Starting them young… Children learning to make compost at an organic farm. Hats off to their parents!
By Zhen M
Every now and then, we hear of the virtues of organic food. With the push for sustainable living, many people believe that organic farming will get greater visibility in the future. Are we ready? We explore this in two parts – organic farming and organic products (which will be featured next week).
Organic agriculture is still in a development phase in the country, says Organic Alliance Malaysia (OAM) director Ong Kung Wai.
The organic farming scene in Malaysia is “confusing and stagnant”, with many of its challenges “old issues that had been highlighted many times since the early 2000s”, laments Centre for Environment, Technology & Development, Malaysia (CETDEM) project coordinator Tan Siew Luang. CETDEM is a founder member of the National Committee on Organic Farming.
According to Tan, Indonesia started organic farming in 1985, Malaysia in 1986 and Thailand thereafter.
“When Thailand just started organic farming, the NGOs there invited me to teach the farmers how to make compost fertilisers. The farmers were very reluctant. Today, they are way ahead of us,” remembers Tan.
According to the Department of Agriculture (DOA), there are a total of 191 agricultural farms implementing organic farming over an area of 933 hectares. Of the 191 farms, 28% are fruit farms, 32% vegetable farms and 40% other crops.
DOA notes that, over the past decade, the demand for organic products among local consumers was somewhat limited because organic products are generally more expensive than those conventionally-produced.
“Lack of demand from consumers resulted in slow response from organic farmers to obtain certification under the SOM (Skim Organik Malaysia) as the demand for the Government-certified organic product s is always low.” DOA’s Skim Organik Malaysia (SOM) only covers farms of unprocessed plants and plant products. It does not cover the downstream processed products, livestock and aquaculture, or imported produce/goods.
“Organic farmers are not willing to invest extra costs in order to comply with SOM standards e.g. to set up of proper storage, workers quarters, toilet, packaging area, record keeping etc. The mindset and perception among farmers are that organic farming is always associated with low productivity, small scale farming, labour intensive and not a profitable agri-business. As a result, they are not willing to convert their farms from conventional methods to organic farming. Therefore getting farms to practice good agricultural practice (GAP) and to apply for SOM and GAP Certification (SALM) needs motivation, encouragement and change of mindset,” opines DOA.
Overcoming the mindset may be the toughest hurdle yet
“Our farmers are not thinking far ahead. They are not concerned of what will happen when the country gets flooded with organic produce from other countries,” laments CETDEM’s Tan.
Meanwhile, our organic farmers are “mostly just growing to supply the (immediate) market. Many think of it as ‘just another business’, not many practice integrated farming… and most are happy to be on their own.”
“However, for organic farming to flourish in the country, the farmers have to be united and show solidarity and not just rely on the NGOs. And NGOs need to be more proactive and we definitely need stronger support from the Government,” stresses Tan.
Tan puts land as the number one concern for organic farmers. “It’s difficult to get land to start a farm, and not just for organic farming. Many people have come to us wanting to start an organic farm but they couldn’t get land.”
CETDEM is an authority in organic farming, having had a thriving organic farm of its own. What began as a one-acre experiment in 1987 in Sungai Buloh grew well enough to be a proven venture and attracted much interest while creating a lot of awareness.
The farm closed a decade later and CETDEM started its first Community Farm in mid-September 1996 in Subang New Village. CETDEM decided that, with its limited resources, it has to spread the good philosophy and practice of organic farming and kitchen gardening.
Its Organic Farming Community Centre (OFCC) holds an open day every first Wednesday and Saturday of the month; while its Kitchen Gardening Group (KGG) meets every last Sunday of the month where members come together, exchange and share experiences/information, cooking/food tasting, working on the garden and many other worthwhile activities.
CETDEM also holds a Farmer’s Corner every third Sunday of the month, except on public holidays and dates that clash with its other major events. (Upcoming CETDEM events: http://cetdem.org.my/wordpress/?page_id=77)
Concentration of organic farms, by state