Organic food still not taken seriously despite sector’s strong potential

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The chemical contamination of vegetables is a motivator for most to go organic.The chemical contamination of vegetables is a motivator for most to go organic.

By Zhen M

Last week, I wrote about the origins of the organic farming industry in Malaysia and the potential that has yet to be fully realized within the farming community. This week, we take a look at the current state of the local organic farming industry and the Malaysian public’s perception towards organic food.

Organic food is said to be safer, more nutritious and tastes better than conventional food. These beliefs have fueled increasing demand for organic products globally despite their price premiums, which typically range between 10%-50% and could sometimes even be double or triple the prices of non-organic products. Demand in Malaysia, albeit still small, is also likewise strengthening.

Organic Alliance Malaysia (OAM) director Ong Kung Wai says that the domestic market for organic products is developing well and based on feedback the NGO has received, “demand is greater than supply.”

Ong shares that as organic agriculture is still at the nascent stage in Malaysia, “the acreage of organic managed land in the country is statistically insignificant, driven by domestic demand and mainly focused on fresh vegetables and some fruits.”

Most organic farmers in the country are just growing vegetables to supply to the immediate market, notes Tan Siew Luang, Organic Farming Project Coordinator for Centre for Environment, Technology & Development, Malaysia (CETDEM), a founding member of the National Committee on Organic Farming.

“There is a lack of organic fruits, and even less organic poultry and meat, in the market. There should be demand for organic meat but farmers do not want to take the risk,” she opines.

Despite the much touted benefits of eating organic, it will likely be a while before it becomes mainstream. The hefty price premium to go organic remains a formidable hurdle. That, coupled with the fact that consumers are not altogether convinced that the produce/products labeled organic are truly so.

SkimThe Department of Agriculture (DOA) had in 2003 introduced Skim Organik Malaysia (SOM), a mandatory certification for farms in the country claiming to practice organic agriculture. Produce from SOM-certified farms have the right to use the Malaysian Organic label and be marketed as an organic product at a premium price. Consumers are also assured that products bearing the logo are truly organic and do not have any unwanted chemical residue.

organicThere are currently no similar standards covering livestock and aquaculture farming. SOM also does not apply for imported organic produce/products. To fill this gap, OAM had earlier this year introduced the Organic Malaysia mark to facilitate easy identification of authentic certified organic products. Certified processors and verified importers can use the Organic Malaysia mark on qualified products.  Registered products and operators will be featured in the Organic Malaysia website directory for easy public identification.

DOA reveals that an Organic Product Certification Committee will be established to cover certification of processing and verification of imported products. It will be chaired by the Director General of Agriculture, with members comprising representatives from Government agencies and relevant private bodies.

Meanwhile, more needs to be done to overcome the prevailing issue of credibility and trust in the marketplace. There is still a distinct lack of trust towards produce labeled “organic” despite the Government’s certification efforts, with DOA admitting that “demand for Government-certified organic products is always low”. Consumers seem to place more faith in the produce if they trust the farmer/brand, rather than the certification itself – i.e. “Know your farmer, know your food”.

“For one, it’s hard to detect if some chemical fertiliser has been used. Chili, for example, is not easy to grow but some supposed organic farms can consistently grow them so shiny and beautifully. One can’t help but wonder if they did not just cheat a little,” says CETDEM’s Tan.

In addition, even though organic food is reputed to taste better, the perception is completely opposite in Malaysia. Malaysians, used to “more flavourful” food, typically eschew organic food, which they regard as bland and tasteless, as evidenced by the reluctance of most people to step into organic restaurants.

“As in all food, it all depends on who cooks it (the organic food), really,” laughs Tan. “If it’s not pure vegetarian, it shouldn’t be that bad… it’s just that we Malaysians are just too used to additives and seasonings such as MSG. It will take time to get used to not having them.”

 

 

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