Eating “organic” is all the rage these days.
More items in supermarkets are sporting “Certified Organic” labels — many buy them in the name of “eating clean”, while others with less disposable income scoff them off as a fad that gives farmers an excuse to over-price their produce. What actually qualifies vegetables for this label, and how does it bear on agriculture and nutrition?
In essence, organic farming eschews the use of any and all synthetic or artificially produced substances, and seeks to conserve, protect, and promote biodiversity in its environment. It’s a return to basics that makes profitability more difficult, especially in the short-term, but dedicated practitioners have their sights set on the future instead of the short-term advantage.
Organically grown produce anecdotally tastes superior to conventionally farmed veggies. Tai Seng Yee, executive director at Zenxin Agri-Organic Food in Kluang, Johor, recalls how his family first discovered the organic difference: “We started out producing organic fertiliser. As there weren’t many organic farms around 16 years ago, my father and I went to Cameron Highlands in search of more sales opportunities. The cabbages grown tasted so good. We stuffed the car with them to share with friends and family in our hometown.”
The resultant consensus on the cabbages’ quality convinced the Tais that organic farming held a viable future; it was later in the journey that they appreciated how it could benefit more than just themselves. Today, Zenxin Organics’ produce is sold in supermarkets in both Malaysia and Singapore.
Experientially, the health benefits of a chemical-free diet aren’t just fancy facts one reads about in news reports. Chai Nian Kun, admin manager, Fire Flies Health Farm, says the Lim Chu Kang acreage was set up by his parents as a conventional affair that utilised chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Plagued by a number of health issues, “they kept a small plot in which they used little or no chemicals on the vegetables for our own consumption”. And soon, visits to the doctor grew less and less frequent.
Then, Chai says, “One day it dawned on us: How can we sell food that we would not even eat ourselves?” Today, apart from retailing organic produce, Fire Flies also sells organic compost, conducts eco-tours, and runs a service that designs and sets up mini organic gardens in homes and offices.
And science refutes any cynical allegations of a placebo effect, says Dr Lemuel Ng, one of FOLO (Feed Our Loved Ones) Farms’ founders. He spearheads the team’s forays into the latest in nutritional and agricultural science. Convinced that conventionally farmed food causes more harm than good, they started the first farm to feed their own families — the visible, quantitative benefits of eating the work of their hands has since brought many more people on board. FOLO has now grown into a multi-site affair complete with a composting centre, where about three tonnes of food waste collected from the neighbourhood is processed daily. Its Community Supported Agriculture model currently feeds 80 families.
Composting is the controlled decomposition of organic material by natural agents like bacteria, fungi and earthworms into rich humus, a natural fertiliser. “It helps our urban soil recover, enabling us to grow vegetables that are healthy and more resistant, and [to grow them] more intensively,” says Will Chua, head of one of FOLO’s six founding families.
The fact that composting encourages and supports diverse populations of microbes and other fauna is proof that ecology is relevant to everyone, not just farmers — the latter will testify though that exposure to these critters is more than just about “co-existing in harmony with nature”, as Chai puts it. FOLO’s members are living proof that exposure to microbe-rich soil improves immunity lowers the risk of developing allergies and asthma.
Crop rotation, which Zenxin practises, is another way to ensure biological diversity and healthy harvests. Different plants use up the nutrients in soil differently, and pests tend to be creatures of habit, so changing things around not only allows soil to rest and recover but also helps to reduce attacks from bugs and hence the need for pesticides.
In any case, “sharing” the harvest isn’t all bad. “My parents say that what is left after the insects have eaten is for us to sell,” Chai says. “Love and respect for nature is very important to us. Everything is given its rightful time to grow and develop, and we hope for everyone to be able to eat with peace of mind.”
And organic farming isn’t hereditary, nor the province of the less educated. Chua reveals that FOLO’s shared industrial experience includes farming, construction, civil engineering, real estate, manufacturing, social work, business, marketing communications, banking, accounting, medicine, and even the Singapore public sector. Everyone’s hands-on whenever work needs to be done. “Being a community effort gives added meaning to our work,” Chua says. And the sharing of risks as well as the building of trust it entails has helped them leverage economies of scale and become profitable less than a year from inception.
Zenxin’s robust retail network and FOLO’s thriving community model have one thing going for them that Fire Flies doesn’t — Malaysia’s vastness. Available parcels of arable land are comparatively easier to acquire and maintain. Chai shares that in Singapore, land scarcity and a focus on technology, services and profitability translate into various profitability and leasing issues, the worst of which is short and uncertain leases. Fire Flies has had to diversify its business to survive.
While he did not set out to tackle this problem, Calvin Soh’s unique perspective and ideas are a light in the dark. He and his family have converted their landed home in Telok Kurau into “One Kind House, a 21st-century kampung (village) to take traditions from the past into the future”.
One Kind House is neither a farm nor a cafe, though urban organic and hydroponic farming are important in its garden-to-table hosting function. In the past, Soh says, the house was surrounded by kampungs: “We recycled our food and waste, raised our own veggies and chickens, and could walk into the kampungs to buy home-cooked food. How, in just two and a half generations, did we change from being open to closed?
“Being connected to nature and growing your own food makes you more appreciative. We recycle our food waste and make our own organic pesticide. We run a cafe of sorts. One Kind House is a prototype of what an HDB flat with urban farming built in can be. It is also a prototype of a 21st-century community centre. We want to build an ecosystem of kindness.”
Zenxin wants more people to understand that “we are what we eat”; Fire Flies seeks to educate everyone about the importance of harmonious co-existence with nature; FOLO dreams of how food waste in cities can be transformed into what its website calls “the most microbe-diverse compost in the world, powering urban farms such that we can attain not just food security, but food sovereignty together”. The question now, as Chua puts it, is this: Can we make it happen together?
Interested in a farm visit? Click here to find out more.
By Annabelle Bok; This story first appeared on The Peak, March 2017.
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