2014 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Davidson College
Sustainable Patterns of Food Production and Consumption in China
Mentors: Eriberto P. Lozada Jr. (Anthropology) and Jeff Mittelstadt (Sustainability)
Students: Thomas DeMarzo ’17, Antonia Giles ’16, Karen Xiaoyun Liu, 14, John Michael Murphy ’16, Lucy Sexton ’16, Elizabeth Stevens ‘16
Food security and safety continues to be a significant source of unrest and social anxiety in contemporary Chinese society. As a result, there has been a growth of food sources that provide an alternative to the industrial food system. This project examined three emerging trends in food production and consumption: the growth of organic food markets, the rise in urban agriculture, and experimentation with sustainable agricultural by Chinese farmers. Using ethnographic film to document and explore the impact of these grassroots initiatives in Shanghai, the Davidson College Student-Faculty Fellows team worked with students and faculty from Fudan University to explore the phenomenon of the “new Chinese farmer” – highly educated people with urban household registrations who farm using organic techniques. They engage in educational programs for urban residents and children and use social media extensively to develop relationships with their customers. While the Chinese state has co-opted their activities as part of ‘Ecological Civilization’ (生态文明), these new Chinese farmers see themselves as developing an alternative modernization grounded in traditional Chinese culture that is a healthier alternative to the dominant model of development in China today. The team is in the process of producing a series of short films with the goal of creating bi-lingual web resources geared towards education and awareness of food and sustainability issues. The films will also be utilized to increase awareness of these grass-roots responses to creating sustainable foodways on the Davidson campus and throughout North Carolina.
Urban organic agriculture is my main academic focus at Davidson College. I am particularly interested in how people of a lower economic status can benefit from growing their own food. In China, I found that the same issues that affect Americans affect the Chinese as well. Issues such as: food safety, structural inequality, and environmental degradation are problems that we face in the United States, but in China they are more acute because of population density. The many food scares in China have resulted in the people trusting neither their food nor their government. In China, we interviewed a number of “new farmers” who have moved away from the city to the countryside to farm. Given the pollution problems and food scares, the impetus for the people who give up their lives in the cities to farm is very clear: growing your own food and pursuing an alternative lifestyle in a cleaner and less crowded environment ensures the safety of your family. These new farmers, however, are relatively privileged: the urban poor continue to face numerous challenges. This is an example of structural inequality: only the people who can afford to remove themselves from unsafe conditions can do so, while the majority of urbanites —the people most affected by unsafe living conditions—are forced to remain in their current situations with little chance of upward mobility.
The five weeks that I spent in Shanghai studying food and sustainability greatly expanded my view of the world, specifically in the context of food’s importance in different cultures. The differences between the ways Americans and Chinese people view, handle, prepare, and consume food are almost too numerous to count. Yet the research that Davidson’s team conducted this summer represents an ever-shortening gap between two different cultures understanding how the opposite works. In a world constantly shrinking due to globalization, cultural awareness is more important now than ever. I examined where street vendors purchased their food supplies and how concerned they were about food safety. What hours did they work and when was their highest volume of customers? Do citizens of Shanghai treat the small quantities of food purchased from vendors as meals? If so, what does this consumption pattern say about Chinese urban culture?
When I started the food and sustainability research early this summer, I was solely interested in studying consumers’ perspectives on food safety issues. The real reason for my initial interest was twofold. Firstly, in a country so frequently racked by food safety scandals, as a Chinese national and consumer myself, I am interested in finding out how consumers react to food safety issues. The second and subtler reason is that, before this summer, the production side of food—farming—seemed so distant to me, and I never thought I would be interested in rural communities and farming practices. Besides offering financial incentives for young Chinese, new farmers consciously bridge the gap between rural and urban areas through sponsoring events to educate urban residents about farming. New farmers and their small-scale farms may not be the final answer to China’s rural and urban divide. Nonetheless, their efforts to consciously connect urban residents with rural communities can contribute to alleviate the gap.
One of the most impactful parts of my research this summer was not just the validity of my research itself, but the contrast and complements it brought to my understanding of food within the United States. China is modernizing at unprecedented rates, and the more research I did this summer the more I was able to draw parallels between the discourse surrounding food in China and other developed, post-green revolution societies like America. First, this helped give me a new perspective from which I can better analyze food safety problems in America, and second, it gives me a more holistic understanding of the global discourse surrounding food safety. For instance, my experience helped me understand not only the growing organic sector and the new foods movement in China, but also why many people in the US cling so tightly to its ideology. First hand I saw some of the impacts of irresponsible agriculture. I saw heavy chemical pollution in water, the use of human fecal matter as fertilizer, toxic food, and toxic dirt.
Using ethnographic film to document and learn about sustainable agriculture in China, I learned that the farmers we met in China have very similar struggles to those that my American family faces today. My undergraduate research has been primarily focused on the struggles of American citrus farmers (which includes my own family’s business). I have personally experienced the aftermath of globalization and industrialization in the food industry, but I hope to see a future where care for the environment and productive agriculture can coexist. In China, the next generations of farmers are trying to move away from their farming roots into the rapidly modernizing culture. We met revolutionary farmers dissatisfied with China’s food system who left the fast paced city life to farm. As a documentary filmmaker, success depends on one’s ability to connect with and make people feel comfortable. In China, I learned how to make such connections with people who were very different from me.
My interests in micro communities moving out of the city to start farms because of health concerns with the food market in Shanghai led me to find a group of educated Shanghainese living on Chongming Island who were also interested in building community. Community centered around healthy food and similar outlooks on the world with environmental undertones. I was able to find an art community trying to create a similar atmosphere after networking with various scholars in the food network and realized that handicraft and interests in healthy, natural farming techniques attract people with similar goals. One specific farm on Chongming Island encouraged the farmers working the fields to revitalize age-old craft techniques in order to preserve traditional lifeways for future generations. Through interviews with people, connections are made. I was able to see connections between interests in rural to urban migration, youth communities and changes in value systems due to the forces of modernity, and how people readily adapt and change lifeways for the health of family and community.