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August 04, 2011

Wealthy Chinese begin farming after food-safety scares

by Martin Patience

Juggling their iPhones with spades, a group of young professionals are getting their hands dirty - digging vegetables. During the week, they are teachers, PR consultants, and computer programmers. But at the weekend, these city slickers return to the soil.

"We're worried about food safety," says He Liying, explaining why they grow vegetables.

They toil under the summer sun - not always efficiently - at a co-operative farm called Little Donkey on the outskirts of Beijing. It has about 700 fee-paying members. It is one of dozens of farms which have cropped up across the country catering for China's middle classes, which are increasingly concerned about food safety.

According to state media, the number of consumer complaints over the issue is rising. From glow-in-the dark meat to dye injected into buns to make them look like a more expensive variety, there has been a rash of scandals in recent months.

But the most bizarre case was that of the exploding melons.

Jiang Yan Shi was one of the farmers affected by the problem. It was apparently caused by the overuse of a growth accelerant. But Mr Jiang insists it was something to do with his seeds.

"I was walking in my field when I heard this sound: 'Pah Pah,'" he says, explaining what happened. "All the different pieces flew in different directions."

In total, Mr Jiang says 600 melons were destroyed - a quarter of his crop.

Whether it is exploding melons or pigs pumped full of steroids to produce lean meat, many in China simply do not trust what is put on their dinner tables. This worries the authorities, anxious that people will lose trust in a government if it cannot ensure the safety of what they eat.

That confidence hit rock bottom three years ago when news of China's biggest food-safety scandal broke.

Melamine-tainted baby formula killed at least six children and 300,000 others fell ill. Wang Gang is still living with the consequences. His son - Zi Yuan - developed kidney stones after being fed the baby formula. Mr Wang continues to worry about his Zi Yuan's health. He wants justice for his son.

"I think the government needs to bear responsibility," he says, standing in his kitchen surrounded by papers and packets of baby formula which he has kept for three years. "Our court case keeps getting delayed. I'm boiling with hatred over this but I'm trying to control myself."

The Chinese authorities have enacted stricter policies to ensure food safety. It includes a directive from the Supreme Court calling for the death penalty for cases in which people die as a result of poor food safety.

But regulations are often flouted in China. And with food price inflation rising, some producers will continue to cut corners in order to fatten up the bottom-line.

After a hard day's work, the group of young professionals at the Beijing co-operative farm retired to an upmarket apartment. They cooked a meal using the fresh produce they had harvested.

"It definitely tastes better when you grow it yourself," says one of them.

But they are the lucky few, who have the time - and the money - to produce their own food. Many others have little choice in what they eat.


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