From aversion towards organic vegetables, to a struggling organic farmer!
While living in the US, Whole Foods was my least favorite grocery store. It was nicely set up, like a clean wet market, but their goods were marketed and labelled as "organic", and therefore pricier than a regular grocery store. It was not a complete aversion towards organic produce, I just didn’t see it as the best means to feed the poor and the hungry, especially when you're campaigning for diet diversity with fruits and vegetables. Usually, families who need to be educated about diet diversity are low income, and cannot even afford to buy regular food available in a regular market, and Whole Foods is not your regular kind of market.
In 2012, Stanford University published a study comparing non-organic and organic produce, that nutrition-wise, there was no difference between the two (duh!). In another study by Bruce Ames from University of California showed that the use of synthetic pesticides and natural pesticides were no different from each other when it comes to causing cancer, and that eating organic foods reduces risk of cancer by only one ten thousandth percent . The article by Henry Miller in 2015 explains that produce labeled as "organic" does not require them to be GMO free” (not that I am anti-GMO). To top it off, the environment (as in Mother Earth) is so polluted that most of our produce, whether organic or not, have some form of contamination! Over all, the extra $$ for organic foods was not worth it. And I couldn’t agree more! Even if I wanted to choose organic, I could not get myself to buy something that seemed more like a marketing label than an added value with added cost. Organic produce are usually more expensive because it has a much smaller yield than non-organic produce. Therefore, lower yield will require higher price in the market. My sentiments regarding organic fruits and vegetables were confirmed when a friend from Seattle, who was once an organic strawberry producer (he was a big supplier to Whole Foods) shared his reasons why he gave up organic farming. He was particularly negative about Whole Foods, which he described as "over rated". In terms of claims on labels as being 100% organic, "don't believe it!" he declared.
My conversion happened while visiting the public schools in the rural areas of Laguna in the Philippines! How can that be? Organic produce seems so progressive, much sought after by the health conscious young professionals living in the cities, where Farmers' Markets have become the posh and "in" place to hang out on a Saturday morning! It was definitely the "trendy choice" in Washington DC, where you have a mix of young, and the more senior professionals, and retirees whose criteria for a "good neighborhood" was having a Whole Foods grocery (and a Starbucks!) around the corner. Meanwhile, the low income bracket in the US, who are relatively better off than the rural poor of a less developed country such as the Philippines, can't even afford non-organic fruits and vegetables much less the organic produce!
The visits to the school gardens was part of a project funded by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It was not the first school gardening program for the public schools because the Department of Education had mandated the "Gulayan sa Paaralan" project wherein every public school must plant vegetables! What makes the SEARCA/ADB project unique was the integration of the vegetable garden into the school curriculum, it promoted organic farming, and it was designed as an edible landscape. There were only 6 pilot schools under the SEARCA/ADB project. The six pilot schools planted herbs, vegetables, following the principles of edible landscaping, with a mix of ornamentals for beautification and pest control. Schools that were more successful in establishing their vegetable gardens planted everything in the song "Bahay Kubo' (including the kubo), broccoli, carrots, onions, and other plants that were considered weeds and grass but turned out to be edible. Also, harvests from the school garden supplemented the feeding program, another mandatory program of The Department of Education, which aims to provide lunch to underweight school children. Like other feeding programs, some parents and children are stigmatized or lack the appreciation of feeding programs. However, the school garden gives an added value by making children (both targeted and un-targeted) more aware of the nutritional value of vegetables in the diet. The children learn and have better appreciation of vegetables especially when they participate in maintaining the school garden. As they learned more about the vegetables using their senses, they associate the herbs with familiar foods. For example, the children tagged mint with double mint gum, taragon with Sarsi Cola, and spearmint with Mentos candy because of the similarity in flavor. The nutrition awareness maybe secondary because being able to identify the different types of vegetables and discover similarities with food they know (and like) seemed more exciting to both children and parents. The impact of the vegetable garden on school feeding program, and the nutrition of children has yet to be determined, but from my personal observation, long term implementation of school gardens and continuous support for the school may prove fruitful.
I was so inspired by the school gardens in the pilot study that I wanted to quit my day job (just 1 month into the job) and start planting in my backyard. Suddenly I was interested in organic farming! From my interviews with parents and teachers, I learned about their own conversion. As they became more involved in the project, they became more conscious of the vegetables they purchased in the market, preferring scarred vegetables over unblemished ones. This reminded me of how my grandmother during marketing would take time (lots of time!) to choose eggplant with a little bit of scarring and obvious insect bite. It took time because most eggplants are treated with pesticides, so there were hardly any scarred vegetables being sold. A post harvest expert told me once that farmers would wipe the skin of the eggplant with a thin coat of kerosene to make it look shiny (and more marketable)! That’s something one learns from an incidental conversation with someone who happens to be an expert! Fortunately, the parents in the community have more access to information nowadays. Once it was established, the school vegetable garden became the main source for parents and teachers to ensure that the vegetables they consumed are organically grown.
So with much help from our small community at home (we are 3 families in a compound), we started our own vegetable garden. Our handyman constructed bamboo domes for vines such as bitter gourds, and squash, and a trellis from steel wire for eggplants and string beans. We also attempted to plant orange sweet potato from a tuber we bought from a street vendor, and some ginger and pine apple that is taking forever to bear fruit! There has also been some “barter trading” with friends who kindly share their materials for planting (e.g. turmeric and ginger, etc). It has not been easy to fully implement an organic farm. We tried experimenting with different kinds of compost and organic pesticide to maintain the quality of the vegetables, but it has not been easy. So far, used coffee grounds have been the most effective both for the ornamentals and the vegetables. Time is important! One needs to put in time to study organic farming if you really want to have good harvest on a regular basis. Time also for segregating waste that can be used for composting and proper disposal. It is hard work but knowing that so many are into (successful) organic farming in our community, I know it is possible. One of the things that my Filipino friends in the US worried about living in the Philippines is if they will be able to get good quality food, by this they meant safe and organic! They will be surprised to know, as I was, that backyard and urban organic farming in the Philippines is prolific! It is possible to get safe and good quality vegetables even from your own backyard, no matter how big or small. The best part of organic vegetable farming in the Philippines is that it is common in the rural communities, and not just a trendy choice among high income city dwellers.
Just recently, the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) of The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) launched their urban garden to promote vegetable consumption. This campaign is being implemented by the government agency in response to slow increase in vegetable consumption among Filipinos, which increased by only 4 grams per person in a span of 5 years, according to the National Survey. Within our own community in the University town of Los Banos, organic farmers formed the Los Baños Association of Organic Fruit and Vegetable Growers, which is registered under the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to ensure government support. Member farmers produce a variety of organic fruits and vegetables in several communities in Los Banos. The association is also a member of Laguna Organic Practitioners Federation (LOPF) that helps promote organic agriculture in the province. Support for organic farming has been a joint endeavor by the local government and research centers , especially in the province of Laguna where organic farming has generated income for families in rural communities.
Although our backyard garden is small scale, with a harvest too small to generate significant income, it supplements our vegetable supply. For now, we are still aiming for our vegetables to be 100 percent "fresh from the farm to the dining table.” This gives us better appreciation of what we eat, not only because it is more nutritious but more from knowing how much effort was put into producing the food served on our dining table. As our priest said during one of the homilies, there is something spiritual about producing your own food. And as we partake, we give an offering of thanks to the hands who tilled the soil. Aside from our own consumption, the vegetables help in augmenting the food needs of the families who help with the garden. With the high price of vegetables, the families who work on the garden and have limited income, usually spend more for rice and cooked food (usually high in fat with hardly any vegetables) sold in the corner store (typically a carinderia). Now that they have access to (free) vegetables, they are able to consume a more diverse diet than they are used to.
While making our garden more organic is a work in progress, it still serves its purpose in providing food and proper nourishment. Learning more from our local community and away from the commercial labels has lessened my aversion towards organic vegetables.