There is a story I have been hearing lately that
goes something like this:
"A Japanese Dairy Group opened a factory in China and began processing dairy
products for consumption in Japan. The Japanese, being both fastidious and
organized in character, kept the factory very clean and orderly in order to
please the demanding market back home.
"One day the power went out for a couple of hours, which happens in China from
time to time, and the factory lay still. In those two hours without heating or
cooling, bacteria had a chance to develop. When the milk was sent back home,
customers got sick. The Group lost money and closed the factory, selling it to a
local Chinese buyer at an extremely low price."
The moral of the story is: if your stomach is too sensitive, you may lose
Closer to the source…
Countries with a higher ratio of supermarkets
to open-air markets – like Japan and the US – must be quite annoyed with their
open-air market trading partners whose breakneck industrialization of their
agricultural sectors is spinning out viruses and weird, heretofore unheard-of
In the US, where there is a multi-billion dollar organic foods industry, open
air markets and "closer to the source" food products devoid of engineered DNA
must sound real nice. Strolling through the marketplace and watching a chicken
or rabbit get slaughtered before your eyes, or scraping the wet dirt from some
lettuce before you haggle for it, makes the modern cell phone-toting Westerner
feel good. Although fields of grain represent so much of the American landscape,
farmers make up a minority of our population, roughly two million. In Asia,
however, eight out of every ten people are farmers.
The fact is that many of China’s fields and paddies (and presumably those of
Southeast Asia as well) are choked with pollution, garbage, and sewage from the
towns growing up around them. In these same small towns, factories that once
produced bikes or cement lay fallow and slowly bleed into the fields of spinach
that have cropped up around them. In China, any bare green space is a chance to
grow food. China can feed itself and even afford to waste a bit in the process,
but this staggering amount of food production has consequences.
Pig, duck, and chicken farms in the countryside range from the sprawling
complex with a Taiwanese investor to the more common collection of longhouses
run by local peasants. Pigs and people often share buildings – the bathroom pit
may drool into the pig-pen.
None of these buildings would be "up to code," as the code is interpreted by
Japanese or American producers, whose own chicken farms have become the stuff of
Farmers across the globe make less and less money
each year. American and European farmers live off subsidies – without government
money they long ago would have succumbed to market forces and become extinct.
The EU and the US have several agricultural-related disagreements, subsidies
and health standards being the top two.
With Asia, these problems become a little more complex: as in a few European
countries, Asians remember what it was like to starve. In China, especially, the
years leading up to Deng’s reform of agricultural policy were rife with famines
– some older friends of mine remember eating dirt and bark.
Also, Asian countries are trying to emulate assembly line farming as
pioneered by Tyson to keep food production level with population. Food
production is for most nations a matter of national security, and in no place is
this truer than in China. The peasants of China are the backbone of the
nation, even as a more affluent minority stands upon that backbone.
But China’s government chooses to tax the sweat out of the peasants rather
than to subsidize their living as the Europeans and Americans do. After
collective farming policies were abolished, and taxes grew heavier, the
landowner – arch-nemesis of the Reds during the revolution – returned and
incomes have stagnated.
Cao Jing Qing’s book, China
Along the Yellow River, illustrates the plight of most peasants and
the lack of government support for those wheat, cotton, and corn farmers who
will be blown away by foreign competition – if WTO rules are followed.
Hence, the flu
So it comes as little surprise that over-production
and under-investment will result in a lower quality product. Or sick birds and
But for iron-stomach Chinese and their Southeast Asian counterparts, a few
deaths here and there can be attributed to weakness as much as to unhygienic
As my friend Guan morbidly put it: "Our world is polluted beyond repair,
certainly there will be people who will die. But those who live will be that