Zhao Chunhong is watering the plants on her crowded balcony on the third floor of a modern apartment building in Beijing. Before she starts cooking for her children, the 35-year-old steps outside to pick out the ripe vegetables and tasty herbs.
Zhao grows cabbage, bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers and much more - her family's diet has become seasonal.
Zhao is part of a small group of well-off people living in Beijing whose fear of contaminated food has prompted them to grow their own vegetables on balconies or rooftops. "We don't want to eat food that has been treated with additives, pesticides and chemical fertilizers," she says. "My family's health goes first."
Food scandals erupt regularly
Contaminated food is a hot topic in China, where a new scandal is uncovered almost every week. Not long ago, exploding watermelons made headlines in southern China. It turned out that farmers had treated the crops with growth enhancers in exceedingly high doses.
Elsewhere, the heavy metal cadmium was found in rice, and arsenic in soy sauce. Furthermore, there have been cases of bleach being found in mushrooms, chemical additives in pork, hormones in poultry and melamine in powdered milk.
The government seems incapable of dealing with the scandals. However, it did recently announce stricter sentencing and even the death penalty in some cases for perpetrators of "food crimes."
Nonetheless, Chinese consumers remain skeptical, finding it difficult to trust legislation, which is often not enforced.
Lack of trust
That is why Liu Yujing founded the cooperative Mothers' Green Alliance last year. The 36-year-old says she used to buy organic food at special supermarkets, but she simply does not trust them anymore. Her cooperative now has over 100 members. "We have started offering our customers vegetables, eggs and meat from organic farms, which we inspect and test ourselves," says Liu.
China's organic movement is small but growing strong. One farm, located in the east of Beijing, has become a model for other organic farms. It is run by Chen Lijian, who grew up in the United States and came back just a few years ago. For an annual fee, Chen provides 20 families with organic vegetables each week.
"We don't use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or growth hormones," he explains. "We have done tests on the soil and water. And we have our own cows so that we can make our own fertilizer."
For the middle-class and elites only
Another farm in the west of China's capital city provides farmland to 270 families so that they can grow crops in accord with strict organic guidelines.
For now, only the well-to-do middle class can afford to participate in such projects.
According to reports in the Chinese media, the country's political elite also has access to safe fruit and vegetables, which is grown in secret farms that are strictly regulated and, it goes without saying, organic.
Regular citizens can only buy their food in supermarkets or on market stalls where the next food scandal awaits.
Author: Ruth Kirchner / sb
Editor: Anne Thomas