Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Matter Of Trust

Monday, 27 July 2009
Written by Jacqueline Toyad & Elaine Lau

From just looking at it, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between organically and conventionally grown produce. As a consumer, you trust that the organic produce that you’re paying a premium for is grown without the use of agrochemicals. But is that really the case? The Options team led by Jacqueline Toyad and Elaine Lau investigates.

The Options team, together with Wild Asia, a social enterprise that supports the conservation of natural areas and promotes sustainable practices, set about finding out how pure our local organic produce is. We purchased three types of organic produce — chillies, lettuce and tomatoes — of a number of brands from different retailers and also conventionally grown ones to provide a point of comparison (for more details, see box). We were looking to see the amount of surface pesticide residue on the produce with the help of a pesticide sensor called Agri Stick. Developed by Japanese company AR Brown Co Ltd, the kit is brought in here by BioNet International Sdn Bhd, which specialises in biotechnology with an emphasis on biosensors.

The Agri Stick tests for surface organophosphate and carbamate pesticide residues, the two most common ones found on fruits and vegetables. However, the results from this test are to be used as a guideline only. This is because the Agri Stick does not give the exact levels of pesticide residue but an estimate on whether there are traces or high amounts, or none at all. The kit does not test for any pesticides that may have penetrated the produce.

A handful of chillis are rinsed and shaken in a bag filled with bottled water for 10 minutes. Representatives from BioNet International guided us through the process, which was surprisingly easy and relatively quick. A portion of each produce was put in separate bags and filled one-third of the way with drinking water, then shaken vigorously to dislodge any pesticide residue. This water was then put in individual testing tubes and shaken again to dissolve white reagents inside the tubes, and after a two-minute interval, a test stick was inserted. The sticks were left to incubate for 10 minutes before being inserted into a separate tube filled with colour reaction liquid that was also shaken. After being immersed for five minutes, the colour reaction portions took on greenish or bluish hues, or remained white. The colours were then read using a chart to determine the amount of pesticide residue.

The results served up a number of surprises. In the chillies, what was most unusual was that a conventionally grown brand registered no surface pesticide residue, whereas the three organically grown ones had traces of residue on them. One aeroponically grown brand of lettuce had no residue, and two out of the four organic lettuce had trace amounts. What made it even more shocking was that one even certified organic! With tomatoes, again, one conventionally grown brand (from Cameron Highlands, no less!) turned up negative for residues, but only one out of the four organic varieties fared just as well.

The results from the organic veggies were disappointing, to say the least. How is it possible that organic produce could turn out to be contaminated? With our faith in the purity of produce sold at organic shops a little shaken, we sought out two of the largest specialised organic retailers in the Klang Valley — Justlife and Country Farm Organics (CFO), to answer our nagging questions.

Both retailers tell us they personally visited the organic farms, talked to the farmers and looked at their farming practices to ensure that they were genuinely organic before agreeing to carry their produce in the stores. Justlife and CFO also make it a point to visit the farms at least once a year. Callie Tai, CEO of Justlife, and Selina Gan, founder and managing director of CFO, both describe their relationship with the organic farmers as based on trust.

Says Tai, “I trust our farmers. We choose our farmers in our own way. They may not be the best farmers in the sense the veggie may not be the best looking, and they may not have the best mix, but we choose our farmers based on their integrity and passion, why they want to go organic in the first place.”

Gan takes an upfront approach with the farmers she sources from. “We are very frank with them… what we want is genuine. I don’t expect them to cheat us. Our relationship has to be based on trust, otherwise it’s very difficult,” she says.

While testing the chillies, we found some that were labelled organic tested positive for pesticide residues. These were from Justlife as well as CFO. We contacted Justlife, which was quick to respond, arranging for us to meet Tai and Yahqappu Adaikkalam, the farmer who supplied the particular chillies to Justlife.

When we finally met up, Yahqappu explained that his farm, The Lord’s Garden Organic Farm, is located next to a jasmine farm that uses a lot of industrial-grade pesticides. A road separates the two farms and Yahqappu has also planted a buffer zone of banana trees. He thought that was sufficient to prevent pesticide sprays from spilling over into his chilli plot, which is situated nearest to the jasmine plantation.
“There are days I can smell when they are spraying from the house where I’m staying… But I never thought it could have an effect on the chillies,” he says.

Unfortunately, Yahqappu is not the only case. The situation is such that many organic farms in Malaysia are situated next to conventional farms. Currently, conventional farms far outnumber organic ones in our country, and organic farmers have to deal with contaminated soil (particularly conversion farms, that is, land newly converted to organic farming from conventional and which might have higher traces of contamination), air and sometimes even water. Organic farming is still in a nascent stage in this country and therefore, is still experiencing growing pains. Every care may be taken to ensure that farming methods are organic, but sometimes there are external factors that come into play that are beyond the control of farmers.

Instead of being so wrapped up in whether the produce is pure or not, Tai says we should focus on the effort the farmer has taken to farm organically. Organic farming is not an easy thing to venture into — it takes a lot of dedication, hard work and perseverance. As Gan says, “Those who choose to do organic farming do it because of their belief, their love and passion for organic [earth]. These efforts need to be supported and encouraged… organic farming is so much better for the environment. Sustainable organic farming is the way of the future.”

Says Tai, “When we talk about traces, there will always be some in our soil and air, unfortunately. But if because of that we stop supporting organic farmers, that’s the end. In pursuit of perfection, we will lose this big piece of it. To us, selection is not so much on the quality. To us, the No 1 thing is passion — passionate farmers who share the same vision and who believe we can have organic earth. That is our vision. Whether it happens in our lifetime doesn’t matter, but it’s a dream worth pursuing.”

Justlife strives to be transparent with its customers. “If it’s produce from conversion land, we will sell it at conversion grade, which is half the price. So customers have a choice,” says Tai.

“Our produce, we label them ‘organically grown’ and not certified organic. There is a difference,” says Gan. “We try to educate our customers and teach them what to look for.” Organically grown means that the farming methods are organic, but does not take into account other non-controllable factors, such as spillover from neighbouring farms.

The challenge for us then is to look beyond the issue — that the local organic produce we buy may be contaminated — and instead have the larger picture in mind. At the end of the day, it is crucial to support sustainable organic farming practices. Buying and consuming local organic produce will contribute towards a healthier earth and, ultimately, a better world for future generations.

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 765, July 27-Aug 2, 2009.

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