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February 16, 2004

Iron Stomachs


by Sascha Matuszak

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 your factory.

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 diseases.

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 urban legend.

National Security

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 pigs.

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 food.

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 much stronger."

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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