Organic food and new inequalities in China: A critique of urban-based and consumer-oriented alternative food networks

Authors: Li Zhang*, Henan Agricultural University
Topics: China, Agricultural Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: China, food, social inequality, health, political ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 6:20 PM
Room: Mid-City, Sheraton, 8th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Growing rural-urban inequality is a well-documented aspect of China’s market-oriented reforms, and increasingly severe environmental and food safety crises are also becoming a central concern of the Chinese public, policy makers, and social scientists. Although the government is creating new regulations on food safety and organic food certifications, major food contamination incidents continue to take place, even affecting certified organic food brands. Consequently, some scholars and consumer-activists began setting up alternative food networks (AFNs) to obtain safer, organic foods directly from peasants. Meanwhile, since peasants need cash income to pay for education and healthcare expenses, they sell organic food to wealthier urbanites and turn to unsafe, lower-quality food for themselves – adding health inequalities to income disparity. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork from 2014 to 2017 in Guanxi and Henan provinces, I document how informal organic food networks enrich middlemen and provide wealthy urbanites with organic foods produced by the poorest peasants. Even when peasants organized themselves into cooperatives to sell to more institutionalized urban buyers’ groups or specialty restaurants, these consumer-oriented AFNs still concentrate purchasing power in cities, and put downward pressure on prices paid to dispersed peasants and peasant cooperatives. Although these initiatives are generally celebrated among those who structure and purchase through these AFNs, I argue they are aggravating rural-urban inequality and producing new, more invisible and dangerous forms of inequality between village-based middlemen and vulnerable peasants (especially “left behind” women, elders, and children), and between urban consumers and peasant producers in terms of food-based health and wellbeing.

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