What can you eat safely?
I received a flurry of emails after last week’s blog on “Watch what you eat”. People wrote to me asking what is safe to eat then, if we have to be careful about packaged milk and poultry farmed chicken and eggs (laid by “layers” and not “broilers” as the former are bred to produce eggs while the latter are grown for their meat, as one reader pointed out).
I myself eat desi eggs and desi (free range) chickens that are grown without hormones, antibiotics, steroids, chemical feed and animal-derived feed. Yes, this is what goes into all those poultry farmed chickens we’ve been eating in Pakistan for years! Take a broiler chicken and put it on the ground; it will barely move while a desi chicken will have so much vitality that it will run around and you will have a hard time catching it.
Desi chickens and indeed other animals grown on organic or natural farms are grain fed, are not confined 100 per cent of the time (as they are on conventional farms), and are raised without antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones. If you ask around, it is not hard to find desi eggs and desi chicken in the market (though they might be more expensive).
Also try to avoid red meat (beef) as much as you can since it is not good for you for a number of health reasons (increased risk of cancer and heart disease). As for milk, there are now a few companies that have imported their own cows from Australia and they produce their own milk, which is bound to be much safer than milk from collection centres in the country.
In the last few years, the organic farming industry in Pakistan has seen a boom as more people have started shopping around for pesticide-free vegetables, crops, fruits and healthier dairy products. Research shows that organic foods may have higher nutritional value than conventional food. Some studies have also linked pesticides in our food to everything from headaches to cancer to birth defects, although many experts still maintain that the levels in conventional food are safe for most healthy adults. Even low-level pesticide exposure, however, can be significantly more toxic for children (due to their less-developed immune systems) and for pregnant women. What is needed now is a proper certification system like the ones they have in the West.
“In the US, for example, organically grown food must adhere to specific standards regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture. Crops are generally grown without synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers or biotechnology,” explains an organic farmer who is planning to open up a huge greenhouse near Karachi to supply the city with organic vegetables and fruit.
“I think there is a demand now for safely grown food. I chose Karachi for my commercial venture, although I own my own organic farm in Attock. Since it is a big city, the temperatures are not so extreme and we don’t need fertile land for a greenhouse.”
There are a few organic food companies in Karachi already, the most well-known is Sungold Organic who supply chemical-free, naturally grown vegetables, which they irrigate with potable water on their farm in Malir to various restaurants and supermarkets in the city. They also produce their own natural fertilizer. They have a long list of available vegetables, including broccoli, carrots and eggplant and can deliver to your doorstep as well.
Samiya Mumtaz, the founder of Daali Earthfoods in Lahore, is one of the pioneers of this emerging organic food movement in Pakistan. Her philosophy is that grains, fruits, and vegetables as well as dairy and poultry products exist in optimal nutritional balance in nature. The more they are processed and refined, the further they get away from their original state and lose essential nutritional value. Several years ago, she bought herself 14 acres of land in Bedian (outside Lahore) and let it lie fallow for a few years (so the pesticides and fertilizers in the land could drain away) before starting to plant desi varieties of wheat, rice and pulses. “Organic is actually a new label for old agricultural practices,” she explains. “It was important to study traditional ways of inter-cropping and sowing and harvesting.”
She points out that this kind of traditional farming has come into practice after generations of trial and error. Certain seeds have adapted to certain eco-systems. She grows only local grains, which she has been supplying to various stores in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Her label today sells organic honey, brown rice, whole wheat atta, 5 grain atta, wheat free atta, porridge, various spices, muesli, rock salt and desi mustard cooking oil.
Samiya would like to see others grow locally and eat locally. For her, an organic farm goes beyond the narrow description of pesticide-and-fertilizer-free to an integrated place where one has dairy, poultry, vegetables, pulses and grains all growing together. The dairy and poultry provide the manure for the soil, which grows the vegetables and crops.
Zacky Farms is a modern organic farm located just outside DHA, Lahore, which is doing exactly that, even producing its own energy through biogas. Zacky Farms use scientific methods and environmentally friendly practices to grow a variety of crops and animals and their produce. The Zacky Farms store is located in DHA and they even deliver their delicious organic milk from cows to your home if you sign up with them.
Naimat Milk is another natural milk company in Lahore that delivers milk from both cows and buffaloes fed natural feed to your doorstep. They can also deliver desi eggs and desi chickens. Their milk comes covered with a thick layer of cream, like it used to in the old days before doodwallahs became commercialized!
Organic farming is not a new concept; before the use of agro-chemicals became popular this is how our forefathers grew their own food, the natural way without the use of chemicals like steroids and pesticides. Up in Pakistan’s northern areas, where pesticides are rarely used and hormones and steroids mostly unheard of, people are still largely eating pure food (hence their longevity). It is time that the rest of the country starts valuing naturally grown food.
The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues. She can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.