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Safe or sorry: China’s struggle to balance an increasing population with decreasing pesticides

The safety of Chinese food has come to the awareness of the Chinese population
The safety of Chinese food has come to the awareness of the Chinese population. Source: Flickr Creative Commons.

When we think about Chinese food, we often recall the greasy, mouth-watering, and delicious stir fry rice of our favourite take a-way place. Usually cheap, fast, around the corner, and open 24/7; good for midnight cravings or during around the clock work to meet a deadline. But in China, where this marvellous cuisine comes from, the ingredients used in the various dishes are often not so safe. A recent book published in China by Wu Heng invites its readers to quite literally throw their food out of the window and follow three strict principles while ‘hunting’ at the grocery store: shop at regular places, pay regular prices and rotate your poison. At this point one must ask: Why is there such a great concern regarding the quality of food?

Let’s take a step back. China is a big country with a population of a little over one billion, but with only little more than 11% of the total arable land in the world.

Due to the aforementioned problems, food security, rather than food safety, has been, since the beginning of time, one of the main concerns of the ruling elite. But, around the 1980s, the massive introduction of pesticides, fertilizers, food additives, growth hormones, and genetically modified food relieved them of their headache ensuring a bowl of rice three times a day to the population. With the rapid economic development and increase in the per capita income, the overall consumption increased continuously and the consumption patterns started to diversify.

Thus, from the initial problem of food security, a food safety problem arose. In fact, such an extensive model of growth is now threatening the country’s ecological and environmental security, resulting in a waste of resources and in poor quality level of the aliments produced which is having a direct impact on the pattern of economic growth. To add insult to injury, there has been an exponential increase in food safety incidents that lead to an overall distrust by the consumers in food companies which in turn has increased the management cost of the government and hindered the development of new food markets.

The influencing factors of food safety incidents can be divided into the following categories: pollution of environmental resources, residues of chemical fertilizers and other harmful chemicals used during the production stage, and illegal or excessive use of new technology in food production. These factors are also combined with numerous efficiency problems in the production and supervision of the products.

China has almost 21% of the world population but only about 11% of the arable land. Source: Mingjia Zhou/Flickr CC.
China has almost 21% of the world population but only about 11% of the arable land. Source: Mingjia Zhou/Flickr CC.

In order to properly understand the problem, let us have a look at the various stages of the production process. The primary stage of food production, during which the farming and the breeding occur, is scattered and of small scale with little value added, chiefly due to the fact that the entry barrier of new businesses is relatively low because there is no need of big capital and high technology to start a new enterprise. Thus, the administrative authorities often ignore this stage. During the second stage, namely during the processing stage, other problems arise, mainly due to the underdeveloped infrastructure and management methods. Many enterprises in fact lack a modern IT platform and the multiple departments dedicated to the supervision of the production process often have overlapping tasks with no clear division of responsibilities among them. This on one hand causes repetitive allocation and inefficient use of supervision resources and on the other hand results in all departments scrambling for profitable matters and shrinking away from unprofitable matters. Lastly, during the third stage, namely during the storage and the transportation of the food, an imperfect logistic system with the absence of an efficient cold chain construction and poor sanitary conditions are the culprit of spoilage and microbial contamination of the aliments. Such a poorly structured production process has led to a chain of high profile incidents that have angered the consumers and created a situation of alarmism around the country.

To respond to the problem, the government has put in place a legal framework to improve the food quality. During the eleventh five-year plan, they implemented the construction plan of ‘national agricultural products quality safety inspection system’ and up until today the food safety law system has been gradually developed and now comprise a series of complementary rules and regulations that have established a quality safety monitoring network which now covers the major cities across the country.

In the end, China’s security system for food safety has been consistently improved, the capacity has been greatly enhanced, the overall food safety level has been raised and the level of consumer food safety information has been gradually restored and increased. Nonetheless there are still great difficulties to overcome in order to further improve the food safety and traceability system, especially because the legal framework created by the government is still slow to implement. To overcome this problem the citizens of China took matters into their own hands by denouncing irregular aliments, and establishing a ‘farm to fork network’, for instance in the form of whole food markets, a phenomena that is slowly spreading across the major cities. These public actions show the increasing importance of food safety in a Country that for a long time struggled to reach an acceptable level of food security.

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