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Get up close and personal with food
By Zhang Qian

INCREASING concern over food safety is attracting more people to organically produced food, and new farmer's markets let shoppers meet local growers to find out where every egg, sprout and apple comes from.

At one market at M-Town Mall last Saturday, visitors thronged around a dozen stalls selling local, seasonal organic food, including vegetables, fruit, eggs and rice.

Free brochures explained exactly how food is grown and produced organically and sustainably. A chef and nutritionist demonstrated healthy cooking with local ingredients.

Most of the food comes from small farms in Pudong New Area and on Chongming Island (County). They are either certified "organic," a costly process, or they strictly adhere to principles of organic farming.

"As you can see, the eggs here are of different shapes and different colors, rather than the identical eggs normally seen at vegetable markets," said Chen Yanhua, the owner of Tian'ai Farm in Chongming.

"The egg color is determined by what the chicken eats and we give chickens freedom to choose what to eat, from what we provide, as they walk around. So they lay different eggs on different days."

This farmer's market is organized by GoodtoChina, a local NGO that encourages sustainable, eco-cycle farming and lifestyle. The first market was held in March and the aim is to hold one twice a month. The NGO so far has around 20 member organic farmers.

"They are not just planting vegetables without using chemicals, but also being responsible farmers and not harming the land, rivers and people as well," says Susan Evans, founder of GoodtoChina.

Unlike most produce markets, this one includes the farmers themselves, like Chen, who tell the story behind every product.

Rich variety

Jane Tsao of the Bio Farm at Chuansha in Pudong New Area describes a rich variety of produce, more than 300 kinds of fruits and vegetables grown annually on 200 mu (13 hectares) of land.

"Though we don't have huge annual output, we have a lot of variety," she says. "As for tomatoes alone, we have 17 different kinds. Isn't it exciting to taste tomatoes in 17 different flavors?"

Six-year-old Daisy Jiang had a great time at the market since she saw a chicken flying for the first time - on a cell phone video shown by an organic chicken farm owner. She thought chickens only walked around a bit and sat down laying eggs.

"They told me their chickens fly onto their roosting shelves when the sun sets. My mom promised me a visit to that farm someday," the girl says.

Organic farming and markets are nothing new to Westerners, and they are being more familiar and desirable to Chinese who want to pursue a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, especially in Shanghai.

Evans from GoodtoChina says that in one of their surveys, 95 percent of respondents in Shanghai expressed concern over food safety.

"People all over the world have these concerns but here in Shanghai right now the percentage is huge," Evans says. That represents a huge potential market. "Eating organic foods and living healthy is a good choice for them and we are seeing more and more Chinese faces at our markets."

Eating local seasonal organic food - the core of an organic lifestyle - is consistent with health-maintenance principles of traditional Chinese medicine, observes Hu Kenan, the nutritionist at the market.

"It's healthy because it is the most suitable. People in mango-producing areas never get allergic to the local fruit and people don't feel discomfort when eating cold (yin-energy) melons in summer when they mature naturally," says Hu, referring to use of growth hormones. "The universe offers you natural food for a reason."

Modern society has made it more difficult to live naturally and follow ancient health traditions but Chinse people are rediscovering that many of the old ways are better.

All the farmers at this market are pioneers in safe, environmentally friendly farming, in other words, organic farming. Avoiding chemical pesticides, fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics and other elements ensures safe food and land. Creating an eco-cycle within the farm is the core of this approach. Most organic farms raise animals, both for organic composting and manure. Animals also eat some of the organic crops.

Ducks, for example, play a crucial rule in Xingen Farm's rice planting on Chongming Island. Five to seven days after seedlings are transplanted, small ducks are placed into the rice paddies. They eat worms and weeds that hinder rice growing, while their droppings become organic fertilizer for the rice. The ducks' frequent contact with the growing rice improves the plants' resistance against disease, says Hou Xueying, the farm owner.

Low output

Because of its methodology, organic farming is typically high cost and low output. Most farmers at the recent market said their output is very limited and changeable.

The Xingen Farm only produces one rice crop a year; in the rest of the time, the land is planted with soybeans that are plowed under for fertilizer and not grown for sale.

The Tian'ai chicken farm in Chongming grows their own worms, feeding them brown sugar and whole milk powder to ensure safe and natural food for the poultry.

It was started to provide safe eggs and chicken for her own daughter, Tian'ai, who is now seven years old. Most of their customers are new mothers and parents who want to provide safe food for their children.

Most of the farms represented at the market are small, around 100-200 mu, and because they are so small they are not eligible for local government support that only goes to organic farms larger than 1,000 mu, according to Tsao of the Bio Farm.

Although the farms strictly follow organic methods, not all of them have official "organic" certification, which can cost from 20,000 yuan to 50,000 yuan (US$3,257-8,143), according to the farmers.

"It's not easy to do organic farming, it's much easier to use a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for higher yields," says Evans of GoodtoChina. "That's why support is badly needed for these responsible organic farmers."

Since 2009, GoodtoChina has been trying to establish direct connections between farmers and shoppers, building up a customer community to reduce time and costs for advertising, marketing and transport.

At schools and enterprises the NGO also carries out education about organic food and farming, as well as sustainable living.

Tsao of Bio Farm has been taking part in markets since 2006 and considers them win-win.

"For customers, they can be assured of food safety since they can talk directly to growers, while for farmers, like ourselves, it costs much less than getting our products on supermarket shelves," says Tsao.

For more information, check website www.goodtochina.com.

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