Natural or organic food may seem expensive, but in the long run, it works out to be cheaper.
IT IS true that commercial food appears to be cheaper than organic food.
“It looks cheap but that’s just a bait. We may pay less in the beginning but we get shortchanged in the end,” explains Wong Kai Yuen who runs the EcoGreen organic shop (ecogreen.com.my) in Kuala Lumpur.
What he means is that when you factor in the long-term costs of poorer health and medical care from eating what he calls “chemically-produced food”, the debit and credit balance shifts to the red.
“And what about the lack of vitality we experience? People nowadays dismiss it as work stress or ageing. But maybe it’s also because of the food they eat. It’s not just medical bills,” says Kai Yuen, who switched to organic as a natural cure for his hypertension.
“If we fall seriously ill, it will affect our loved ones, too. And what about personal suffering?”
Loke Siew Foong, the founder of Radiant Whole Foods (www.radiantwholefood.com.my), quips: “As Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine said, ‘Let food be your medicine.’ I’ve put his saying on the boxes of my products.”
Too often, the power of marketing has made us “prefer” commercial over natural food.
Wong Hock Seng, the founder of “chemical-free” DQ Clean Chicken (dqcleanchicken.com) gives the example where big multinationals pack breakfast cereals with sugar and then sell it to children by using fancy packaging.
Indeed, a report in The Guardian newspaper of Britian in April 2009 warns that 92 of 100 popular supermarket brands of breakfast cereal – including those targeted at children – are laden with sugar.
The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) notes that Malaysians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar per day. We had 800,000 recorded diabetics in 2007 (the fourth highest in Asia) and with 54% of adults who are overweight, compared to only 24% 10 years ago, we are the “fattest nation” in Asia.
“It may be hard to believe that we are consuming 26 teaspoons of sugar a day,” says Hatijah Hashim, a research officer at CAP.
“Some soft drinks contain an average of seven teaspoons of sugar per can. It’s not just the visible white sugar we see, we don’t see that a lot of sugar is consumed by the public through industrially-prepared drinks and food.”
Hock Seng adds: “And don’t forget that with so much sugar, children become hyper-active and hard to control.”
“The marketing experts are changing consumers’ perceptions that processed foods are tasty by using flavouring and advertising.”
He compares sugar to MSG in instant noodles – it stimulates the tongue, but how healthy is it?
“Whereas natural food would involve boiling meat and bones to create a solid soup,” he says.
“Nowadays consumers want the chicken to have soft, smooth meat and yellowish skin. So farmers grow broiler chickens via the express way with a high-calorie diet of corn and even oil.”
Similarly, anyone watching the movie Food Inc (it’s on YouTube) can see how American cattle are raised in intensive feed lots, stand ankle deep in their own faeces and need antibiotics to stay alive.
“But American grain-fed beef is marketed as a superior product,” says Hock Seng. “It’s said to be soft, juicy and tender even though it is less healthy and has lots of Omega 6 (bad cholesterol). That is the power of marketing for you.”
Fuller for less
Kai Yuen says it’s not fair to compare the cost of organic versus normal food kg for kg.
“Because for the same weight, organic food will have more nutrients, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. And there are no toxins. It’s like when we buy a car. Would we pay less for a Mercedes?”
Loke says that organic food may even help weight loss.
“I always encourage people to take quality over quantity. When you take one slice of wholemeal bread, it’s as filling as eating two slices of white bread. That’s because of the nutrients and fibre in wholemeal. So you eat less, but you are still full.”
Kai Yuen adds: “Industrially produced food may fill our stomachs. But because the micro-nutrients are missing, our body’s cells are still in a state of hunger. So to make up for that, you end up eating more carbohydrates, proteins and fats.”
Gan Koon Chai, the founder of GK Organic Farm near Bangi, Selangor, was a UPM agro-science graduate who used to sell chemical fertilisers and pesticides. After he realised that he had to use more and more poison to control the pests (which were developing resistance through mutations), he switched to organic.
“I make organic compost for my vegetables,” he explains during a farm tour. “When the soil is good, my vegetables are strong, healthy and able to resist pests on their own without any pesticides. Similarly with humans, when our food is good, we are strong and able to resist diseases.”
As we walk through his farm, it seems like a living, green pharmacy. He turns special mint-basil leaves into a natural cough remedy, while roselle fruits help with hypertension.
“Take five lemongrass leaves and tie them in a knot,” recommends Gan. “And make tea with them. Drink it day and night and nothing else. Make sure there’s lemongrass taste or else add more leaves. After one month, check your cholesterol and blood pressure and see what happens.”
And besides health benefits, what price tag do you put on taste?
Terra Organic Farm in Lojing Highlands (next to Camerons) practises bio-dynamic farming.
“That is even more stringent than organic,” explains founder Ng Tien Khuan.
“For organic, as long as you don’t have chemical pesticides and fertilisers, you are OK. For bio-dynamic certification, they also test the soil, taste of the vegetables and see how resilient they are on the shelves.”
This writer can testify that the organic vegetables at Terra, and also at GK farm and Ecogreen, are full of fresh, zesty flavour making for delicious, wholesome meals.
Jiri Anderle, a Czech who is working with Ng at Terra, adds:
“The best vineyards of Europe practise bio-dynamic organic farming to ensure their grapes can produce the best taste for premium wines.”
Yes, organic food may cost more, but what price tag do we put on taste?
Environmental, social costs
Beyond personal benefits, commercial food is cheaper because it dumps the costs onto the environment.
“Modern agriculture depends on fertilisers and pesticides,” says Kai Yuen. “But what happens when these are washed into rivers and the sea. It reduces fish populations and gets into the fish, too. Which we end up eating!”
Chin Yew Wah, the founder of Long Life organic farm at Tanjung Tualang near Kampar, Perak, grew up around there in the 1960s and 70s.
“As a child, I remember it was so easy to catch ikan haruan and udang galah in the rivers. Now, with all the oil palm estates around us, it’s much harder to find fish and prawns in the rivers.”
Kai Yuen adds that modern agriculture – to become “efficient” – focuses on a few varieties of rice and fruits in huge fields with only one species, a practice called mono-cropping.
“These have low resistance to pests and depend on pesticides and fertilisers to survive. If there is an outbreak of new forms of pests or plant diseases, huge chunks of our food base will be wiped out.”
Part of Terra farm’s bio-dynamic standards is that the farm must have internal eco-balance.
“For instance, the cowdung for my compost comes from my own cows, which must have bushes for them to eat,” says Ng, whose cows are affectionate, almost like pets – a far cry from the sad beasts of factory farms seen in Food Inc.
It made me want to give up beef. As a little bumper sticker I once saw in an organic cafe said: “Be kind to animals. Don’t eat them.”
Loke adds that eating more veggies is not only good for health but also part of our global social responsibility: “It takes 16 pounds of grain to feed a cow to produce just one pound of meat. All that grain should be used to reduce human starvation.”
Kai Yuen looks at social costs in another way.
“If we insist that organic food must be cheap, qualified people with skills and expertise will not go into it. As it is, many children of farmers no longer want to produce food. What we have instead is industrial agriculture in oil palm and rubber. How many people still want to plant rice and vegetables? In the next generation, who will produce our food? In the long term, this will threaten our food security.”
Gan says that organic farming in Malaysia is still labour-intensive and has not yet achieved the economies of scale.
“We have to do everything by hand, planting, weeding, harvesting – compared to organic farms overseas which are mechanised.”
Despite being one of the most established organic farms in Malaysia (since 1994), Gan says they are still struggling to make ends meet.
“GK farm cannot survive just by selling vegetables. We have to get other income from making fruit enzymes and organising farm visits. We don’t get any support or subsidies from the Government whereas other farmers get subsidies for chemical fertilisers.
Universities also give support by researching chemical agriculture. But we have to use our own money to experiment on how to make the best organic compost.”
He adds that even to get the Sijil Organik Malaysia (Malaysian Organic Certificate from the Department of Agriculture), they have to do lots of extra paper work.
Indeed, the tax-payer’s ringgit subsidises unhealthy agriculture.
It was reported in January 2010 that Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) researcher Assoc Prof Hasnah Md Jais, from the School of Biological Sciences, lamented that despite the huge potential for organic farming in Malaysia, local farmers are not interested in it because they can get government subsidies for chemical fertilisers.
“Some farmers even sell the surplus chemical fertiliser for cash,” she said, adding that agricultural soil is so poor that they contain only 5% of organic matter.
A change in government policy would result in lower prices for healthy, locally-grown organic food. Why, Malaysia could even be turned into a hub for healthy organic food, in line with our push to become a halal hub.
One organic trader says that the Goverment’s halal standard has been written down as MS1500:2004.
“Beyond being halal, it also includes elements of toyyib, which means that, by right, it should not have harmful ingredients (such as pesticides, illegal antibiotics, etc),” says the trader.
“If they strictly follow that standard, as already written down, then I, as a non-Muslim, would also prefer food certified as halal.”
In the meantime, even though organic food does cost a little more, it seems clear that the health, environmental and even social benefits, are more than worth it.