Growing your own food: Chinese consumers’ response to food safety issues

Numerous food safety problems that have occurred and stubbornly re-occurred in China during the past few years. The loss of confidence in the domestic food industry has triggered a number of responses among Chinese consumers. One is growing your own food at home, on your roof or balcony, another is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Dispossessed farmers

Before moving to the real CSA, I need to introduced a typical Chinese problem: the issue of dispossessed farmers, i.e. farmers whose land has been repossessed for urban expansion. On the financial side, those farmers are usually well compensated. They are offered modern apartments to live in and allocated jobs that do not require (intensive) educations, like: janitors, cleaners, security guards, etc. However, having been weaned with agriculture, most of the dispossessed farmers long develop nostalgic thoughts about their previous lives. Some of them engage in illegal intra-urban farming, using decorative urban greenery to grow vegetables or even raise small animals like chickens. The number of dispossessed farmers is growing with 2.5 – 3 mln per year. Their number for 2017 is estimated at 70 mln. This type of urban farming is still regarded as illegal in China, but there are considerable regional differences in the extent to which it is tolerated. If used well, these people can become a genuine human resource, a driving force behind Chinese urban agriculture.


Balcony farmers are taking root

With growing wealth, concerns about food safety and the fever for online shopping, more urbanites are taking to farming on their own terms. Zheng Jinran reports in Beijing.

The perfect storm of two major trends in China – online shopping and growing concerns about food safety – has given birth to a generation of urban farmers.

More urban residents, many of whom are young people between the ages of 25 to 35 living in metropolises such as Beijing, are growing vegetables and herbs on their balconies or rented farmland in the suburbs, and turning to Taobao, a major online shopping service provider in China, to start their apartment gardens. Online searches for vegetable seeds at Taobao has increased by 280% over the past year, according to the company.


“That means, every day, more than 6000 people went to online shops at Taobao expecting to buy seeds and tools that can convert their balconies into a small vegetable garden,” says Lu Qi, a public relations officer from Taobao.

Xue Ling, 26, has been planting vegetables on the balcony of her apartment in Jinan, capital of Shandong province, since 2010. “It’s the only way to keep my food, at least the vegetables, clean and safe,” she says.

“Then I found out that many of my friends have realized the importance of eating vegetables. They have been busy planting this year and asked for my help to get tools for them,” says Xue, who opened a shop for vegetable seeds in April because of the demand. “The sales in my shop are much higher than I expected. More than 2000 bags of seeds have been sold since then,” she says. “They plant vegetables not to save money but to guarantee food safety,” Lu says.

A number of food scandals have rocked the nation in recent years, including the discovery that cucumbers were found with contraceptives and another incident where leeks were found filled with toxic pesticides. The latest crop to join the list of tainted foods is the Yantai apple, which were found wrapped in paper bags containing chemicals.

Xu Jian, 36, an urban farmer in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, spent about RMB 1000 in seeds and organic fertilizer on farmland he rented. He paid RMB 3560 to rent the 30-square-meter farmland for two years. But the move did not come without its consequences: His mother moved out of their hometown to help him plant the vegetables.

“Planting vegetables by myself may cost more money than buying them from the market and they might consume extra energy. But the risk of having polluted food is everywhere. I don’t want my 3-year-old daughter to suffer from any of it. It is great fun to plant in the farmland and share the spoils with my colleagues,” he says, adding that every weekend his family drives to the farmland.

Taobao has taken notice of the demand for vegetables. In addition to selling seeds and tools for urban farmers, the major online shopping provider has begun selling fresh vegetables and other organic food like rice on an independent website called as of early June.

“About 1000 farms and companies want to join and provide their organic products on this new platform,” Lu says. “But these green products such as fresh vegetables have special requirement in packaging and transporting, so the sales are not large.”

For those urbanites who crave a bigger plot to grow their crops, the website has a bigger plan: Offering farmland for its users to rent. The option should be available in June.

Taobao will soon release rules to regulate land owners and tenants. The website will also soon provide a platform where plots on a farm will be offered for rent.

“But in the initial state, only residents in Hangzhou and Shanghai can enjoy this new service,” Lu says, adding that it could possibly expand to cover all cities in China in the near future.

“More cities will see the free and convenient exchange of extra vegetables or other agricultural products,” he says. “But there are many problems in achieving this goal, including the packaging and we don’t know when it will come to fruition.” Xu’s contract for the farmland he rents will end in December.

“I’ll still rent some land to plant vegetables, but maybe this time I’ll try to do it through the website. I hope it will work to offer me and more people with appropriate land options,” he says.


COVID-19 as a strong stimulus for balcony farming


It does not come as a surprise that COVID-19 has been  a great stimulus for home farming. In the first quarter of 2022, sales of vegetable seeds on Tmall doubled compared with the same period of 2021, according to a report on balcony gardening released by Alibaba.

Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangdong province’s Dongguan are among the top five cities for urban vegetable growers, who are mainly in their 20s and 30s. Coriander, chives, chili peppers and tomatoes are the most popular choices, it added. Lu Zhipeng, who heads Tmall’s flower department, said balcony gardening is now worth tens of billions of RMB. Enthusiasts can go the traditional route of planting seeds with soil and fertilizers, while others opt for automated growing machines. Zhao Haiping, owner of a Tmall seed store, mainly sells fruit and vegetable seeds from Shouguang, Shandong province. Sweet corn and Japanese pumpkin seeds are his bestsellers.

Han Yijun, director of the National Agriculture Research Centre at China Agricultural University, said he used to grow watermelons and scallions on his balcony. However, growing vegetables in balcony gardens is more than just an accomplishment, Han said. It is becoming a lifestyle trend, and one that requires suitable equipment that is easy to use. Zhang Min, who is in her 20s, said she has harvested small tomatoes three times from her balcony garden in Beijing. Red peppers and coriander are regulars in her garden, and she adds them to her dishes when cooking.

Qin Huai, owner of Marseed an online seller of seeds, said most seed orders his store receives are from urban communities. Buyers are usually young mothers or white-collar workers. “Customers prefer leafy vegetables and seeds that produce red fruit,” he said. The hobby also has great social value. “We set up a group chat where growers can share their fruit and suggestions,” Qin said. “A boy from Suzhou, Jiangsu province, shared photos of about 1,500 red fruits produced from the small tomato seed he planted on his balcony.” The Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences has been testing 40 tomato and 30 chili pepper varieties that are sold by Marseed. Twenty varieties sold by the store this spring were developed by the academy.

Container dweller

In the summer of 2014 Niu Jian and his family moved from the bustling Beijing district of Haidian to the village of Niuhe in Shunyi, a suburban district. Their new home consists of a single-storey arrangement of six 20-foot shipping containers. A 600 watt solar panel hangs on one wall and 300 watt wind turbine spins on the roof.
Niu had the containers made to order, with doors and windows, a power supply and insulation. The 150 square metre space cost him about RMB 300,000 to have built and fitted out and he describes this as a laboratory for sustainable living. Asked why he wanted to spend so much money for a tougher life on the outskirts of Beijing, Niu explains that he wants to spread the idea of a ‘shared community’ – people who want to find a more sustainable life in the smog ridden city.
Niu’s plans started in 2009. As a gardening technician, he advocated the use of vertical greenery and balcony gardens for years and had a real love for plants and greenery. But he found people in Beijing weren’t as keen as he’d hoped, and this led him to re-examine the way people live in cities.
During 2015 this sustainable living laboratory will hold a series of workshops designed to allow participants to experience communal living. People who share the projects values, and have the necessary time and money, will be selected to invest in building small “sharing communities”.

Following nature’s lead on food

No tomatoes in winter. No oolong tea after Tomb Sweeping Day. Do not treat meat as an everyday staple. The initial impression is that she keeps to the stringent regime of a sustainable lifestyle, but Shi Yan says it’s all totally natural – if you live on a farm.

She is probably the best-known advocate of community-supported agriculture in this country, and she is totally committed.

“If you live and feed on the farm, you have more vegetables and grains. And you can only kill a pig once in a while. It cuts down the consumption of meat.”

As for the tea, she says oolong tea before Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day) is better because pesticides are rarely necessary then.

“Whatever nature dictates, it’s often the best,” the 30-year-old post-doctorate graduates says. She calls herself a “new farmer” and has been preaching the cause for many years in her slow, calm, measured tones.

Shi is on the sustainability lecture circuit, often appearing in a simple linen shift with her hair tied up in a ponytail and wearing sandals that had just trudged through the farm fields. She has been doing this since she came back from six months’ of hard labor on the Earthrise Farm in Minnesota in 2008.

“Once you build up an intimate relation with the land, life is different,” says the city-bred agriculture scientist from Baoding, Hebei province. It was the hands-on experience from dawn to dusk that taught her the CSA concept from the ground. She wrote a book on her return and quickly became a champion of the movement.

Her first project, initiated with her heavyweight graduate program supervisor Wen Tiejun from Renmin University of China, is Dondon Farm in western Beijing. It made its name as a rented plot of land that hires farmers and promises clean, natural produce for customers who order and pay in advance.

It was a success, although the founder says with all modesty “it was because we broke the ground at the right moment, when concern for food safety was extremely high.”

The farm is still thriving after three years but Shi wanted to address the bigger issue – the sustainability of the rural community “where we are determined to live”.

As head of the year-old CSA model farm, Shared Harvest, she recruits land-owning farmers who are willing to work on the land themselves. Shi monitors the farming process, markets the produce to customers who are willing to pay for their vegetables in advance, and shows them around when they visit.

“Having another stakeholder means more transparency, customers can get what they want to know not only from us, but also from different farmers,” she says, “and if there are disagreements, all the better.

“It is the farmers who benefit from the model more than anyone else. Farming should be rewarding enough to let them stay on the land.”

For now, Shared Harvest makes RMB 0.45 for every 500 grams of vegetables sold. It has already cleared the red, and even projects a sizable profit at the end of 2013, when the number of members will exceed 600.

Her hope is that these members will care enough about what they eat to come down to the farms more often and take part in the whole process.

To encourage them, Shi tirelessly updates progress on the plots and posts reports online on her various social network accounts, sharing everything from pop quizzes on botany to the farms’ daily delights and woes to quotes from Mother Teresa.

“They ask me why my photos always look so good. I tell them the photos show the love of the photographer,” she says as she carefully packs bunches of kale into delivery boxes. This is all part of her routine, and she attends to it with the eye of a committed lover.

She highlights the beauty of deformed tomatoes and crooked cucumbers with a dash of humor, arranging them into heart and swan shapes that are posted online with a poetic line or two. That’s attracted about 30,000 fans to her weibo account.

It’s part of her larger plan to educate consumers: That perfect-looking vegetables may not be safe, and that buying from your neighborhood farmer reduces “food miles” and carbon emission. Yolanda, an expectant mother who is a member of Shared Harvest, is definitely a Shi Yan fan.

“Shi has her feet on the ground, but she upholds an ideal at the same time. I admire her for the stamina and her vision for a better future. I trust her. I’ve seen the farm myself and I can let go of all my worries about food,” she says.

Shi current lives, works and has her research base at Mafang village where she has 40 pigs, 2000 chickens, 30 geese and three farms. Her loving husband works with her and more than 20 young colleagues who all affectionately call her “boss”.

“Shi Yan taught me not to lie,” says Chen Li, who is in charge of sales for Shared Harvest. “That’s almost against a salesman’s instinct. But honesty is the core of our business.”

Chen joined the enterprise a year ago because he believed Shi’s initiative is “small and beautiful”, and that “it could only be done by someone who is adamant and innocent at the same time”.

“I marvel at how people are willing to help her because she’s so trustworthy,” he says.


People power

Farmers supported by their communities may be the answer to China’s concern over food safety, efficient land use and the unbalanced distribution of rural-urban demographics. Sun Ye goes out into the countryside to find out if this model will work for the country.

The physical manifestation of the trend is a box of vegetables that appears on the doorstep every week, filled with seasonal produce with an occasional wormhole, but is still warmly welcomed. It is also the chance to meet and get to know the farmer who supplies the box, and the opportunity to bring the children down to the farm to take part in the sowing and the harvesting.

It is the building of a community, one that is prepared to pay a premium up ahead for the assurance that vegetables on the table are grown according to safe practices, are sustainable, seasonal and as far as possible, free from an overload of pesticides. It is a chance to meet and meld with other members of the community who have the same passion and beliefs.

This is what CSA looks like in China, for now. But looking beyond the summer tomatoes and winter cabbages that are purchased even before they are sown, CSA is a new concept that goes against the traditional, or is a return to old systems – depending on how you look at it.

More importantly, it is a trend triggered by rampant food-safety problems thrown up in attempts to adequately feed a growing country of 1.35 billion. Huge waves of urban migration are yet another problem as the younger generations abandon the hard and thankless efforts of cultivation in their villages and head out to the bright lights.

CSA encourages young farmers to go back to the land, and offers them a business model that gives them insurance against fluctuating prices brought on by inclement weather, unpredictable harvests and natural disasters.

CSA involves the communities around the farms, and is a model that has worked with varying success in North America, Australia and New Zealand. In China, CSA is only at its juvenile stages, and it may grow up to be a very different child.

Shared Harvest in suburban Beijing takes its name from a CSA guidebook. It has also become living proof for this farming model since its inception in mid-2012. It is a cooperative that supplies more than 400 members with weekly boxes of green vegetables – all of which have been paid for upfront.

This new initiative has also helped its farmers, by educating them on agricultural methods that are sustainable, with an emphasis on the long-term rather than short-term bounties. For example, the farmers would probably not have given up the use of pesticides on their own.

“It’s simply scary,” says Liu Xiancang, the director of the Liu village co-op that’s responsible for supplying the vegetables that get sent out to Shared Harvest members.

Harvesting the homegrown

City folks are just as concerned about the food they put in their mouths, often more so than rural residents. That’s why many are turning to their tiny balconies for sustenance. Eric Jou reports on a growing trend.

Imagine growing organic lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers all without pesticides and chemicals. Then imagine being able to harvest such vegetables without even leaving home or changing out of your pajamas to go to market. That is the promise of urban farming, of growing fresh produce in limited spaces.

As more and more people migrate from rural China to the cities, many of them wind up living in cities such as Beijing. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, more than 163.36 million people moved from their hometowns to other locations to work in 2012. Such transient psychographics can be both a blessing and a curse, particularly when it comes to food. Urbanites are eager for opportunities to reconnect to nature. And they face many challenges of time and space.

Urban farming is basically about growing produce and food in an environment with limited space, and it is slowly gaining popularity in Chinese cities.

Dannan Hodge, co-founder of urban farming company High Rise Homestead in Beijing, says it is a popular concept with a lot of benefits.

“You know what’s going on with your food, there are no pesticides or herbicides – nothing that will negatively affect your health,” says Hodge. “A lot of farmers who do traditional farming have vegetables they grow for sale and vegetables they grow for their own consumption. They grow them differently because they know the chemicals they use are hazardous.”

High Rise Homestead works to help Beijing residents to “grow their own” at home. They supply products such as frames that train plants to grow upward, kits for growing produce on inclined surfaces and vertically stacked planters. Windowsills and balcony gardens are all in the picture.

Hodge says the most popular plantings on balconies are vegetables because they’re simple to grow, even strawberries, cherry tomatoes and gourds.

“It really does inspire people to eat healthy – you can’t grow a bag of chips,” she says. People – especially children – get excited to see their own food grow, food that they planted and will harvest themselves.

“There is also a health benefit where people are inspired to become more conscious consumers,” she says. High Rise Homestead is working to cut down the supply chain by sourcing materials locally.

Elizabeth Jane Ashforth says the idea of growing food indoors is great. Ashforth is a doctor of marine biology who tried to build her own sustainable system within her apartment in Beijing, and she says growing food indoors can create wonders.

“People in general have lost a connection to where their food comes from and how difficult it is to grow actually,” says Ashforth. “Doing something like this adds a bit of greenery to your home, it just makes you feel connected to the environment and that can only be a good thing.”

American Tim Quijano has recently started giving DIY lessons on setting up aquaponic ecosystems.

Aquaponics is similar to a hydroponic setup where plants are grown in water, except aquaponics introduces fish into the equation.

A simple aquaponics setup involves a fish tank with possibly edible fish, a water pump, a second layer above the tank where the plants are grown and a light source. The fish eat and create waste and the pump siphons the water to the upper layer to fertilize and water the plants. The water then drains back into the lower tank. According to Quijano, some aquaponics setups can support edible fish such as tilapia.

A fellow with the Princeton in Asia organization, Quijano says his main passion is working on environmental issues. Quijano started working on aquaponics during a move from one apartment to another.

“What got me started was that I had this fish tank in my apartment that I moved into this year and I thought how I could do something fun with this,” says Quijano.

“I like having new projects and learning new things. It just hit me one night that I could learn something about aquaponics,” adding that he’s spent “many hours on Youtube researching growing my own food”.

China has a rich history and culture of being self-reliant when it comes to food, says Quijano. Pointing out recent food safety scares and the migration of workers from the countryside to the cities, Quijano says that there is a wealth of agriculture knowledge in Chinese cities.

“I live in a large apartment complex and the grannies that are there, they have set up little makeshift greenhouses with a stick of bamboo and a tarp. There’s so much knowledge and there’s such an appreciation for it.”

Aquaponics newbie Andrew Morrissey attended one of Quijano’s workshops on a whim after seeing an online posting about it.

“I came to see what it was about and whether I could do it at home and grow some tomatoes for the family and make me more useful,” says Morrissey,

“I don’t know about farming but I am never going out and buying vegetables again but if I can get something going and it works. If it can get bigger over time with a bit of experimenting it can be a lot of fun. Maybe I can get some edible fish. It would make the wife very happy.”

Nanjing – an other city

Much of the above refers to Beijing with its high concentration of well educated people and expat inhabitants with a liking for home-grown foods. Nanjing, that has been the capital of China for while, gives in insight in how slighly smaller big cities are doing in this respect.

Nanjing’s urban centre has very little land suitable for urban agriculture. However, there are various attempts at growing food around residential buildings, especially in tiny front yards and on unused land. Balcony and rooftop gardening is found on a few buildings. Nanjing residents seem to use every available square inch in their communities to grow food. Even the narrow riverbanks of the Qinhuan River are planted.

It is common for property management companies in charge of landscaping to forbid residents to grow food in the community. They argue that growing food would destroy the ornamental landscaping and the manure or fertilizer would cause an unpleasant smell. Still, Nanjing residents too say to grow vegetables because they believe vegetables from the market are contaminated with chemicals. Look at these pictures of food growing in a front yard and water spinach the curb of a road.


Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.


4 thoughts on “Growing your own food: Chinese consumers’ response to food safety issues

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