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China’s Food Future: Organic, Urban, Sustainable?

Liz Stevens ’16, Antonia Giles ’16 and Lucy Sexton ’16
Liz Stevens ’16, Antonia Giles ’16 and Lucy Sexton ’16 visit a farm on the outskirts of Shanghai.

For Lucy Sexton '16, an interest in agriculture runs in her blood. Her family has been growing citrus near Vero Beach, Fla., for five generations. Her great-great-grandfather and his progeny helped pioneer the Sunshine State's fame for the orange of its produce over that of its sunsets.

As an Environmental Studies major, Sexton plans to explore the recent decline of Florida's citrus industry for her capstone thesis next year. "I want to investigate how sustainable practices are affecting the struggling citrus industry, as well as how today's problems may be caused by a lack of sustainable efforts in the past," she said.

Sexton's background and academic interests caught the attention of Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies Fuji Lozada last spring, when he was seeking students to join him and Director of Sustainability Jeff Mittelstadt '99 on a trip to Shanghai and rural Guangdong, China to study the food industry and sustainability initiatives there.

Funded by grants from the Freeman Foundation, which seeks to promote study of Asia in the liberal arts, the month-long trip was formally organized under the theme "Sustainability Patterns of Food Production and Consumption in China." Sexton joined students with similar interests in food research, including Thomas DeMarzo '17, Antonia Giles '16, Karen Xiaoyun Liu '14, John Michael Murphy '16 and Elizabeth Stevens '16.

Lozada focused the group's research on three emerging trends in food production and consumption in China: the growth of organic food markets, the rise in urban agriculture by both individuals and corporations and the shift toward sustainable agricultural practices by Chinese farmers. The students examined the trends by interviewing Chinese citizens who produce, sell and consume all types of Chinese food, and speaking with advocates from environmental non-profit groups, urban and sustainable farmers, food experts and ordinary consumers.

Each student was provided with a high-definition camera and tasked with producing a short ethnographic multimedia project on the food-related topic in which they were most interested.

Food and Film

As a frequent instructor of ANT 372: "Visualizing Anthropology," in which Davidson students study and produce ethnographic documentaries, Lozada knows the power of visual media to convey information to wide audiences. "We live in a mediated world," he said. "I want my students to be fluent in the primary language the world is using to communicate."

Lozada tapped Mittlestadt for his knowledge and expertise in two areas: sustainability and filmmaking. As the founder of WildSides, a nonprofit that produces documentary films related to natural conservation, Mittlestadt has produced films about a number of challenging subjects, including North Atlantic right whales and Carolina red wolves.

With Lozada's and Mittelstadt's combined experience to guide them, the students pursued food and sustainability-related multimedia projects in either film or photography. The topics they chose to document included street food vendors, organic food markets, food labeling and Chinese consumer habits. The students are still working on completing the projects, which they will compile into a presentation at the Freeman Foundation national conference in April 2015.

For her short project, Sexton chose to film the divergence between sustainable eco-centric farmers and traditional, generational farmers. She learned that many eco-centric farmers had moved their trade to Guangdong, a rural area on the outskirts of Shanghai, because they distrust the Chinese food safety administration. Forging ahead without oversight, they follow their own standards of consumer and eco-friendly farming.

Sexton was most interested in speaking to farm workers who had been in the trade for many years, but had only recently begun working for eco-centric farms that employed sustainable practices, like forgoing pesticides and fertilizers.

"The farm workers told us how, at first, they thought sustainable farming didn't make sense-that it was insane," she said. "But the longer they worked for eco-centric farmers, they saw how persistent they were, and their perceptions on sustainable farming changed."

Sexton also expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to study her area of interest through film. "I'm a firm believer in ethnographic film as a form of communication," she said. "Filming people in their home environment as they discuss their personal experiences is an incredibly valuable opportunity. I learned so much through doing that."

Sustainable vs. Safe

Because they were exposed to Chinese food culture for a considerable period of time, the students were able to achieve a deeper appreciation for the questions and issues the farmers confront on a daily basis.

Chinese Farm Worker
Portrait of a Chinese farm worker, taken by Lucy Sexton ’16.

"It was great to see the students learn from speakers and researchers, but I thought they gained the most from getting out in the field and meeting the farmers who have spent their lives in the food industry there," he said. "Only then could they get a full understanding of why they do what they do and how they're doing it."

Mittelstadt also noted that there are vast differences between food culture in the United States and China. "The idea of food sustainability in shanghai was more about food safety and health safety, more than ecological health," he said.

Indeed, the group learned that meanings of the word "sustainability" can vary widely from developing nations like China to countries with modern food infrastructure, like the United States.

"In the United States, we tend to view sustainability from a political perspective, or as a ‘green movement' that advocates for preservation of the environment," Mittelstadt said. "In China, however, sustainability is more urgently health-focused. There is a great need in China to ensure that people aren't getting sick from the food they eat."

This different cultural take on sustainability served as a lesson that any social movement can be approached from a variety of angles. "We can learn from different ways of thinking, and use them to make sure we don't get too one-sided when presenting sustainability at Davidson or throughout the United States," Mittelstadt said.

Food as Entree

In a country ruled by a powerful communist government, convincing people to speak to you-particularly if you are a foreign researcher-can be very difficult. If you don't have an icebreaker, you may not get anywhere. That's why Lozada says he enjoys focusing his academic study on food. "Food is a way to get people to talk to you about other things," he said.

For example, Lozada points out that the average Chinese citizen would clam up if an ethnographer were to ask them about their experiences during the turmoil of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward," when the country rapidly industrialized and plunged into famine. "But if you were to ask what they ate during that time, that person would likely talk with you, and they could shed some light on important cultural and sociopolitical factors of that time."

Indeed, the completed research of Lozada, Mittelstadt and their students will yield as many valuable insights about life in modern China as it does about food and sustainability in a developing country.

Lozada, who used his resources and connections as a faculty member of China's Fudan University to plan and orchestrate much of the trip, hopes his students will use their experiences with food in China in their future pursuits. "Liberal arts professors take journeys like this one as a way of investing in students," Lozada said.

Learn more about the experience on the group's blog.