World Food Day is observed on Oct 16. It provides an opportune time to take a closer look at what we tuck into daily.
Organic food as an alternative to pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables that flood the market.
OH no, not another preachy health food article!” A common reaction during our invincible youth, when we are free to eat whatever we want as it seems nothing will stop us from living forever – into an unimaginably ancient age at least.
But, as this writer discovered, the steady march of time reaps a harvest of little niggly aches and pains, spells of low energy and ominous head-shaking from doctors reading cholesterol test levels.
I, too, once believed that organic food was an over-priced indulgence of health freaks. But then I discovered that I felt more energetic because it digested well in my body, whereas some of the char koay teow or oily curry seemed to sit forever in my stomach, causing post-lunch lethargy.
Being a fussy foodie used to the wonderful flavours of Malaysian food, I was worried that healthy food was, well, bland. And I could not believe that organic vegetarian food could be so tasty until I had tried the buffet at GK Organic Farm near Bangi, Selangor.
The spaghetti (dressed with a pesto made from olive oil plus local peanuts and sweet basil), the French beans (served with a luscious peanut butter sauce), the corn soup and the steamed pulut with pumpkin and beans all earned top marks in my book.
The cook, Tai Lee Shyong, a former hotel and cruise liner chef, explains: “People complain that organic food has no kick. For me, taste and presentation are important. We use a variety of ingredients like roselle leaves, lemon, sugar cane syrup, papaya, cucumber and ulam raja, all grown here, to give stronger flavours.”
Another cafe I frequent is Eco Green in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur (ecogreen.com.my). I love their rainbow noodles made with natural colourings of spinach (green) and beetroot (red) served with a zesty cream sauce made from pine nuts, alfafa, capsicum and cucumber.
Its boss, Wong Kai Yuen, likes to spread the good news about organic food to his regulars.
“I had hypertension,” recalls this former engineer. “I wanted natural remedies instead of pills. That’s how I got into organic food.”
Wong told me about the wealth of books and movies that reveal how our food is changing into “industrial” commodities churned out by big corporations.
As it happens, during an Emirates flight I took this year, the documentary Food Inc (which is also available on YouTube) was playing. It showed how cows are raised on “factory farms” in America, crammed into narrow feed lots, standing ankledeep in their own manure the whole day. With such filthy conditions, they are fed with antibiotics to keep them alive.
Similarly, chickens are “express grown” in half or less the time they used to need, making them so weak that their bones and internal organs can hardly support their bulk of flesh. And their politics of farm subsidies is so brilliant that it’s cheaper to buy two cheese burgers than a head of broccoli – so that the poor blacks and Hispanics in America end up able to afford only processed crap, and then fall prey to obesity, diabetes and heart conditions.
Were the horrors of Food Inc also applicable in Malaysia, I wondered. For chickens, it seems the answer is yes.
One chicken farmer, who fears being quoted because of what the “big boys may do”, reveals that it’s now an industry with “integrated” operators who control the whole cycle, from eggs right up to selling them in restaurants.
“I know that they reprocess the oil used to fry chickens even though it is high in trans-fats and carcinogens. And then they feed it back to their live chickens.
“The goal of commercial farmers is to become more ‘efficient’ by reducing the space needed. One CEO of a chicken company proudly declared that he could raise each chicken with only 0.75sqft ( 0.07sqm) of space, that’s about the size of an A4-size piece of paper!” Because of such dense populations, commercial farmers are always worried about disease breaking out, so antibiotics are incorporated into the feed as a preventive. And some antibiotics like gentamycin may cause kidney and heart problems.
“It’s brought in very cheaply from Thailand and China. Government regulations on antibiotic use are not being followed.”
Loke Siew Foong, the founder of Radiant Whole Foods (radiantwholefood.com.my), an importer and distributor of organic produce, shares: “My mother used to rear chickens and we fed them with leftover vegetables and rice. I am concerned about the use of hormones to raise chickens. Why is it that nowadays girls start menstruating at the age of eight, while boys are growing breasts.”
Gan Koon Chai, the founder of GK Organic Farm (gk_organicfarm@ yahoo.com) near Bangi, Selangor, is concerned that pollution from plastics and pesticides mimic our hormones.
“They are called endocrine disrupters. This could be one reason why men are becoming more feminine while women are becoming more manly.”
Even oil is extracted through chemicals, notes Loke.
“If seeds are just cold-pressed, it yields less oil than if chemical solvents like hexane are used to extract the oil. And then they have to use another chemical to remove the hexane! And they say that no traces of these chemicals are left in the oil.”
An article I read in the Utusan Konsumer years ago caught my eye – that sperm count was declining globally due to chemical pollution in our food, water and air.
Areas which grow padi may be prone to having more lelaki lembut (effeminate men).
According to Hatijah Hashim, a senior research officer at the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), their survey has found that padi farmers in various parts of Kedah openly admit to spraying their crops with endosulfan, an endocrine disrupter which has been banned in Malaysia since 2005.
“The pesticide can be easily bought from shops selling agricultural chemicals, for RM32 in an unlabelled one-litre bottle. It is generally called racun Cina (Chinese poison) as the packaging only has Chinese characters,” she says.
“Farmers use it to get rid of the golden apple snail ( siput gondang emas) which feeds on padi and saplings. It takes only 15 minutes to kill the snails compared to two weeks with other pesticides.”
However, a few weeks after spraying endosulfan, farmers often suffer from skin problems and weak joints.
“There are safer ways,” says Hatijah, “For example, ducks reared in padi fields will feed on the snails.”
Another possible gender bender is bisphenol, which is used to make clear plastic drinking bottles.
Chin Yew Wah, the founder of Long Life Organic farm (% 017-483 8387) near Tanjung Tualang, Perak, says that he is also very concerned with how oil is kept in plastic bottles (at supermarkets for instance).
“Plastic molecules have an affinity to oil and will leach out. Even for water, if you leave a plastic bottle in the car for some time, you can smell the plastic.
Gan alleges that plastic is sometimes added while frying goreng
pisang and yeow char koay to make them more crispy.
“That’s why they are still crispy even half a day after you pack them home.”
Sure, my wishful thinking declares that cancer and heart attack will never happen to me. But if it’s going to involve the crown jewels, it was time for action! And so I resolved to watch my
goreng pisang very carefully. And to buy stainless steel drinking bottles, which, by the way, look a whole lot more cool and rugged than the ubiquitous plastic ones.
What about other food?
“If we buy beef from America, it will most probably be raised in feed lots and pumped with antibiotics. At least in Malaysia the kampung cows are still wandering about,” says Eco Green’s Wong.
“Even roti canai dough balls are now pre-made in factories. And for white bread, it’s not just that refined white flour has had many nutrients processed away from it. It’s a double whammy as there are other chemical additives like preservatives and loaf improvers. The bread rises more and looks bigger and feels softer, but it actually weighs less!”
Another foodie friend tells me the way to gauge good bread: “Feel how heavy it is.”
“An organic grain can sprout shoots and roots if you leave it in wet soil. It’s alive! But if rice seeds have been fumigated with pesticides and other chemicals, they can last on the shelves for a long time, but the food is dead,” says Loke.
Ng Tien Khuan (% 012-219 2582) has taken “living food” to new “biodynamic” heights at his Terra Organic Farm in Lojing Highlands, Kelantan (just next to Cameron Highlands).
He used to wander freely in padi fields and rivers around his kampung of Titi Serong, near Parit Buntar, Perak.
Nowadays, this ex-lecturer and holder of a Masters in Physics from Universiti Malaya practises biodynamic farming, an enhanced version of organic farming.
His Physics did teach him one thing about farming though.
“Conventional science oversimplifies things. I studied the chaos theory of how complex systems work in the real world.”
He explains that in nature, plants absorb nutrients through a complex interaction of bacteria and fungi on their roots. When plants are “hungry”, they secrete certain biotransmitters that signal that they need certain nutrients.
“Plants absorb only the nutrients that they need, and so each has a unique flavour. Whereas when you put chemical fertilisers in the soil, you are literally force-feeding the plant. When you eat such vegetables, for example tomatoes, they are bloated with water but not much flavour.
“All that excess fertiliser, including nitrates, are kept inside the plant, and when we eat it, it affects our health. So nowadays, it’s not just about the pesticides, the problem is inside the plant itself.”
To worsen matters, the overload of fertiliser makes the cell wall of plants thin and weak, and easily attacked by pests. And that’s when farmers are forced to use pesticides.
For Ng’s children, the farm is also their playground, and they wander freely about, plucking whatever veggies take their fancy and eating it there and then. Talk about fresh. And so unlike other farms where the smell of pesticides hangs heavy in the air – not a place for children to frolic in.
Ng makes compost on site, using complex bio-dynamic formulations – one involves putting cow dung inside a water buffalo horn and burying it in the ground for several months.
“Commercial compost is dry as it’s easier to transport,” he says. “True compost must be wet and full of micro-organisms. It’s alive. It’s like bio-living yogurt versus yogurt powder.”
Ng suffered heavy losses from pests initially and it took two years for the soil and its micro-organisms to “mature and connect”.
“Then my plants became stronger and could resist pests on their own.”
Can’t we just take supplements to make up for what’s missing in our diet? That is the beauty of biodynamic farming. All those microorganisms produce so many micronutrients that are almost impossible to replicate.
Physicist Ng also explains the difference between natural and synthetic vitamins.
“The molecule could be the same but their spin and polarity, their energy, could be different and that affects the way it is used and absorbed by the body. Similarly, nowadays people talk of normal and energised water, even though it is the same H2O molecule. For me, I never keep water in plastic containers, only in claypots.”
The wonders of living “bio-dynamic” food were firmly implanted in my tastebuds as Ng served such deeply flavourful broccoli and carrots at dinner. But back in KL, was my food alive?
He reveals that many commercial farmers in Cameron Highlands actually remove the topsoil as it is acidic.
“They rely on fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides. The mindset is to protect the vegetables only. They are not aware that by improving the soil, you will automatically protect the vegetables, too.
“Anyway, chemical fertiliser and pesticide companies are big business in Camerons. It’s not in their interest to educate farmers to use the biological way.”
Indeed, the CAP website notes that despite a 10-fold increase in insecticide use in recent years, studies have shown a proliferation in different types of pests by 30%.
Wong Hock Seng, the founder of DQ Clean Chicken farm in Bukit Tinggi, Pahang, can see dozens of small farms supplying vegetables to big and small markets in KL nearby.
“They never stop spraying pesticides even at harvest time. They are run by less-educated foreign workers.
“We can’t just blame the Agriculture Department for lack of enforcement. They have no power to control our borders through which illegal pesticides come in easily. They can’t control foreign workers or illegal land clearing either. It’s a problem with the whole system.”
CAP’s Hatijah notes that farmers like to mix different pesticides into a deadly “cocktail” to knock out pests which have developed chemical resistance, while Ng says he has seen cheap, banned pesticides from China and Thailand being used in Cameron Highlands.
He reveals that vegetables with “too much” pesticides can’t enter Singapore and are instead sold in Malaysia.
“Some commercial farmers will try to send in samples from organic farms to pass the tests. That’s why Singapore decided to send their own inspectors to check the farms before allowing any imports.”
Dead food extends beyond vegetables.
Hatijah tells me about formaldehyde, a chemical that is used to preserve dead bodies. And shockingly, our laws actually allow its use in seafood (up to 2,000 parts per million).
“When CAP brought up the issue back in 1994, formaldehyde was prohibited in food. However, now things have changed,” she reveals. “We don’t really know why.”
And there’s another killer – boric acid. In 1988, it was associated with the deaths of 13 people in Perak who ate loh shee fun noodles. Several people also died in Jawa four years ago from contaminated
bakso noodles. But a CAP press release in May last year revealed that it was still being used in bak chang (Chinese dumplings), yellow noodles and nyonya kuih at wet markets in Penang, even though it has been banned since 1985.
“Boric acid is so toxic that even small amounts can lead to poisoning, gastrointestinal illness, kidney damage and loss of appetite,” says CAP President S.M. Idris.
Authorities may dismiss all this with that over-used phrase of “a few isolated cases”. But they are not. CAP’s previous tests in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007 and
2008 have all found boric acid in various foods.
“It is popularly used by traders to preserve the freshness of fish, prawns and meat. They either soak seafood in boric acid or rub it onto meat,” adds Idris, who is shocked that it’s still around after 25 years.
In this atmosphere of loose laws and lax enforcement, it’s no wonder that people are turning to food producers that they can trust.
“Organic food should not just be for cancer patients. By then, isn’t it a bit late?” says Radiant White Foods’ Loke. “I used to be a volunteer at the hospice for cancer patients. Many of them told me that their diet was a big factor in their sickness.
“I was a purchasing manager (for a major department store) before, so I know how it works,” she recalls. “Everything is pricedriven, it’s not so much about quality. When I talk to supermarkets, they hardly ever ask me: ‘Why is your product better?’ Instead, they ask: ‘What is your budget to promote your product?’ It’s all about ringgit and sen for each square feet of their supermarket shelves.
“I know I can’t compete with the products of the big multi-nationals but luckily Jaya Jusco was kind enough to give me one bay (on their shelves). Sales have grown by 20% to 30% each year and now I have six, seven bays. People are more conscious and are willing to pay a bit more for the sake of health.”
For those who do not want to go vegetarian, there are suppliers selling chicken and fish clean from chemical contamination.
For a start, Loke recommends that we do a gradual transition.
“If we are too drastic, we may just give up. So go slowly. Start by cleaning up the body system over two or three weeks with a detox, for example, with a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar.
“Also abstain from trans-fats (especially in margarine) and fatty meats. It’s no point going into organic when you keep putting junk inside you.” Do you always get coughs and colds? “I used to drink milk every morning without fail. And I used to get flu, coughs and colds often,” she remembers.
“When I stopped taking milk, I was cured! Our bodies lack the enzyme casein to digest milk and so it ends up producing more phlegm and mucous in our lungs which then leads to coughs and colds.”
“I believe in natural healing from within. When our bodies are healthy inside, we don’t get a cold.”
Next, she recommends switching away from the “four whites” – white sugar, white flour, white salt and white rice – towards healthier alternatives.
“I consider white refined sugar to be a poison. It not only promotes diabetes and obesity but also feeds cancer cells. Try to switch to molasses or honey,” she reveals.
As for refined salt, there are “anti-caking agents” to ensure that it flows well in the shaker. And it has been bleached to whiten it!
“Natural sea salt is a better option.”
As for Long Life Organic’s Chin, he aims to live past a hundred. He worked in America for 15 years in Chinese restaurants and was always falling sick.
“I was eating garbage. Then I cut off meat and went organic and I felt my body becoming strong again. I’ve not seen a doctor for almost 20 years now.
“Planting vegetables in this fresh environment is my form of exercise, detox and meditation. I believe that for every day that we stress ourselves at work while eating poor food, we will lose two or three hours of our life span.
“With the right support, the body can heal itself. Whenever I don’t feel so good, I fast, drink water with lime in it, and sleep early. Next day, I am fine.” n For more information on food quality, watch the movie FoodMatters (foodmatters. tv) and read the books TheOmnivore’s Dilemma and FastFoodNation or visit CAP’s website (consumer.org.my).
Tomorrow: Affordable organic
Natural way: ‘We make our own compost. When the soil is good, then the plants will be strong, healthy and able to resists pests without using chemicals,’ explains Gan Koon Chai, the founder of GK Organic Farm.
Wong Kai Yuen, the founder of Eco Green organic cafe, uses lots of fresh ingredients to impart zesty flavours to the dishes served there.
Ng Tien Khuan’s children can pluck and eat whatever veggies they want on the spot – because it’s safe to eat.