China

Fulmer diary

China

China

It is well known that honey is counterfeited on a huge scale, and the counterfeits come in huge quantities from all over the world, mostly from the Far East. The press is full of claims that China does not produce honey, but produces a substance in laboratories that looks very much like honey. Europe receives 50,000 tonnes a year. I have personally met Chinese traders at international food fairs and my experience there has confirmed the same impression. I have never come across a good product, only cheap honeys made from sugar syrup. But there are also beekeepers in China who produce real honey. The contradiction intrigued me, so I decided to see for myself how the Chinese beekeepers worked and the price conditions in the country.


I had no contact with Chinese beekeepers, so I asked a market research company in Shanghai for help on where to go. I set off at the end of September with a Hungarian university student as an interpreter, who has a degree in Chinese. I visited areas where work was still ongoing. I wanted to meet beekeepers and visited beekeeping cooperatives where beekeeping was taking place. I wanted to find out what they thought about the fact that the concept of China and fake honey is linked in people's minds all over the world. And how they manage to make a living in a country with such a high level of counterfeiting. Do they even make real honey? Because if they are, they're being affected by adulteration in the same way as other beekeepers around the world.


Our flight landed in Shanghai, and from there I set off on the tour, which lasted a scant week. It was 10 years since I last visited China, and what struck me the most at first was that the bad habits of the people had almost completely disappeared. There was no spitting in the street and no shoving. Everybody is working and you can see the prosperity in people. The hotel costing 60 euros a day was the best 4 star hotel I have ever stayed in.


Environmental protection is also taken much more seriously than it used to be, Shanghai's air was clean, and there was no trace of smog. Pollution has either been eliminated or stopped by factories, and I saw almost only electric vehicles on the streets. They produce everything themselves. The big western brands are present, but all the equipment I had to use was domestic and of high quality. Society is under a perceptibly strong state control, but the authorities are tolerant towards everyone. There is no state subsidy, which applies to beekeeping, but they try to help the less able to get by. To put it simply, the small-scale beekeeper with simple tools can survive alongside the state-of-the-art giant companies. I have talked to quite a few people and I sense that, with the ever-evolving economy and growing prosperity, there is a general consensus that the system is good and that it works. And frankly, it really is much more effective than, for example, telling someone that they are out of the labour market. Or depriving someone of (EU) support simply because, administratively speaking, the economy they work in is meaninglessly small.


From Shanghai to Vuhan, I also flew, and then took the train between the closer towns. I hired a car as a chauffeur in the cities, because it would have been difficult to drive in the traffic, which was unusual for me, and a Hungarian driver's license alone is not enough to drive in China. 

First, I met a representative of a cooperative in the centre of Vuhan and asked him to take me to their apiary because I was curious about it. We went to the beekeepers working on Mulan Mountain. It was already late autumn, the work brigade had gone down, but there was still collecting. We took honey out of the hives to taste. It was immediately apparent that this mountain honey, very tasty and aromatic, already matured and capped, was wetter than the European honey. Even at a glance, it had at least 20% water content, which could be natural. The temperature was 30 degrees and the humidity was very high because of the ocean. This is probably the reason why China, unlike Europe, allows higher water content in honey. Until then, I too had been influenced only by the widespread and malicious belief that honey was taken out of the hives before it was ripe. I also tasted the honey stored in the jars in the apiary's air-conditioned warehouse. The honey was also tasty, not fermented, but also more watery than what we are used to in Europe. When I asked how much I could buy from them, the first answer I got was that it was €5 per kilogram. After some haggling, the price was halved.


Another mountain apiary produces aromatic honey that I have never tasted anywhere else. The price of this bombshell is €15 per kilogram, and the apiary was able to sell every last gram in bulk. There is perhaps no honey in Europe that can be sold at such a high price.


I've also been to a beekeeping farm in the lowlands, alongside agricultural production. It was not large-scale farming, but they were growing different crops on small plots, and the different crops were conducive to beekeeping. Here, for example, the water content of honey was higher than 20 percent. I asked the beekeepers why they didn't wait until the nectar was ripe and there was honey in the hives. The answer I got was that because there is a continuous flow, they cannot wait for the honey to ripen. There is no pause of a few days between the flowering of one plant and then another until the last nectar brought in is ripe. Every day it arrives and at some point the honey has to be taken. As this dilute honey does not meet European standards, they have introduced a device to concentrate it. I saw a machine that uses heating and vacuum, which is not good for the honey. Even if the aroma can be recovered, it is not good for the honey. I told them that beekeepers in Europe use other tools that dry the honey in the same way as the bee does. We agreed that their method was inferior.


During the long season, beekeepers migrate because they are looking for the habitat of the highest yielding plants. I also asked how common bee theft is. I was told it doesn't exist there.


After the first few days, my previous opinion changed. It is not true that only fake honey exists in China. There is honey production, and beekeepers are making good honey. I asked one of the cooperatives if it did not bother them that while they had an excellent product, Europe was only getting counterfeit honey. At all the international food fairs I have attended, without exception, I have received samples from traders that did not contain honey, but a substance called honey, made from sugar syrup. The answer was surprising: obviously that is the expectation. And if someone orders something from China, it is produced for them. And European customers only order cheap products from China. Something that meets the necessary legal and laboratory requirements, and then you can label the product as honey. They are also only approached with such requests. Since China is the bastion of honey counterfeiting, shouldn't we be taking action against this, I asked. I was told that honey counterfeiting is not just a problem for China, but for the whole world. I did not get any further than that, but I did not see any reason to fear that we could not dissect the issue further. Any beekeeper in Europe would list the problems that criticise even their own state's faulty practices, but this is not the case in China. What is clear, however, is that China is very unhappy that it is the world's bastion of adulterated honey, because it is also doing enormous damage. I have been in the warehouse of a cooperative that integrates 5 000 beekeepers, where 8 000 tonnes of excellent honey were in barrels. Which they want to sell. All this gives some hope for change.


I am convinced that European beekeepers must continue to take action against fake honey, because it is causing a crisis. At the same time, a dialogue must be initiated with China. Because, although it is the largest producer and source of counterfeit honey, which is a great source of money for it, it is also causing enormous damage to its own huge sector, which it cannot neglect. And if it can manage pollution in the big cities, this should not be an insurmountable obstacle for it either. A technical solution to prevent counterfeiting already exists.

About the author

As for myself, my early childhood experience has left a fundamental mark on my thinking. In the early 60s, farming was what the land gave you. In the village where I grew up in Somogy, people sprayed exclusively against the potato beetle. I really came from the Middle Ages. My ancestors 500 years ago treated the land just as my grandparents did.