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« The Heart of the Food Crisis - Inequity | Main | Food security in Africa: U.S. support falls short, new report »

June 01, 2008

When the Going Gets Tough...

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China through June 14.

One of the big questions surrounding organic agriculture, wherever it is being discussed, is authenticity. And the farther away the food is coming from, the more questions are going to be raised. So who do we trust and how do we verify? There are clearly very different opinions, and some institutional tensions, even among the outwardly friendly participants at BioFach - the major organic conference I am attending in China.

Organic_milkThe exhibition and conference are organized by a German company, NürnbergMesse, and the focus of much of the discussion is on exporting organics to Europe. But as I mentioned yesterday, more and more Chinese products are being turned away by EU customs inspectors. To turn this situation around and increase trust in Chinese products, Mr. Chuk Ng of Naturz Organics urged producers to pay more attention to farm management and exporters to improve transparency along the whole supply chain. 

A senior official from the China Organic Food Certification Center (COFCC) had a different idea. He suggested to the audience that China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) should negotiate as a trading bloc to force Europe to recognize national standards in Asia as equivalent to EU organic standards. (I couldn’t help but think of a saying my friend Tom Nelson has painted on the wall of his bar in La Pointe, Wisconsin: “When the Going Gets Tough, Lower Your Standards!”) The mood was not improved by the next speaker, a German trade lawyer who explained in painstaking detail a set of new EU regulations (EC no. 83412007) that are likely to add more layers of cost and complexity to the export process.

But not all of the tension was between the Chinese and Europeans. Within China there is also continuing friction between the competing centers of organic certification, the Environment Ministry’s Organic Food Development Center (OFDC) and COFCC, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture. In the simplest terms, OFDC’s starting point is food safety and environmental health, whereas COFCC’s focus is on “scaling up” and promoting exports. In his remarks at the workshop, Dr. Li Xianjuan of COFCC stressed the fact that they are now certifying more enterprises than any other agency, and barely mentioned OFDC, which is affiliated with IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Movements) and has a better reputation internationally.

Biofach_confYu Kaijing of the OFDC then gave a talk entitled, “The Validity of Organic Certification in China,” in which he repeatedly charged that “the economic interests of some certifying bodies” are in conflict with their mission, which should be promoting ecological agriculture and food safety. And while he didn't actually nod toward the COFCC guys and waggle his eyebrows up and down, it was pretty clear who he had in mind.

Jim Harkness

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