The absolute last interview I did in China convinced me: The country has a burgeoning locavore movement, complete with farm-to-table fast(ish) food and home delivery of small-farm produce.
But here’s the Chinese tweak: While Chinese locavores may share an ethos with their American counterparts, at least 72 percent of Chinese fear that their food is unsafe. And no wonder. The system has been rocked by scandals like toxic melamine in milk and infant formula, heavy metals like cadmium in rice, watermelons exploding from growth hormone, and store owners selling meat soaked in bleach.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that those scandals have in part led to an organic industry in China. And while I was surprised to find a diffuse grassroots response to food worries, I was even more surprised by how much it reminded me of the local and sustainable food efforts in the U.S.
Here are four examples of what the Chinese locavore trend looks like—through American eyes:
1. Stuffed-Bun Demos at Urban Farms
The Knowledge and Innovation Community Farm is a brand-new urban farm in Shanghai. To be fair, rural migrants have been growing food in China’s cities for as long as they’ve been coming. But this setup—a set of shiny, royal blue shipping containers with sleek wood-and-white interiors—was as sleek as anything you’ll find in Brooklyn or San Francisco.
The farm has a handful of plots for local residents to rent and grow their own vegetables, and on most Saturdays, the space hosts a lively farmers market. When we were there, the farm was preparing for a public lecture.
While volunteers and staff waited for crowds to arrive, Cao Hai Qin, a housewife turned businesswoman, set up shop. She was selling freshly made moon cakes, filled with vegetables she’d bought from Rosa Grange, a small local farm she had come to know through the farmers market. Cao sells other food she makes through a “microstore” on WeChat, a social media platform. She told me she only buys food from farmers she knows and cooks nearly everything herself; food safety is “a big concern,” she said through a translator, and one of the main reasons she took the trouble to shop and cook that way.
Today, Cao was doing a cooking demonstration with baozi, or stuffed buns. She’d made the dough herself, and the filling was a mix of purslane and pork she’d also bought from small farmers she knew.
Neither effort, she said, brings in much money, but that was OK with her. (Her husband earns enough to support their family.) “You definitely cannot live on this,” she said, ”but we want more people to get this idea of living in a healthy way.”
2. Fresh Direct for Small Farms
Once you start looking into local agriculture in China, it’s hard to miss the wave of trendy urban startups aimed at customers who are looking for healthy, clean food.
While that may sound like the American locavore’s credo, it’s motivated by something different, said Matilda Ho. She’s the founder of Yimishiji, an “online farmers market” that only sells food that it can guarantee has been grown without pesticides and chemicals. To get that guarantee, says Ho, the company sends out staff and a journalist to vet farms, and sends vegetables to labs to test for the presence of chemicals.
Only a year old, the company is already hoping to expand into private label products, including some pre-made foods, said Ho. And her stock and trade is a Chinese consumer who’s considering health and the environment when making food choices.
“The purpose of food is evolutionary,” she said, sketching out a four-step staircase. “You need to make sure all your family is full, and after you pass that stage ... you start to care about whether you can eat safely. Then you start to think about how to eat healthy, and then lastly is the conscious eating.” Yimishiji, she said, operates in the overlap between steps three and four.
While Yimishiji is particularly Western-media-friendly—Ho’s English is impeccable, she has a lively Twitter feed, and she’s immersed enough in Western culture that she attended Burning Man this year—I ran across a range of similar food services. Several households I spoke with (including the baozi maven, Cao) use a service called Black Cat Cold Delivery, placing orders with farms just outside the city limits and getting a delivery of fresh produce the next day. The owner of another small farm I visited, San Fen Di farm, used Black Cat to deliver to his Shanghai clients. And other online services, like Taobao.com (something of a Chinese parallel to Ebay) and Alibaba (the Chinese counterpart to Amazon) are figuring out how to sell the wares of small growers too.
3. Professionals Trading Cubicles for Farm Fields
I’d heard peripheral accounts of a rising “back to the land” movement in China, but I was pretty skeptical before I visited a modest farm just outside of Beijing.
I came to it by chance: On a domestic flight the week before, my seatmate struck up a conversation with me in English and, when he heard I was reporting about food, told me he and his wife had previously rented a plot outside of Beijing to grow their own vegetables. And a friend of his, Zhengchao Jiang, was now running the same kind of farm.
Intrigued, we made his friend’s farm our first stop after landing in Beijing. Jiang told us he was raised by farmers in Gansu, a rural province in the west, and then attended college to learn social work. But he missed being outside, and realized that he—and, importantly, his professional friends—were increasingly worried about food safety and quality. So he uprooted his life and rented an expanse of greenhouses north of Beijing.
Here’s his business model: Some of the land is rented out to urban dwellers who come in and tend plots on their own time. Other plots are rented to specific families, but Jiang tends them for a fee. To give himself some security, he does grow some conventional produce for wholesale markets. But, increasingly, he grows food without chemicals and delivers the produce once weekly to Beijing dwellers, offering a box with ten items. The week we visited, he included fresh peanuts, eggplant, black-eyed peas, plums, cucumber and cabbage, among others—all grown, he said, without synthetic chemicals.
“What I’m doing now is also part of the consumer education,” said Jiang, in hopes of encouraging people to buy food that might not be as pretty but would taste better. When people come to the farm, he said, “they can see the plants without fertilizer, and also they can look here [at plants grown with fertilizer], so they can have a clear idea of the difference.”
4. CSAs and Organics Get Exhausting There Too
I talked to a few moms about how they shopped too. One, Zihao Bin Yan—a charming mother of two who also went by “Rebecca,” made us dumplings from scratch, and took us on a 9 p.m. stroll to a neighborhood meat market that just happened to also make its own yogurt—was a passionate devotee of Jiang’s farm in Beijing.
But it was really Chen Li—she prefers “Anthea” in English—the wife of the man I met on the plane, who shifted my thinking. She and her husband had become even more concerned about the safety of their food when they became parents, she said. They had been going every week to the farmers market, following it around as it changed locations. Then they tried growing their own food.
And then something happened that changed it all: A high-end grocer opened up across the street from the apartment complex in which they lived. It’s called World Good Food Market, and the closest approximation I can give you is that it was like a Whole Foods—if Whole Foods shrank the dry goods section to just three short aisles. Brightly lit and clean, it offered a giant expanse of fresh food—all of it marketed, in some way, as organic or harmless or green.
This was important to Anthea, whose household income put them well into the higher end of China’s affluent class. The difference in price for shopping at World Good Food instead of at Walmart, where she used to shop if she didn’t go to the farmers market, is significant: 30-50 percent, according to Anthea.
“The quality is better,” she said. And then she went on to observe something that I’ve heard time and again from frazzled parents in the U.S. trying to navigate our food system here. “I’m not a strong believer of organic food,’ she said. “As long as its planted in a safe way and it’s not, you know, overdone with pesticides, I’m fine with that.
Tracie McMillan has been traveling through China on assignment for National Geographic and sent us her observations on food and culture along the way. You can read other installments of her first-person "Eating China" series here, here, and here.