Eating Healthy, Eating Organic
By Priyangwada Perera
“Try organic food. Or as your grandparents called it - food,” said someone. How easy is that to understand? The world has changed and with it our lifestyles so that we now have to stress upon what is organic food. What used to be farming is no longer the same. Maria Rodale writes, “Switching to all organic food production is the single most critical and (and most doable) action we can take right now to stop our climate crisis. If you do just one thing - make one conscious choice that can change the world, go organic. Buy organic food. Stop using chemicals and start supporting organic farmers. No other single choice you can make to improve the health of your family and the planet has greater positive repercussions for our future.” It is all good to say so. Yet how practical is this? Sometimes we wonder whether we even know what organic food is. At Kenko 1st Organic, specialising in organic food and farming, we met an expert.
Ishikawa Naohito followed a BSc. Agriculture degree in Japan. Coming to Sri Lanka in December 2002, he was a fresh graduate from Japan who had a year’s experience at their farms. Ishikawa came as a JICA volunteer. In spite of being a student of agriculture, he was more interested in environmental protection. So, he opted for environmental education and Sri Lanka was yet to introduce environmental studies in the syllabus. His office was in the Provincial Council of the North Central Province and he worked in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Ishikawa had to develop environmental education. “I was a fresh graduate then. Being new to Sri Lanka my Sinhala language was limited to the two and a half months of rigorous Sinhala language training I had in Japan. But we did a lot on waste management. I used to meet and talk to people.”
He was going to stay in Sri Lanka for two years. “However, when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, I felt that I should do something more for Sri Lanka,” he said. He joined another Japanese NGO and worked in Galle and Matara, in rehabilitation work. Droughts, floods, and the war too were going on. Then in 2007 landslides happened in Walapane, Hanguranketha where 600 or so people were displaced. He was a part of disaster management and social services. Talking Hands where blind people were taught massaging was one. Encouraging farming, pottery, growing mushrooms as a livelihood were some of the things they worked on. “In Sri Lanka, a lot of chemicals are used and we know the kidney problems people face.”
Ishikawa seems to have learnt of one attitude of Sri Lankans which proves to be the doom of the nation. Where they built houses for the less privileged, even if a light bulb burnt in the house, the occupant would come to them the next day and say the light bulb was burnt. “They would even tell us that the village next which is helped by another NGO had got fans but they did not. Or that others had better sofas than we had given them.” A smiling Ishikawa explained the reason for this, ‘Dependence Syndrome’. “Also because they are used to being given everything they want.” Ishikawa had a fair understanding of Sri Lankan society by then. So, he knew what a professional should do. It had to be properly coordinated and the standard maintained. Ishikawa was firmly under the belief that he should not promote a ‘dependent mentality’.
Challenging dependent mentality
Ishikawa worked with no salary and in 2007, he saw Walapane as an isolated village. People survived on their own, they were yet to be gobbled by the dependent mentality and they were a hardworking bunch of people. He wanted to make toilets which would cost Rs 30,000 reducing it to Rs 20,000. “I asked them how they would like to contribute. They said the wooden frames could be given by them. Sand also they said was available. They even offered chip stones, wood and sand. Ultimately we gave them Rs 12,000 and the people supplied everything else. That was the way to do it.” They learnt how things should be done with good coordination whilst not promoting dependence syndrome. “It is our fault if we do not get it out of them.” That was when he went to Walapane and people said they had a water problem and a lack of toilets. This is where Ishikawa started his concept of ‘Social Business.’ It is not about earning profit but the outcome being the sustainable source of development. Giving for free is never the option. It is easy for us to give them something and disappear. But this is the challenge.
The second project was Kenko 1st Organic. Farmers have unique knowledge. This is not recognised at all. They work really hard but they are forever poor. We felt very bad about this. Hence, they tried to implement Organic farming. Here they get together with farmers from villages. They grow food without using any poisonous fertiliser. They buy it from them for a better price than they get in the market. In Sri Lanka, the vegetable price fluctuates. The demand and supply often reduces the price. To be fair to the farmers, they buy most vegetables at a fixed price at all times. Fruits like limes are a challenge. Even when selling, they sell at a fixed price.
Organic food is not cheap. It is quite expensive. They find it hard because they have few vegetables. If they have 500 - 1,000kg vegetables per day, they can reduce the prices. But they are hoping to expand and increase. As of now, there are about 60 farmers working for them. Their farmers are from Anuradhapura, Puttalam, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Moneragala, and Colombo. They also have their own farm in Kandy. Their target was to work only with small scale farmers. “But small scale farmers tend to be a little irresponsible. They would tell us that they had a family wedding and hence they cannot send vegetables. In the long term strategic work, it puts us in trouble.” That is the reason they started their own farm in Kandy.
They are working on starting one in Anuradhapura. His dream is to have a model farm where organic farming can be studied. To develop their supply chain, Ishikawa connected with others who professionally grow organic vegetables.
Young generation is needed
“The biggest problem of the agriculture sector is that the average age of workers in Sri Lanka is 50-60 years. In Japan, the average age of a farmer is over 65. Agriculture being the main industry in Sri Lanka, this has to change,” he added. Organic farming can be a good source of income. If the young generation can introduce IT technology to farming, management can be smooth. They want to give a new face to agriculture. Kenko 1st Organic is Guarantee limited making it something like a Cooperative Society. There you increase the product quantity, assure the quality and give it to a fair price.
Ishikawa spoke of little children being diagnosed with cancer. “Such children have no exposure to alcohol and they do not smoke. Then it has to be what you eat. But as children, how do they fall sick? It has to be our lifestyle and what we eat. There are customers who come to us and take vegetables only for their children. Instead of encouraging or making eating-healthy the norm, we focus on improving the cancer hospital facility. Prevention is better than cure and we should always be cautious about what we eat. Otherwise even cancer patients are given food which is quite poisonous.
If neighbouring farmers are using fertilisers, pesticides and so on, how difficult is organic farming, we asked. “That is true. It makes farming and growing in places like Nuwara Eliya extra hard. It is the same with paddy cultivation.” Ishikawa also spoke of traditional Sri Lankan rice varieties that are sold. There has been a big demand for Suvandel in the past five years. A few years ago, organic food was not a big business. Earlier Sri Lankan forms of rice were not commonly available. How they are done on such a large scale should be looked into.
“We have to take the responsibility as a collective. Customer, seller and farmer should all come together and everyone should be monitored,” he explained.
For organic food, customers should be educated and informed about it. Sellers should be ethically responsible. They do it the hard way. Being fair to the farmers and cultivators and being fair to the customers is a tough task. At the same time, it is not a charity. It is a business and you have to have profit. They have a fixed price for the seller. Whether the price goes up or low they pay the same. Some people bargain and say vegetables are expensive. But vegetables are extremely safe and they support farmers who honestly do organic farming.
Self satisfaction is immense. If a customer knows where his food comes from and it is safe, what more safety can be offered?
Kenko1st Organic farmers are monitored. There is a way of random checking. An organic certification is issued to the farmers. The farmers are self monitored in groups of three. There is constant checking done. Bureau Veritas tests for pesticide residues. Ishikawa said that those who spend Rs 5,000 for a plate at a five star hotel tend to grumble at the organic food prices. During COVID -19, there had been lots of scandals with regard to organic vegetables. Hence, Kenko 1st even checks those who buy from them and sell. Safe food is worth the trouble. «If you think the price of organic food is expensive, have you priced cancer lately? asks Joel Salatin. Knowing this, Ishikawa continues with Kenko 1st Organic.
(Pix by Akila Jayawardana and courtesy Ishikawa Naohito)