Science, Tech & Environment

Fake organic foods proliferate from China

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(Image by Wikimedia user Gonzalo Rivero (cc:by-sa))

This story was originally reported by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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The organic label is meant to signify that a food is relatively environmentally friendly: Organic producers are forbidden from using many synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. When that organic food comes from China, however, that label may not mean much.

"When I see organic food from China, I question," environmental journalist Michael Pollan told PRI's The World, "how organic is it?" Organics are a $26 billion industry in the United States, and an increasing amount of that is coming from China. Pollan points out, "organic is a very big global business now. People don’t realize it."

"In 2006 alone, China added a staggering 12 percent to the world’s organically farmed land," Global Post reports. With the market growing that quickly, regulations are lax at best. A Chinese grocery chain owner who spoke with Global Post estimated that "maybe 30 percent of farms that put the organic label on their food produce the real thing."

"I think in the future the government will improve testing," the grocery store owner told Global Post. "But now, hygiene officers have so much work to do with essential food safety that they don't worry about organic."

Pollan told The World about one of his journalism students who uncovered fraudulently labeled organic foods in China. The student spoke with one ostensibly organic farmer who "essentially thought it was a word that was very popular with Americans, as indeed it is."

Most of the time, however, the organic label is still a worthwhile investment, according to Pollan. "Most of the farmers growing organic are very serious about their commitment."

But even if organic labeling were perfect, Pollan believes that consumers have to consider more than just whether it's organic or not. Even if a head of garlic is organic, for example, importing it from China carries an enormous environmental footprint. Consumers should look beyond the label and consider the real environmental cost of their foods.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."

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