When many Americans think of Chinese food (and I am not speaking of the cultural export as much as the commodity and processed food import coming from China) it tends to spark thoughts of poor quality, tainted products, and in some cases, massive recalls of dangerous foods. In short, most Americans do not associate quality, safety, or certainly not healthy and sustainable, with the food being grown, manufactured, and exported from China. No, Americans (and likely the Chinese) view the domestic food supply as being somewhat abundant (especially compared to decades past) but tragically flawed. This is due to an assortment of problems and shortcomings from environmental pollution to corruption to substandard safety rules. Looking back through the headlines over the past decade, China has been subject to countless recalls of everything from honey to powdered milk, and has suffered some truly devastating food-borne sicknesses impacting thousands of people (come to think of it, so has the United States, albeit to a lesser degree). A good friend of mine, who frequently does business in China, often complains about how dire the food safety is over there and refers to South China as “the environmental safe haven for acid rain.” But as China grows in both population and economic power, so does its desire to join the west in its dedication to maintaining (or cultivating) a healthy and somewhat sustainable food supply.
Alice Waters, the founder of renowned Berkeley, CA restaurant Chez Panisse organized an elaborate dinner at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing this past week as part of a move to spark a food revolution in China. Now we all know that the policy of a mighty superpower like China will not be changed overnight, or over a meal of butternut squash tortellini, braised pork over mashed potatoes and apple strudel with ice cream, but Waters surely did her best to try to sway her fellow diners made up of some of the Chinese cultural elite. Waters, who is also well known (and sometimes taken to task) for her Edible Schoolyard Project, wanted to expose those in attendance (according to the Wall Street Journal the event was sparsely attended) and Chinese consumers alike, to the joys of eating local and organic foods. But at the dinner, (again, according to the WSJ) the opening event of a four-day cultural forum sponsored by the Asia Society and Aspen Institute, little was uttered about eating foods free of chemicals and buying from nearby farms. Not a word of Chinese was said. Only a toast was offered as a tribute to a potential food movement in China. “Lift a glass of wine to the people taking care of the land,” Ms. Waters said.
As anyone who remembers Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China, which served as an important baby step towards normalizing relations between the U.S. and China, radical change comes with much time and persistence when trying to change the business and cultural practices of a nation of over a billion people. That said, China has a tremendous history of sustainable agrarian practices and it is only within the last 20 to 50 years that the country has moved toward a less sustainable, more industrial, model. With the new Chinese economy booming and a middle/upper class with expendable income beginning to thrive, the hunger for fast food and indulgences begin to grow exponentially. Whether or not the efforts of Alice Waters makes an impact or falls of deaf ears remains to be seen, but China is undoubtedly at a crucial turning point and has the potential to make a great impact on the global movement towards sustainable food.