In the eyes of its residents, Guangzhou runs different. Where the last century saw Western influence purged from the buildings of South China, Guangzhou’s opulent colonial homes and old embassies stand repurposed into businesses, restaurants and galleries. People wistfully tell of the time Cantonese was almost chosen over Beijing dialect as the basis for Mandarin. They are quick to point out that Guangzhou, an icon for Chinese consumer society and once the most polluted city in China, today acts as a refuge for new ideas and civic life.
It’s in a converted Republican-era mansion that Rice Harmony rents its second floor office, a space of whitewash and finished wood. You imagine dust in the light shining through the tall grated windows, but then people look up to greet you. There’s not a grey hair in the room. Everyone smiles. Then in moments their work draws them back.
Rice Harmony is a social enterprise that operates like a rice-exclusive organic CSA. Households from around the Pearl River Delta subscribe for periodic deliveries of rice sustainably grown in a nearby county. There the team works with a farmer’s cooperative, collecting, processing and testing the harvest before packaging it and bringing it to subscribers in the city.
Rice Harmony has its seeds in the earlier work of Liu Shangwen (刘尚文), its energetic, softspoken founder. In the mid-2000s Liu found himself traveling through the local countryside with an international environmental NGO. In village after village he met farmers with peeling, irritated, and decaying skin that they attributed to pesticide use.
Through continued conversations with farmers and colleagues, Liu began to see more and more links between human and environmental health. The same fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive farming practices that he had seen associated with health complications were also carbon intensive when compared with traditional techniques.
Largely due to disruptions in its glacier-fed water supply, China faces one of the grimmest climate change futures among populous nations. China has already begun buying fertile land in countries like Argentina and Ethiopia, and hatching plans for massive water diversion projects to bring water from the South to the parched North (For an in-depth look at China’s environmental issues, check out When a Billion Chinese Jump (2010), by Jonathan Watts).
According to Liu, “Everyone understood the problem, but [there were] no alternatives [in China at the time]”. Looking abroad, he learned of CSA models and organic techniques practiced in Japan and Europe. “Why not in China?” he began to ask himself. Higher priced markets were becoming available to more and more Chinese consumers, who were also increasingly worried about their health and exposure to dangerous chemicals.
Qingyuan county (northernmost point), one of the closest areas to the Pearl River Delta delivery region (southern triangle) where it is feasible to grow organic products. The soil of much of the region’s farmland is too polluted to safely grow food, and some estimates say that one fifth of China’s arable land is contaminated by hazardous chemicals.
So he went back to the country. He searched in his free time and talked to farmers. Eventually, in 2012, he and 6 households in Qingyuan village started cultivation on their first crop of “ecological” rice. In each year since the first, the number of participating households has doubled, so that this year 50 of the village’s 200 households are using Rice Harmony’s techniques.
The company’s eventual goal is to convert Qingyuan into what Rice Harmony calls an Eco Village, cultivating a rotating range of sustainably farmed produce and hosting stakeholders to showcase the farming process. Opening up the farms in this way will contribute to the company’s educational goals, but will also do away with the need for organic certifications. While some certification groups have started to accommodate smallholder cooperatives, cooperatives and consumers alike have started to ask: why pay the extra money when we can find the information and do it ourselves?
As Rice Harmony’s production has developed, the team has run into a number of half-answers to the question “Why not China?” Linda Tan (谭静远), who was brought in last year as CEO to help in the branding and marketing efforts, says that building a consumer base for their subscription model has become their most relentless challenge.
In the wake of repeated contamination scares, Chinese consumers place a high value on food cleanliness and use trusted brand names and obsessive overpackaging as indicators of food safety.
More importantly, Tan says, “we need to get people to understand that, as a consumer, they have a vote.” This idea has been drilled into western skulls over the past century, but it feels foreign in a China only recently opened to any sort of non-governmental social action. Even in Guangzhou, which locals see as a leader in a nascent Chinese civil society movement, the idea that everyday people can or should do anything about such large-scale issues is uncommon.
So while subscribing households increased from 50 to 200 between 2013 and 2014, and participating farmer and event attendee numbers have steadily grown, the team is struggling to meet this year’s goal of 800 subscribers. Their educational efforts have had the most success with students, Tan says, but their target customers are young families who are in the process of forming their purchasing habits. Until it grows into the market, Rice Harmony is stuck with the task of coaxing lifestyle changes out of preformed consumers.
As the promise of a healthier life and higher profits leads to a steady adoption of their farming standards, the company may continue to teeter on the brink of oversupply. Because they don’t use preservative chemicals in their shipping and storage, they could be forced to dump stock if supply continues to outstrip their market.
Whatever the future holds for Rice Harmony, Tan believes the social impacts of non-profits and social enterprises are important. “My youngest employee is just 20, and his parents recently helped him get a loan for a car so he can Uber in his spare time…The parents in Southern China put so much pressure on their sons to make money, quickly and early. I think if [young people] can just get a taste of volunteer work in school, it makes a big difference in their outlook on life.”