You’ve got to hand it to China. It did more to promote buying locally than any other country in 2007.
Not intentionally, of course. But a series of scandals over toxins and screw-ups in exported pet food, toothpaste, fish, diet pills and car tires got consumers everywhere hankering for local and trustworthy producers.
In Canada, where Chinese food imports are second only to American, three-quarters of people polled are open to paying more for local products they can feel sure about.
The importation of cheap stuff that doesn’t have to be imported (a minority of world trade is in products that are only grown or made in one place) is wearing out its welcome.
But China’s savvy exporters have inserted themselves into the world food economy in such a way that buying local things people feel sure about is no longer a sure thing. Buying local food is increasingly like buying a local car assembled from foreign-produced parts.
Indeed (sorry if this news is getting to you late or if you thought the electorate should have had a say about this), world food is catching up fast with the globally produced car pioneered during the 1980s.
This progress in better living through food biochemistry might be labelled the “food and Twink industry” in honour of Twinkies, the 39-ingredient icon of good taste that includes, according to Twinkie, Deconstructed author Steve Ettlinger, petroleum from China.
China’s exporters are not selling Chinese delicacies, bok choy or other staples from the healthy Chinese diet to the world. They sell ingredients that can be assembled into other products, such as honey and dried berries that can be packed in North American breakfast cereals.
Most of these final products will be labelled “local” because their packing and packaging costs as much as their ingredients. Odd as it may seem, tracking ingredients as organic is less complicated than tracking their country of origin.
Right now, China dominates the market in a series of ingredients – or, more metaphorically, inputs. It controls vitamins B and C (a preservative as well as nutrient fortifier) and is positioned to expand to other diet supplements.
It controls apples, apple juice, vanilla, cinnamon, honey, garlic, xanthum gum, organic frozen broccoli, farmed fish and, increasingly, processed fish. Watch for chicken on the expansion list.
Ironically, the Chinese food export strategy works because it accepts the fundamental reorganization of the world food system and pushes it to an absurd conclusion.
In organic broccoli, for example, they’ve chosen a crop that’s labour-intensive and a strain on European and North American pay rates.
In aquaculture, they’ve chosen a field in which they have a few millennia of experience and that European and North American environmentalists feel queasy about.
They may also have figured out the labelling game. Readying crab and salmon for prepared and multi-ingredient meals, for instance, is labour-intensive work. Salmon have 36 pin bones best handled by hand, not machine, and crabmeat is best removed by pincers, a hand tool. So when salmon and crabs are caught off the Pacific coast of North America, they’re cooled and shipped to China, hand-processed and sent back.
Since no one’s counting the energy invested in shipping and cooling, what’s the problem, especially since the product will still be labelled local, and even wild?
A similar approach works with apples. The Chinese are silent partners in this area as well, focusing on the juice industry, which traditionally relies on fruit that isn’t perfect for display in the produce section.
As Chinese apples displace those from the West Coast through a price war, Indian investigative food reporter Devinder Sharma has shown, West Coast growers sell off cheap to India, throwing Indian apple growers into bankruptcy until they, too, can find a place to dump their crops. As with fish, this is a useless way of burning a lot of fuel moving food back and forth.
Finally, Chinese exporters seem to have a sound understanding of how carefully food imports are inspected in North America. In the U.S., FDA inspectors sampled 20,000 shipments from China in 2006, down from the number sampled three years earlier. Food and Water Watch in the U.S. tracked the decline in the rate of direct fish inspections from 0.88 per cent in 2003 to 0.59 in 2003.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspects less than 10 per cent of foods that are deemed low-risk, such as produce. Ironically, once Chinese food has been cleared by Canada Customs, it can be sold anywhere, including supermarkets and restaurants, unlike food grown in Canada that has been inspected provincially.
No inspectors check for the impact – readily acknowledged in Chinese academic literature – of contamination of grains, fruit and vegetables from air and water pollution, particularly cadmium, copper and lead. Residual pollutants in our food aren’t the same as the toxic dog food additives that got people upset, but they’re just as deadly.
The rise of Chinese food exports is part of a food system that depends on cheapness due to low labour costs and substitutes anonymous inputs in processed meals. Anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution about going local food will have to contend with all this.