Tomato, Ketchup and China

By An& (Flickr.com)

Most Chinese don´t know ketchup. If you say “ketchup” to a Chinese who just comes to the United States, I bet he/she will look at you strangely, and ask, “What?” I remember when I first came to America last August, I got off the plane at Chicago O’Hare Airport, brought some fries at McDonalds, and asked for “tomato sauce”.

“Tomato sauce”, that is what we call all the processing tomato food  in China. Most Chinese only use it with fries or pizzas in Western restaurants. Chinese cuisine doesn’t have it at all.

Not only ketchup, tomato also has a foreign identification. Four centuries ago, in the middle of Chinese Ming Dynasty, European missionaries followed the Silk Road on their journey to ancient China, bringing seeds of tomatoes and other Western plants. Chinese accepted the tomato, and began to plant it in its own land. The tomato found a new home there, also a new name, “foreign eggplant” (fan qie) in Mandarin.

The ancient European missionaries didn’t expect China accepts tomatoes much easier than bibles, and they would never know China could become one of the world’s largest tomato paste producer and exporter one day. But it is a true story. China, the country where people have no appetite for ketchup, without mentioning other tomato processing food, has only been growing processing tomatoes since the mid to late 1970s, has made a surprising growth in tomato processing industry. Its export volumes of processing tomatoes rose from 100,000 tonnes in 1999, the year that China marked its debut in international tomato market, to 600,000 tonnes in 2005.

In 2009, China exported 8.65 million tons processing tomato products to 150 countries, rising up 35.1% from a year earlier, and increasing the market share to 20.5% in the global processing tomato export market. In particular, the export volume to Italy, Russian Federation and Nigeria accounted for 13%, 12.1% and 6.8% respectively.

The main regions for the tomatoes industry are in Xinjiang Province, a plateau to a number of Muslim ethnic groups, used to be a landlocked frontier crossroad on the ancient Silk Road, and followed by Inner Mongolia and Gansu Province. The dry continental climate there is an ideal condition for tomato growth. The long daylight hours, sufficient sunshine and the significant temperature difference between day and night are all good for sugar and lycopene accumulating inside the crop.

It is a promising industry. But for those farmers living in Xinjiang, tomato is more than just a business. It is a way of life. Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an affiliate lead by Xinjiang local government and Beijing, have more than one million employees, most of whom were soldiers, or ex-convicts, who had been sent to the remote barrens, “being reformed through labor” in Chinese political term. Those Han Chinese have been living in this land for decades. Their sons and daughters have grown up, gone to college or had their own jobs. No matter which regions of China they came from, now they are all Xinjiang farmers (though their official identification is “farming soldier”), sinking roots in this plateau, turning the wild land into a fertile spot.

In spite of the boom, Chinese tomato processing industry has its troubles. The irrigation system needs to be improved. The poor transportation causes the tomatoes rotten before reaching the tomato processing plants. The non-brand tomato processing products are given a “made in Italy” label after exporting to Europe and being reprocessed in Italian small plants. China wants its homemade brand, while Europe chides China for dumping products into oversea market.

From "Apple and Tomato Chains in China and the EU" by Xiaoyong Zhang, Huanguang Qiu, Zhurong Huang

The change will not come about by itself. Chinese tomato processing industry should reinforce its agricultural research, improve the rural transportation, develop a better management system to meet the international quality standard, and engage in building its international reputation. The industry with only a history of four decades is still too young. It should learn, learn and learn more, before it boasts its large exporting volume.

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