Or­ganic food: cheaper in the long run

Nat­u­ral or or­ganic food may seem ex­pen­sive, but in the long run, it works out to be cheaper.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - by AN­DReW SIA

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 “chem­i­cal­free” 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 hy­per­ac­tive 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.” On DQ Clean Chicken farm, you’ll hear chick­ens cluck­ing hap­pily away as they wan­der about eat­ing grass, legumes, veg­eta­bles and in­sects.

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 mi­cronu­tri­ents 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 agros­cience 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.

On Terra Or­ganic Farm, Ng Tien Khuan’s cows pro­vide the cow­dung that goes into his or­ganic com­post.

“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 bio­dy­namic 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 ecobal­ance.

“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

One with na­ture:

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