Ways to go organic

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 November 2011 © The Nut Graph

Organic pumpkins (© Richard Smith | Flickr)

WE are what we eat. But how often do we think about where our food comes from and how is it processed?

I started taking an interest in organic food due to health and ethical concerns. It is encouraging to observe growing consumer interest in organic products and the mushrooming of retail outlets such as Country Farm Organics, Justlife Shop and Little Green Planet.

But while organic food is increasingly accessible to the public, it is still not necessarily affordable for all. On top of that, I’m often put off by blatant claims like “100% Natural” made by certain farmers or manufacturers.

How do we know if the food is truly organic and what are some of the certification schemes we can rely on? Is it possible for consumers to go organic with a limited budget?

Organic certifications

A common misconception surrounding organic farming is that it merely involves agriculture without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.

In reality, it is more complex than that and involves sustainable agricultural practices that should minimise soil erosion, protect water quality and wildlife as well as safeguard workers’ rights.

Well-known foreign organic certifications include, among others:

  • Australia’s National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA),
  • Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS),
  • the US’s National Organic Program (NOP),
  • Sweden’s KRAV; and
  • Netherland’s Skal.

L-r: NASAA logo (source: nasaa.com.au); JAS logo (source: maff.gov.jp/jas); USDA logo, KRAV logo and Skal logo (source: skal.nl)

Skim Organik Malaysia (source: doa.gov.my)

While previously it was free-for-all in Malaysia, since 2011 only products certified under the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Ministry’s Skim Organik Malaysia(SOM) can be labelled as “organic”.

Those who claim their products to be “organic” without SOM certification can be fined up to RM5,000 for breaching Food Regulations 1985. However, consumers should still be wary.

“Discerning consumers should be careful and ask for certification,” said Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia (Cetdem) chairperson Gurmit Singh in an email interview.

Gurmit Singh (file pic)

The veteran environmentalist also advises the public to read product labels and encourages them to visit organic farms and even grow their own produce.

Cetdem operates an organic farming community centre and regularly organises Organic Day in the Klang Valley, which allows consumers to meet organic farmers, producers and retailers. It also published a local organic guide book in 2009.

Shopping organic on a limited budget

“As a beginner, you can stretch your dollar by buying local fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking at home,” said Justlife Shop chief executive officer Callie Tai.

Eating fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown, is still better than consuming processed foods and other less healthy alternatives, according to the US-based Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide in Produce.

Organic pineapples (© Noah Markus | Flickr)

The 2011 guide shows fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residues and are therefore the most important to buy organic. The top three are apples, celery and strawberries.

Alternatively, consumers can switch to the least contaminated conventional fruits and vegetables like sweet corn, pineapples, avocados, asparagus and mangos, as ranked by the US-EWG list. However, agricultural practices can differ from country to country and even from farm to farm, and consumers would do well to be aware of alleged claims by their local watchdogs about excessive pesticide use or other chemicals used to accelerate the ripening of fruits.

Next, Tai recommends switching the essentials such as cooking oil, rice, salt, sweeteners and condiments in your kitchen.

“These essentials may seem more expensive compared to conventional products but you don’t use a lot of it each time and you will stop feeding your body synthetic chemicals that can’t be metabolised,” added the social entrepreneur.

Eco-enzyme, for household cleaning (© Lainie Yeoh)

Subsequently, start switching your conventional synthetic chemical-based household cleaning products to eco-friendly ones such as baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and eco-enzymes.

Tai pointed out that it would be more economical to go organic in the long run as one would end up saving on medical bills by having a stronger immune system and healthier body.

Changing conventional habits

“There is plenty of information about organic living in books and on the Internet. What is difficult is to inspire people to start reading and practising it,” said Tai.

Indeed, for people like me who have grown used to the convenience of fast food and processed food, it is difficult to switch to organic. In addition, I grew up in a quick-fix society that is often motivated by short-term, not long-term benefits.

But I do strongly believe in the core principles of organic agriculture, and that as intelligent beings, surely humans are capable of producing and consuming food without adversely affecting our own health and ecosystems.

By identifying real organic food via recognised organic certifications and by budgeting carefully to start shopping organic step by step, it is possible to lead a more sustainable way of life and leave a lighter footprint on Earth.

Gan Pei Ling plans to become an organic farmer one day so that she can produce healthy food for her family, friends and local community.