Growing up in China

Australian Organic ambassador Jessica Rudd shares her conversion to an organic lifestyle through parenthood and explains why the Australian Certified Organic brand is powerful internationally.


My childhood photo albums are filled with China shots. Of Mum in hexagonal 80s sunnies and culottes, pushing my pram through dusty hutongs (narrow alleys of northern Chinese cities). Of my moustachioed dad playing cricket at the British ambassador’s residence. Of a little blondie collecting twigs in the golden-roofed Forbidden City.

When I was two weeks old, Dad was posted to Beijing via language training in Hong Kong. We moved into the Jianguomen Diplomatic Residence Compound, an apartment block for “foreign devils” east of the then not-yet-infamous Tiananmen Square.

With her first baby, Mum trawled the streets of Beijing for fresh produce. She tells stories of bleak, sooty cabbages piled high in the gutter, and of the Friendship Store, the only place outside of embassy shops that sold imports. They used to switch off the freezers at night to save power, so shopping in the meat aisle was a game of salmonella roulette.

Returning to China

Twenty-six years later, my husband, Albert, and I arrived in the same city, but it had morphed so much since my childhood it may as well have been Neptune. Gone were the old blokes in grey-blue Mao suits taking their caged birds for a stroll in the park. Gone were the flocks of bicycles and the gentle tinkle of their bells. Gone was the darkness and quiet of night.

In their place were the Harvard educated and their smart phones, the luxury cars and the fluoro-spangled skyscrapers. But for all the cash and globalisation, there was a gaping hole in China’s development. In week one I went to shop for groceries. I’d picked the store from a long list. It was Carrefour – a French supermarket. It was, like everything in China, overwhelmingly enormous.

By the second aisle I noticed the place was decidedly un-French. There were live turtles in plastic jars the diameter of a 50-cent piece. The shelves dwarfed me but seemed to carry only a few brands of bland, processed rubbish. But it was the meat aisle that was my undoing.

I went looking for chicken and saw a group of ladies crowded around a large vat. Inside it was a glut of raw chicken wings. They were sallow little things. The ladies were digging into the vat barehanded, pulling out wing after wing, holding them up to the light and flicking them to find the fattest ones, throwing the scrawny ones back into the mix.

Hysterical, I called my mother. She laughed. Laughed! “They have supermarkets now? That’s wonderful!” It was a healthy dose of perspective.

When pollution started to matter

JessicaRudd_imageThree years later, Albert and I were having a blast. I had written two novels, got my tongue around the language and explored the city. The pollution was shocking. We could look directly at the sun without squinting because of the smog. But we were young and didn’t think much of it. There was too much to love about the randomness of Beijing days to allow a gritty, grey sky to get you down.

The city was vivacious, exciting and unpredictable. We’d go out for dinner and wind up in a cigar bar singing karaoke with Jackie Chan or go for moonlit strolls around the moat of the Forbidden City.

Then it all changed. One day, I went to the GP and came out a different person. I was no longer filling just my own lungs with grime; I was forming another’s. With the news that our first baby was on the way, our world became about her: her safety, her health and her security.

We swapped our dodgy locally manufactured air purifier for three state-of-the-art European masterpieces. We bought cleansers for our fruit and vegetables and ate only imported meats. We ditched our harsh chemical cleaning products and invested in the very pricey green alternatives.

By the end of May 2012, we were parents. Josephine was born in Brisbane and five weeks later she already had a stamp in her passport.

You hear people tell you that nothing can prepare a person for parenthood. This tiny precious bundle. That pristine skin. Those pink, plump lips taking breath after breath and sometimes gasping yawns of the putrid air. I couldn’t control that. I couldn’t control the big polluters or put a stop to China’s very own industrial revolution.

What I could control is what I put onto and into myself and my baby – so I did.

I became a certified organic convert

Before that, I’m ashamed to admit that organic was a word I would have said breathily and nasally in ridicule of the hippy types who so often used it. Necessity converted me. I started to read labels. I saw that the word was being used and abused and so looked for producers whose organic status had been put to the test. I turned to products that had been certified by bodies I trusted.

Since becoming an ambassador for Australian Organic, I’ve been asked what it is the Chinese organic shopper is looking for.

Where possible, my Chinese mates are looking for clean and green. They care about food, give it as gifts and will happily engage in a half-hour discussion on the sweetness and crispness of a particular variety of apple. They are educated and hard working, and many of them have studied abroad. When they shop, whatever they bring home is unpacked and inspected by the whole family. They gather around to assess the value, efficacy and quality of every purchase – from a scrubbing brush to a bag of dried mushrooms.

The standard greeting in China isn’t, “How are you?” It’s “Have you eaten yet?” Frugality is a hangover from tough times in Chinese history. Only a generation ago people were hungry, so the price point matters, but not nearly as much as the next generation does.

Most of my friends in China have no siblings, so their baby is the only baby in a house of six adults. These babies are lavished with attention, the best education money can buy and mountains of top-quality food. I’m just one Australian with a China story and all I can tell you is of my own observations over five years: Chinese people see Australia as clean, safe, green and beautiful. Ergo, Australian Certified Organic is a powerful brand indeed. It’s the cream of the crop.

It comes down to simple maths. Australia has 12 million hectares of certified organic farmland and a population of 23 million. China has 1.6 million hectares of certified organic farmland and over 1.3 billion mouths to feed.

If Australian producers can scale up to meet the demand from this premium Chinese consumer, the world is our certified organic oyster.

Read more about Jessica Rudd joining Australian Organic here.