The China Symptom
With close to 1.5 billion people, China comprises 20% of the world population. Their appetite for natural resources is on a steady incline, doubling oil, steel and aluminum consumption since the early 1990’s to support both their increasing population and booming industries. They are the world’s premier exporter, producing everything from televisions and tennis balls to tea and tilapia. What may seem like innocuous efforts to bring economic growth to this nation are also bringing great risk to the world market.
China is the world’s number one exporter of fruits and vegetables, and the United States number one supplier of shrimp, rice and tea. They rank third in the world as a source for U.S. agricultural and forestry imports; sales jumped from $2.9 billion to more than $7 billion last year. While we get significantly more produce from Mexico and Canada, Chinese items are at the top of the list for being refused entry by the FDA, mainly because of high-level microbial and chemical contaminations. The European Union and Japan have banned exports of shrimp, tea and spinach from China since 2000, citing excessive antibiotic residue as the cause.
SARS and Avian flu seem almost passé in a banner year of lethal factory-made products from China. This spring more than 14,000 American pets became severely sick, some even dying. The culprit was traced back to feed coming from China, forcing recalls of more than 60 million packages of pet food. Melamine, the chemical believed to cause the outbreak, is a coal by-product (also often used in industrial applications) not approved for use in human or animal food in the U.S. Melamine also increases the adhesiveness of gluten, the tainted ingredient linked to the kidney-damaged animals. Exposure to high levels of melamine proved toxic to rats and mice in laboratory tests, and became all too obvious to the many unsuspecting families who lost pets. No known nutritional benefits are found in melamine, but the high nitrogen content mimics the appearance of proteins. This has caused it to be secretly added to feed and other food products, which falsely augment the nutritional profiles – a value to potential customers. The perceived higher quality demands a higher market price in what’s becoming a cutthroat manufacturing environment.
Sadly, it appears the short-term financial gain from selling potentially lethal products outweighs the long-term benefit of full-disclosure and honest business practices. This is quite telling of a nation that may in fact represent a very real picture of the future for all humankind. On a planet where competition for quickly diminishing resources is becoming the norm, quality and safety measures are too often an afterthought.
Within weeks of the massive pet scare, two of the largest toy brands, Mattel and Fischer Price, recalled close to 1.5 million toys produced by The Lida Toy Company in the southern region of the Guangdong province, due to toxic levels of lead content. It almost seems as if China's strange intention is to ruin the lives of millions of American children. First, Fido drops dead after eating a treat, and if that doesn’t send Junior over the edge, a lead-induced coma should do the trick. The impact of the devastating recall led to the suicide of the manufacturer’s chief operating officer, who hung himself in one of their warehouses.
Who-Sucks.com cites more than fifty recalls or faulty product reports related to Chinese made/manufactured products between January and July of this year. A whopping half of those listed were due to lead contamination, and all of those were products made for children.
In 2006, Panama reportedly produced more than 250,000 bottles of an over-the-counter cold medicine with glycerin purchased from China, which contained toxic levels of diethylene glycol (DEG), a lethal ingredient used in antifreeze. Close to 400 deaths have been associated with the DEG-tainted cold medicine. DEG also turned up in a Florida-based toothpaste brand (manufactured in China) earlier this year, urging the FDA to alert consumers to throw away all toothpastes made in China.
Recently David Barboza of The New York Times reported 774 people were arrested in connection with contaminated food and drug products manufactured in China. This news comes as the Chinese government promises to tighten regulations on manufacturing and exporting. But is China capable of meeting the production standards they’ve invited? Or is the fertile manufactured goods market imbued with a sense of greed that will ultimately destroy this nation and possibly, the rest of the made-in-China obsessed planet?
World population has doubled in the last forty years, putting unsustainable pressure on our resources. As the planet is expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, more than 5 billion people will live in Asia (China and India), even after China's draconian birth control efforts. Their ability to support the current population is problematic, let alone their capacity to continue to safely handle the international demands for quality food and factory production exports. Ten percent of China is living in poverty, with many more hovering just above. Factory jobs have taken the place of many family farms – with health and working conditions nothing short of a nightmare.
The global climate crisis is conjoint to our egregious dependence on fossil fuels, which are being pumped out and dug up at alarming rates. The BBC reports that China is now building two coal power plants a week, and will be doing so for some time (80% of China's electricity comes from coal), causing, among other things, severe air and water pollution. Despite this, China is the world leader in aquaculture. Meanwhile, 3 billion tons of sewage spills into rivers, lakes and coastal water each year. Unlike the rest of Asia, less than half of the country has any sewage-treatment facilities.
Maybe then it is not such a surprise that Trader Joe’s, the second largest natural food chain in the U.S., announced last month that it would ban all single-ingredient products from China by January. Amidst a series of unprecedented contaminants, there are also serious concerns about the country’s ability to follow USDA organic standard regulations for exported organic crops. After all, these are the U.S.'s regulations, not China’s. State governments and/or large private companies oversee the typical industrialized farms; small family operations are almost absent in the smog covered agricultural provinces. China continues to produce DDT and use pesticides on a mass scale. In 2004, when more than 7 million acres became certified organic (over 90% of the country's organic farmland), skeptics suggested it was an impossible feat in such a short time frame, especially considering their heavy chemical dousing practices.
An action plan is expected to be presented to President Bush any day now with recommendations for improving import safety standards. But will the bureaucracy of implementing such a program come in a timely manner? More to the point perhaps, the organic movement in general is coming under scrutiny as many argue that shipping food halfway around the world wastes resources and damages our already imperiled environment. “Food miles” are being calculated as detrimental, and purists challenge the organic status of a food if it travels too far. The emphasis on buying local is being promoted at stores like Whole Foods. But the growth of the organic industry is outpacing its current supply, making regional options scarce while national solutions remain elusive. Stonyfield yogurt recently revealed that they may have to mix powdered milk all the way from New Zealand into their New Hampshire based product line because the reality of sourcing enough locally raised organic dairy is currently unrealistic.
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) regulations are already in effect in the U.S. on fish (several Chinese sources are already banned). The remaining regulated foods (beef, lamb, pork, perishable agricultural commodities and peanuts) are scheduled to comply with mandatory label disclosure by September 2008. A recent USA Today poll revealed that 46 percent questioned were very concerned about the safety of food imported from China. Over the last decade, the United States, like most of the world, has become increasingly reliant on China as a source of agricultural products. China exported over $1.5 trillion worldwide in 2006. And despite the onslaught of product scares, the country is now the number one choice for outsourced global manufacturing, according to a new study from Deloitte & Touche.
In what reads like a really sad fortune cookie, the situation actually invites evolutionary answers. Like Dorothy discovered, all she ever really wanted wasn't in Oz after all, but right in her own backyard. When we look closer to home, there we find more sustainable, cost-effective and even compassionate choices. They've always been right in front of us, just like most things we seek. In 2005, for the first time, all of our 50 states could boast some certified organic farmland. With millions of acres now being allocated to the organic expansion, it still represents less than five percent of all U.S. farmland. Organic doesn’t just taste better, but recent studies show it actually is healthier. As much as 40% more antioxidants were found in the biggest study ever condcuted on organic food.
Moreover, the ecological virtues of organic farming are equally, if not more significant to our collective well being. Imagine the impact of transitioning the remaining 95% of our farm and grazing land in this country to organic. From the reduction in nitrogen to less ground water contamination, organic farming is one of the most important means to reversing global warming, especially when implementing the practice of permaculture. [Interesting aside: Microsoft Word dictionary does not recognize permaculture as a legitimate entry. So just in case one of Gates’ programmers is reading…. per•ma•cul•ture noun – a system of cultivation intended to maintain permanent agriculture or horticulture by relying on renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem.]
With Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods setting new standards in food safety and implementing rigorous local sourcing efforts, there’s no telling how many more retailers and their customers will begin to look for healthier and tastier alternatives closer to home. Perhaps parents, too, can become less impulsive, buying fewer meaningless toys for their children, inspired instead to contribute to a livable future, one less obnoxious than our current situation. Or is it our planet's fate to be undone by faulty gadgets covered in lead paint?
One thing is for sure: China did us a real favor by poisoning our children and killing our dogs, as it forces us to look seriously at our choices and options. Wasn't it Confucious who said that we get what we pay for?
[ Note: This incredible story just appeared after I finished this piece. Toys, from China, turning into GHB, the “date rape” drug once ingested by children. – JE 11/08/07]Tweet