The modern ethos of innovation and inspiration compels us to look outward in search of the innovative idea of the day, a gripping story, or a leading creative figure. We find ourselves scanning far and wide across the world, often valuing ideas and objects that have traveled great distances simply by virtue of their exoticism. Beijing Farmer’s Market (BFM) flips the script by asking us to look local and inward instead, changing the way we think about that most essential nutrient of culture and the caloric cornerstone of our daily lives — food.
Now one of the most established and longest-running organic farmer’s markets in Beijing, BFM was originally conceived by a small group of artisans concerned about the state of food production in China, which has historically been burdened by food safety concerns and urban-rural inequality. Chang Tianle, director of BFM, previously worked with the Institute of Agricultural Trade Policy, an American organization, where she first began to see the potential for improvements to be made in China’s local food production and distribution channels, transforming social, economic, and environmental conditions.
Beijing Farmer’s Market aims to ‘build new connections (so) that consumers and farmers are not sellers and buyers, but friends.’ Consumers and producers meet face to face at BFM’s three to five monthly markets, keeping both farmers accountable for selling quality products and consumers for supporting quality growers. Consumers are often seen asking growers about their produce and the farming practices they employ.
Buying produce from multiple vendors in an open, market setting is nothing new to anyone who has lived in Beijing. Many people buy from these ‘wet’ markets, as opposed to supermarkets, with the misconception that these goods are safer and chemical-free. In fact, the provenance of these goods often remains unknown, let alone whether they have actually been dusted with pesticides. BFM is bringing trust back to the table by facilitating communication between suppliers and consumers, and by building a network of like-minded farmers and buyers.
Similar to the American local food movement, which in part sprouted out of a desire for transparency in food production, the Chinese iteration has also sprouted from a climate of distrust, caused by a systematic lack of assurance in food quality, safety, and provenance in the wake of several food scandals. Just one example is Liu Liguo of Shandong Provence who was ousted for selling reprocessed human and industrial waste to create food oil for restaurants throughout the country. These scandals have been popularized across Chinese and international media, cooking up a desire for foreign products. Since the infamous 2008 infant formula scandal, for example, foreign companies have now amassed 80 percent of market share of infant formula in China. However, the idea of safe international food has also proved an illusion. In 2014, a supplier for American fast food brands including McDonalds was caught violating food safety standards by selling expired meat. The problems are systemic and difficult to avoid even for foreign multinationals.
“My first reaction was that maybe this development would dispel the common myth held by consumers, government monitoring agencies, and policymakers alike: that foreign food companies are safer than domestic ones. The truth is that the bigger the food companies get, the greater the risk.”
— Chang Tianle
Beijing Farmer’s Market emerges not only out of a desire to address the challenge of unsure food quality, but social inequality as well, especially the urban — rural divide. As China witnessed the huge economic boom of the last three decades, different areas have experienced the aftershocks much differently. According to The Economist, the average annual rural income is 3.3 times lower than that in urban areas, which hovers around 10,000 RMB. To put this number in perspective, the median monthly wage in Beijing is around 6,500 RMB. Urban households taking Beijing as an example on average make more in two months than rural households do in an entire year. Contributing to this divide, as many move to big cities to pursue economic opportunities, farmers are marginalized as they are now distanced from their consumers.
Chang Tianle proposes that, while organic provenance is essential, portion control is just as important (if not more) in maintaining the integrity of the food supply chain as it is in maintaining our waistlines. She argues that the best way to reestablish trust and raise the status of rural farmers is to shrink our food supply chain down to the personal level. While some members of BFM might not have an official ‘organic certification,’ farmers are held to a high standard that can be trusted: their peers. Participants in BFM are vetted through site visits by organizers as well as other farmers to assure all participants maintain the highest quality products and facilitate the mutual exchange of knowledge and expertise.
Not only can communication between farmers and consumers build a community of trust, it addresses the needs of the rural farmer, whose voice has long been absent from food production. This demand for food safety provides a larger market for rural farmers who already practice sustainable farming techniques to sell their products, and creates a platform for farmers to share their vision of sustainable farming.
Controlling what you put in your body, building a network of friends and colleagues, and supporting sustainable farming for the next generation — sounds delicious, but can supply chain transparency be applied successfully and efficiently to our most fundamental fuel — our food?
The Chinese organic food market has flourished in the past decade. An estimated 20 million USD worth of organic products are imported each year showing the desire for organic food and the historic gap in domestic suppliers. Demand for organic products is commensurately high: 38% of Chinese consumers list ‘organic/green food” among their top three criteria when shopping, despite the absence of a trusted organic certification system in China. That being said, organic food consumption, or food created without the aid of chemicals or pesticides, only accounts for one percent of total food consumption, as compared to five to eight percent in Europe and the United States.
One ingredient contributing to this could be the price. How can vendors convince more people to pay more for products via a system that has consistently delivered unsafe products and in a culture where the concerns of farmers are often marginalized? Although many have decided that quality food is priceless, the high price may yet deter others from joining the movement. Organic foods are on average three to five times more expensive than regular products.
In the past, this has meant that only young middle class families have had the discretionary income to consider organic products and have historically participated the most in the movement. Again, in this arena, BFM proposes that it shouldn’t necessarily be the size of your income that defines your ability to purchase organic food, but rather your ability to make informed choices about your spending.
Beijing Farmer’s Market upholds that those who produce the most necessary ingredients in our lives while using ethical production techniques deserve both fair compensation and recognition. Tianle also emphasizes that buying organic is not as expensive as some might think. She illustrates how a consistent market patron recorded her spending every week: while buying the best, freshest, and most unique products, from homemade rice wine to creamed honey and tomatoes, she only spent 1,000 RMB on what amounts to an entire month’s worth of groceries.
“We franchise ideas not our markets” — Chang Tianle
While the market itself is going to stay firmly rooted in Beijing, Tianle hopes that more and more people will join the movement through proper education and dissemination of information regarding food production innovation. Young people have countless opportunities to grow the movement, whether through supporting local farmers, spreading awareness, or volunteering. Looking both inwards and outwards, we are excited to see how BFM and young people set the table for the future of organic food distribution in China.
Philanthropy in Motion
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Text and photographs by: Hannah Wilson, Philanthropy in Motion