Monday, July 9, 2012

Asian medicine + Good microbes = “Natural” food

Fresh "natural" greens on the farm

Neither the people of China nor my mother are known for eating organic foods, but while I was visiting my mother in China she laid out a beautiful spread of leafy greens, pronouncing with a smile, “It’s organic.” Impressed by my mom’s sudden food evolution, I asked her where she found such great leafy organic greens in the middle of China. Her friends had apparently started a farming project. It finally started to be productive, and they had just opened up a small shop in the city.

Unsure of what they meant by “organic” here and why they had started such a project, I went to check it out. I can say, though not a huge farm, I was happily charmed by their efforts. When we arrived, they laid out a lunch prepared from the produce of the farm. We sat on the floor and our host waved his hand over the food, saying, “This is all natural” … and it was all delicious.

After lunch, they took us around the farm. The first noticeable thing when entering the chicken area was that the usual acrid chicken coop smell was quite faint. “It’s all because of the microorganisms,” a friend explained. On a normal Western-style farm, there’s a force field of the acerbic fecal odor within a certain diameter of a chicken coop. However, here we were standing in the middle of all the chickens, literally pecking at our feet, without notice of any excrement around us. This was due to the ground being one-foot deep of microbe-enhanced mulch. The microorganisms were harvested from the nearby area, ensuring that local microbes were utilized which could thrive in the local environment to break down waste and release needed nutrients.

Chicks on the farm

We were also taken to a naturally cool storage area under the ground where the fertilizers were kept. The fertilizer ingredients listed like natural Chinese herbal medicine, making it sustainable locally while being free from petrol-based chemicals. For minimizing pests, methods included using a pepper concoction and applying tobacco leaves.

This small project began with training in what is called “natural farming.” Ten local families invested into the project. As with many more “natural” ventures, the process can seem lengthy, especially as this kind of natural fertilizer is not available on the market but has to be mixed by hand and the microorganisms need to be kept at certain temperatures. It has been difficult to keep farmers convinced of the long-term benefits of not using chemical-based products. My friend’s father who works in the USDA has had similar issues with US farmers not being convinced of “no till” farming. However, the project leader feels like the farmers are 80% convinced that natural farming is better than standard Western-style farming.

Something that would convince the farmers even more is finding the right market. They are still trying to discover better products. They recently found one off-beat leafy green that quickly sold out in the shop and they were trying to figure out the best way to grow it. Be it due to trendiness or for the simple need for safe food and a clean environment, the domestic Chinese market for organic and more natural food is growing.

Since the 1990s China has been regulating what they call “Green Food” and it has been a major grower of organic food since 2006, at least for the international market. Organic food’s domestic popularity was seen last year when Walmart China was reprimanded for selling 14.4 tons of mislabeled “organic” pork. So it seems that the people want greener and safer food, but the issue is about labeling and government regulation. I can tell you from personal experience how tough it was to tell even in the most upmarket shopping centers which clothes and shoes were real and which ones were knock offs. To regulate farms in far-off villages would be an even bigger chore.

However in the end, China seems to be making steps toward a safer, more sustainable, and tastier future for all.

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