Organic food

The above image currently making the rounds on the internet is a wry reminder that 'organic food', which is at different times branded as elitist, trendy, and only for yuppies, was once the everyday norm. And rather than seeing organic food as the exception to the rule, perhaps we should see begin to consider food that has been drenched in pesticides, or grown in soil pumped full of chemical fertilizers – as a strange deviation from the organic farming tradition that stretches back thousands of years here in China.

In fact a look at rice farming in China reveals much of the incredible innovation and creativity of the country's "organic" farmers. Researchers estimate the origins of rice cultivation in China to stretch back to a rather astounding 7,000 years ago, on the banks of the Yangtze River. Rice quickly became an integral part of Chinese life and culture and the following farming methods developed in that time show an astute understanding of the land and these crops by Chinese people.

Once technique was raising ducks on rice paddies. These feathered friends would not only eat pests and weeds they would also churn up the water with their feet helping to get more oxygen to the rice plants roots, while droppings acted as an excellent, natural fertilizer.

Studies from Zhejiang University has shown that the rice fish system, in which bred fish feed on pests and weeds, requires 68% less pesticide use and 24% less chemical fertilizer use than the monoculture rice system.

The Yunnan inter-cropping rice model involves growing two or more crops in proximity, and has shown a significant reduction in crop disease. This system has proven so popular among farmers that by 2004 it had been adopted on more than two million hectares of farmland all across China.

The practice of chemically intensive agriculture in China has only been around since the 1980s, when the government first began to peddle subsidized chemical fertilizers and pesticides to farmers in the hopes of boosting yield numbers. Considering the long history of farming in China, 30 years is but a blip, and yet in that time the country has risen to become the world's number one user and producer of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. For so long the country farmed with the sensitivity of an artist, only to now brutish hammer out crop after crop from tired soil that's dramatically degraded in quality.

Each year Greenpeace East Asia has revealed pesticide abuse by some of the country's biggest supermarket and food brands. Our latest scandal involved some of China's most famous tea brands, including Lipton. Our testing revealed that three of four samples contained pesticides banned for use on tea plants and considered highly toxic. Altogether 17 different kinds of pesticides were found on the four samples.

Nor can the people of Hong Kong ignore this issue. A few months ago we published testing results from some of Hong Kong's biggest supermarkets and found illegal pesticides and mixed pesticide use on many fresh produce samples. With ParknShop, Wellcome and Jusco just a few of the perpetrators, one bean sample included the carcinogen chlorpyrifos, at a level seven times the acceptable international standard as set by the UN.

The issue of pesticide addiction in China's agricultural industry isn't just about protecting consumer and farmer health – although this is a major part of it. The massive, widespread use of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilisers is also poisoning the country's lakes and rivers, damaging the soil and killing wildlife. In fact runoff from farmers' fields is now a bigger source of water contamination in China than factory waste effluent.

Which suddenly puts "going organic" in a different light. It's not just about saving yourself or your family, it's also about saving the earth. It's the food equivalent of "switching to clean energy". We're at a critical juncture: can we wean the country off a form of farming that is pouring millions of dollars into the pockets of corporate chemical companies, before the land is poisoned to the point of no return?

Farming needs chemical fertilizers and pesticides like a drug addict needs a hit – the joys are short-term, and the damage is forever.