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China's credibility crisis

China's growing organic sector comes with concerns

By Angela B. Caudle

From tainted toothpaste to contaminated pet foods, China had the largest number of import violations in the past year. Although none of these scares involved organic products, the Chinese organic industry faces many challenges to gain the trust of the global organic industry and to become a credible source of organic products.

One reason for the skepticism is China’s rapid conversion to organic. In 1997 China ranked 45th in organic production with a total of 4,000 hectares. By 2004, China jumped up to 13th with 301,295 hectares. Today, it’s ranked number three with 2,300,000 hectares in production. Currently, there are around 10 foreign certifiers in China. These certifiers account for 40 percent of all organic certificates issued in China and practically all the Chinese organic products exported to the EU, North America and Japan are given the green seal through foreign certifiers.

While China’s flawed import record and polluted environment do raise red flags, when it comes to organic the government has backed some key projects including the development and strict regulation of certified organic regions. One of these is WanZu in South China, which has over 45,000 acres of crops, with another 10,000 in transition, that are being certified organic to both EU and USDA standards. To ensure that no pesticides are used, vehicles are searched upon entry. And, in many of these areas, if one farm is caught breaking the rules then the field and the products of the whole group will be rejected or fined, said Zhou Zejiang, one of the Chinese organic movement pioneers as well as the chair of the Certification Committee of the Organic Food Development Center and IFOAM’s China representative.

One of the biggest concerns is that China prohibits surprise inspections. However, there is no such government rule in China. In fact, under China’s organic standards, certifiers are required to perform a certain number of unannounced inspections annually. Also, some of the foreign certifiers are starting to take measures to ensure the certification quality by including unannounced secondary inspections. Although these are not required by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), Jeff See, executive director of the Organic Crop Improvement Association, which certifies farms in China, says their goal is to do verification inspections on 100 percent of new applicants in China, and close to 70 percent of renewal certifications. “With all the public concern we are stepping up the effort at our own expense,” he said. “We feel that it is our job to have that oversight.”

Another concern is the use of “night soil,” or human excrement, as a fertilizer. This is allowed in China, with many restrictions, including that it must be fully composted and it cannot be used on leafy, tuber or root crops. This practice, however, is strictly prohibited under USDA guidelines, and therefore anyone growing crops for export to the United States is banned from using this form of fertilizer.

Overall, Zejiang stresses that importing countries themselves should play an active role in ensuring the integrity of organic products coming from China. Japan, for example, has some of the highest quality imports due to the strict examination of organic products by the Japanese authorities.

Some Japanese companies send their staff members to supervise the organic production and processing in China, thereby encouraging best practices in organic production and maintaining a high level of integrity. Many U.S. companies that source from China also do their own verification inspections or lab tests to check for heavy metals.

Overall, China holds great potential as a major source of organic products given its vast agrogeographic diversity and its clear desire to be in the global organic market. From a strictly global perspective, credible organic production from China is crucial for addressing the shortages in supply, as it offers the ability to produce a variety of products in large quantities.

The integrity and credibility of organic products coming from China, or other developing countries, hinges on the active participation of those companies sourcing there as well as the diligence of the foreign certifiers operating in those countries.

Angela B. Caudle is the executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). She has been active in both the United States and international organic industry, furthering the scope and acceptance of organics. You can contact her at

Reprinted from “The Global Organic Marketplace: Overcoming Challenges and Planning for Future Growth,” Organic Processing Magazine, October-December 2007, with the permission of the publishers. © 2007 by The Target Group.


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