Contradictions in China’s Path to Zero Food Safety Risk: State- and Civil Society-Driven Developments in the Ecological Agriculture Sector

2014, Food Policy 45: 158-166.

Considering certified organic production as ‘zero’ (including the absence of genetically modified seeds and feed, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as inputs), we outline how, since the 1990s, China has developed a unique system of progressively stringent food quality production standards—‘hazard-free’, ‘green food’, and organic—on its purported path to zero ecological impact and zero food safety risk. We describe the structures and institutions that perform these standards and their inclusion in, and impacts on, China’s agricultural sector, which is characterized by a polarization between widespread smallholder production and emerging consolidated entrepreneurial farm enterprises branded as ecological. Based on 95 key informant interviews conducted between 2010 and 2012, we discuss the contradictions within state- and civil society-led paths to zero. We argue that the government’s commitment to ecological agriculture is superficial. Due in part to the context of a state-driven yet market-oriented economy with limited civil society involvement, the system of extensive standards has not been clearly communicated to Chinese consumers. Nor has it garnered public trust in the food system, as evidenced by a rapidly expanding ‘alternative’ food sector, including community supported agriculture (CSA) ventures and home delivery schemes, many of which are based on producers and consumers negotiating trust rather than relying on the quality assurance of certification. But consumers are motivated by seeking zero food safety risk, and show limited concern about environmental protection or farmer livelihoods. Some exceptions are patrons of values-oriented CSAs, farmers’ markets, and buying clubs, which point to interesting trajectories for the future of China’s food system.

Steffanie Scott, Zhenzhong Si, Theresa Schumilas & Aijuan Chen