This story is doesn’t mention tea, but it is still meaningful in relationship to Chinese organic tea. We completely believe that future for farmers worldwide is organic farming and a return outside of China to the small highly skilled farmer, growing organic crops. There are many layers of irony here. As Americans, few of us currently are aware that the organic movement in the US started because we had depleted our soils with large commodity crops. At that time in the early Twentieth Century, we turned to the Chinese farmer to teach us crop rotation and the production of organic fertilizers to replenish the mineral stripped soil, that had once been the richest soil on earth. Of course, before the rise of the great chemical companies like Dow, Dupont, and Monsanto, all farming was organic, and the Chinese had been reusing the same soil for thousands of years.
I’ve been reading lately on line that Chinese organics are a sham and should not be trusted. The folks that are saying that do not fully understand the issue, and in fact are making it more unlikely that the organic movement inside of China will succeed. The problem is certainly not with the producers but with the people in the middle. Part of the blame also is the focus in the market on price over quality. There is also a lot of deception that happens in the tea industry, in fact it is tradition. That doesn’t mean that there are not a lot of Chinese producers that are struggling to survive as organic tea producers. Like all farmers they are interested in preserving the earthen treasure that provides them with a living.
The Chinese government has been very supportive of organics. One of the reasons for joining the WTO was to open the door for Chinese farms to sell organic products in international markets. It seemed like the perfect solution to help the struggling countryside, and a natural extension of the small, labor intensive agriculture that is the norm in China. The Chinese even established an organic certification based on European standards. Their organic certification standards are much tougher than ours.
When I first started doing my tea research inside China in the 1990’s there were no internationally certified organic producers in the whole country. That doesn’t mean that there were not plenty of producers making organic tea, but no one was certified. When I incorporated years later in 2002, there were five, all in Zhejiang province, and all producing green tea. The early organic certifications came from IMO in Switzerland, the support for that market primarily being Germany. Japanese certifications started to pop here and there, and before to long the USDA crept in. All of the inspections were conducted by the IMO organization to the specifics of the various certifications. They had a small office in Nanjing, and they did all of the inspections in all of China for the international certifications. These certifications did not come cheap, and there were three that had to be attained, one for farming, one for production, and one for packaging.
Where would that money for the certifications come from. It would come from a big Chinese trading company, with promises and equipment from Japan.
This story will be continued next time. I will talk about Chinese trading companies, the evolution of the organic market in China, and the introduction of Japanese tea making machinery, the Japanese market, and betrayal of Chinese producers by the Japanese. Stay tuned and we will strip away some layers of deception.