspection-exempt” status were implicated in the melamine milk-adulteration scandal, stories surfaced about lax certification and fake organic food and one of China's largest meat companies was caught selling pork containing illegal feed additives.

A budding “community supported agriculture” (CSA) movement in China is a new option for consumers searching for ways to build trust in food. The CSA concept was developed in Europe, Japan, and the United States to connect urban consumers with their agricultural roots. New CSA arrangements in China preserve the broad goals of producing and consuming food in an ecologically balanced manner, but the direct links with producers have an added appeal to Chinese consumers searching for safe food.

CSA is an arrangement where consumer-members pledge support for a grower and share the risks and benefits of production. Members typically make an advance payment that provides the farm with working capital. Members then receive regular deliveries or distributions of the farm’s produce over the course of the growing season.

The most prominent Chinese CSA is the “Little Donkey Farm” on the outskirts of Beijing. Farm members sign a 20-week agreement and pay a fee at the beginning of the season for a “distribution share” that entitles the member to a box of produce from the farm each week. The farm also offers the option of a “working share” that provides a plot of land, use of tools and technical guidance to members who want to grow their own produce.

The Little Donkey Farm was founded in 2009 by Shi Yan, a doctoral student at Beijing’s Renmin University who worked on a CSA farm in Minnesota, in the Midwestern United States, and came back to China to promote the concept. The Little Donkey Farm began with about 50 members and 20 mu (about 1.3 hectares) of land that formerly was used as a tree nursery outside Beijing’s sixth ring road. In 2010, membership grew to over 280 distribution shares and 120 working shares—mostly through word-of-mouth—and the farm expanded to 230 mu (about 15.3 hectares).

CSAs are a new—and still tiny—part of China’s food system. Unofficial counts say there are about 100 CSA projects in China. A “country fair” held in the Renmin University gymnasium in November 2010 listed about a dozen CSA and organic farms in the Beijing area. Other CSAs have been set up in the cities of Qingdao, Shanghai, Chongqing, Xian, Henan and Tianjin.

Members are attracted to Little Donkey Farm for various reasons, but food safety concerns seem to be prominent. A report in the Chinese newspaper the International Herald Leader described a retired worker surnamed Yi, who comes to the farm to tend her garden twice a week. Yi was drawn to Little Donkey Farm as a solution to her loss of trust in the food system. She said, “I used to work in commerce and I know food distribution methods – it's hard to control pollution.”

“Establishing trust” is one of the objectives listed by The Little Donkey Farm on its website. Shi emphasises that first-hand contact can substitute for a government-sanctioned organic certification. In an interview posted on an online forum, Shi explained that China’s organic certifications are geared toward large farms operated by companies and encouraged consumers to visit the farm and certify it themselves.

Renmin University professor Zhou Li, another proponent of CSAs in China, expresses similar views. He has described CSA as a reaction to the industrialisation of agriculture in China: “Food safety is a crisis of trust...at its deepest level it is the separation of man from nature and a separation of man from man.”

Trustworthy food can be expensive. Little Donkey Farm’s cabbage costs 8.3 yuan (US$1.26) per jin (0.5 kilograms) including delivery, nearly 10 times the price of cabbage in produce markets. Little Donkey Farm offers pork that costs about three times the supermarket price of common pork. In an interview with the Tianjin Daily newspaper, Shi Yan acknowledged that the farm’s vegetables are expensive, but pointed out that they are still less than the 15-yuan price for organic vegetables in supermarkets.

In China, retail food prices are generally low. Since the 1990s, China’s food prices have occasionally spurted upward (in 2010, for example), but over the last two decades as a whole Chinese food prices have risen much more slowly than consumer incomes. Compared with 20 years ago, Chinese consumers eat more meat, fish, off-season vegetables, exotic fruits and meals in restaurants, yet the share of urban consumers’ disposable income spent on food fell from 46% in 1990 to 26% in 2009. (In the United States the share is under 10%.)

China’s low food prices reflect a highly efficient marketing system, but low food prices could also reflect the “lemon principle” first advanced by economist George Akerlof in 1970. If consumers cannot easily discern “safe” food from “unsafe” food, they may suspect all food of being unsafe. Just as consumers typically discount the price they are willing to pay for a used car that might be a defective, “lemon” consumers are not willing to pay much for food in the open market if they can’t be sure it’s safe. Under these conditions, Akerlof’s principle suggests that “unsafe” food may drive “safe” food out of the market.

CSAs are an innovation that addresses the disconnect in China between the willingness of consumers to pay a premium for “safe” food and the lack of reliably safe food in the general marketplace. In the Tianjin Daily, Shi said that some potential CSA members were put off by the high cost and up-front payments, but she noted that some who joined the Little Donkey CSA were reprioritising their spending. Chinese consumers have traditionally tried to conserve on food spending, freeing up cash to spend on name-brand apparel, cell phones and home furnishings. But the growing popularity of CSAs shows that China has a small but growing segment of consumers willing to pay higher prices for food they can really trust.

CSAs may not be the final answer to China’s food confidence problem, but they do provide another choice for Chinese consumers who shop in a haze of uncertainty. CSAs are just one of a number of experiments with new marketing arrangements, corporate management strategies, and traceability systems that are changing the way Chinese people buy and sell food. Hopefully, these experiments will produce a recipe for food that consumers can trust.

H Frederick Gale works at the Economic Research Service in the US Department of Agriculture. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not be attributed to the Economic Research Service or the US Department of Agriculture.

Homepage image from jrodmanjr 

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Default thumb avatar
cdhelennh

请教一下

我感觉这个CSA都是放在很微观的情景下做的试点,而没有考虑宏观的环境和社会问题可能会带来的影响。
如果我想成为CSA农场的订户,可能我更关心的是:
1、农场周围是否有污染源
2、农场用水是否安全
3、当地的村民是否会支持CSA的耕种方式,他们用什么方式种田(如果他们滥用化肥用杀虫剂,那么这一小块做CSA的田里搞得再有机和环保似乎也没多大用啊!),文中提到的“配送的污染”相比种植中可能出现的污染,后者更难于管理。
作者提到“许多消费者们觉得原来那些验证食品“安全”的途径已经不再可靠”,但中国的消费者同时还对自己所生活的自然环境缺乏信心。看看被重金属污染的大米吧,10%的市面大米已经被污染,又有多少耕地能安全到可以确保种出健康的食品呢?

Please tell me:

My feeling is that these CSAs are very small-scale and limited in scope, and that the creators have failed to consider the macro-level effects they might have on societal and environmental problems. If I were to become a CSA customer, then I'd probably be more concerned with:

1: Whether or not there are pollution problems in the areas surrounding the farm.

2: Whether or not the water the farm is using is safe.

3: Whether or not farmers in the surrounding area support the CSAs method of agriculture, and what farming methods they themselves use-- if they misuse chemical fertilizers or pesticides, then a small CSA field being organic and eco-friendly won't be very helpful! Comparing the "distribution method pollution" mentioned in the article with that which appears in plants, the latter is harder to control.

The author mentions that "many consumers feel that the original channels for verifying food product safety are already unreliable," but at the same time Chinese consumers also feel a lack of trust in the environment for their daily lives. Looking at the rice that was contaminated with heavy metal pollution, 10% of rice in markets is already polluted-- how much plowing will have to be done before the health and safety of food products can be ensured?

Default thumb avatar
lina

CSA也是属于贵族的?

我一开始看到前两段的时候,真得很激动,以为咱们普通老百姓的食品安全问题有救了。但是,越往下看~~~~~~~
谁不想吃到安全食物。可是目前CSA出来的食物这么贵(小毛驴农场的蔬菜(圆白菜?)包括配送费每斤8块3(1.26美元),几乎是市场上圆白菜的10倍),普通工薪家庭哪里能买得起呢?一般的家庭,又哪里是符合“中国消费者习惯于压缩食品开支,把省下来的钱花在名牌衣物、手机和家装上。”的习惯----注意是“名牌”。一般的家庭都只是为自己这一代为下一代谋生计啊!
还是要想其他法子呢!

Is the CSA part of the elite too?

I was very enthusiastic when I read the first two paragraphs and thought the problem of food safety for the ordinary people would be solved. But then I read on.

Who doesn't want safe food? But at the moment, the food coming from the CSA is so expensive (vegetables- like cabbage, from the Little Donkey Farm, including distribution costs are 8.30 yuan ($1.26) per half kilo, about ten times more than other cabbage on the market), what average family can afford it? And what average family fits the description: "Chinese consumers have traditionally tried to conserve on food spending, freeing up cash to spend on name-brand apparel, cell phones and home furnishings"- especially the 'brands' part.

Normal families just want to make a living to support this generation and the next! We'll have to think of another way!

This comment was translated by Kate Truax