You are what you eat

Imaduddin Ahmed | The Friday Times

A holistic vision of health, identity and ethical farming

Developments in the laboratory have enabled cultivators to grow more food for the world’s burgeoning population, but at a cost. People in the developed world have been worrying about health hazards associated with pesticides, nitrate fertilisers and (genetically modified) GM crops. All these are believed to be linked with cancer, damage to the environment and other health problems. This consciousness has spread all over the world; regrettably, unhealthy eating is not as big a concern in Pakistan as it should be.

But things are changing, and there are signs of this consciousness in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. In the case of Lahore, a genuinely organic Meat Shop and Deli has opened its doors to an eager clientele, and the old Baba in the cantonment who bakes the city’s best wholegrain bread, is enjoying a great revival.

And now we have Daali Earthfoods, a small company with a big ideology.

Daali, which means “branch” in Urdu and “basket of seasonal fruit or vegetables” in Punjabi, believes in incorporating the principles of healthy eating from desi tradition; in exclusively using locally grown produce from desi plants and seeds; in processing farm produce in such a way that its nutritional value is retained; and in maintaining independence from the corporate industry of agribusiness. Daali Earthfoods is a wholesaler as well as producer of its own products and is still in its nascent stage. Its products first hit the shelves of Jalal Sons in Lahore’s Main Market in October 2005.

The founders, young mothers Samiya Khawar Mumtaz and Marium Abrar, account for half the workforce that packages the products in hand-sewn re-usable cotton breathable bags or baked re-used glass jars. The 14 acres of land they are to use near village Rorha in Bedian, 20km from LUMS, for their own organically grown mustard and wheat, is currently being detoxified of residue artificial fertiliser and pesticides with alfalfa and clover. Since their plot of land is not substantial enough to meet the demands of Daali, they are looking to actively encourage other organic farmers by providing them a platform for distribution. Samiya and Marium talk of starting an organic poultry and dairy farm and hope to inspire a movement towards organic farming. This would serve to re-introduce society to food made from traditional farming techniques and seeds.

As it is, working on a limited budget and before their big plans have come to fruition, Samiya and Marium have accrued an impressive collection of health foods. These have been highly praised by independent doctors and nutritionists.

Dr Imran Dogar of the Punjab Institute of Cardiology says that their high fibre products are good for reducing cholesterol and he recommends the products to patients with diabetes, hypertension and heart problems. Dr Shagufta Feroz, practicing at Rasheed Hospital in Garden Town and doing her PhD in holistic nutrition from Clayton College in Alabama, recommends Daali’s products to patients suffering from water retention disorder, chronic physical ailments and obesity. Amber Saleem Janjua, Consultant Dietician at Ammar Medical Complex, also recommends Daali Earthfoods to diabetic and overweight patients, saying that they help reduce blood sugar and pressure levels and are a good source of energy and vitality.

So far rice is the only organically grown product sold under the Daali label. What gives Daali a healthy edge over other food producers is the method of processing it employs. Its grains are milled in a stone grinder in village Haer in Bedian, as opposed to milled by machinery at high speeds and high temperatures. The result is that Daali’s wheat, milled at a low temperature, retains its natural abundance of bran (which is rich in iron, provides roughage, brings cholesterol levels down and is useful for curing coughs and phlegm) and semolina (which helps maintain metabolic stability, repairs joints and strengthens muscles). The uneven, coarse texture of the grain from the stone grinder helps maintain healthy intestines. Daali’s mustard oil is pressed in a kohlu driven by a camel in Chungi Dogage, near the Allama Iqbal airport. The slow speed at which it is pressed helps retain the oil’s nutritive value.

Organic farming too will soon be a feature of Daali Earthfoods. These farming techniques have been learned from old farm labourers versed in traditional farming techniques. Natural fertilisers will be kitchen waste, manure and companion lentils grown among the grains – the crops are reaped by hand and not machine – which will make the grains more nutritious. Natural pesticides will be the indigenous trees that are habitat to pest-eating birds; ladybirds, neem leaf spray, garlic spray and companion marigold flowers and garlic roots which repel pests. And the emphasis is very much on using indigenous seeds and plants – the opposite of which are GM seeds. “GM seeds are like an industrial product,” explains Marium, “GM seeds don’t beget seeds, you have to keep buying new ones. And the crops need pesticides, which the same company produces. It’s just a marketing gimmick and it’s not the relationship that agriculturists have had with their crops. When you put so many pesticides and fertilisers into the land, the land no longer is a living entity, and you kill all the beneficial insects and micro-organisms. You can no longer then rely on the land to provide nutrients and you have to keep pumping them in artificially, and that creates a much higher level of water in the crop which further dilutes its nutritional value.”

Most informed people with the money and choice would opt for organically grown food. But what inspired Samiya and Marium, both alumni of Lahore Grammar School and Kinnarid College, to take it a step further and start up a health-conscious and environmentally friendly business based on indigenous practices? “This isn’t a commercial venture separate from our lives; this is part of our lives,” explains Samiya. Their work compliments the women’s lifestyle. Both do an hour and a half of yoga each morning, buy free-range chickens and eggs, fresh milk, clarified butter. Both take pride in their indigenous culture and encourage the use of Punjabi at home. Samiya has been involved for 15 years in street theatre that takes inspiration from local forms of culture and performs in Punjabi and Seraiki. Samiya, who often exchanges notes with the malis of the Bagh-e-Jinnah and the Parks and Horticulture Authority plans to compile a book on the trees of Pakistan’s plains. She has been encouraged to discover that the Department of Forestry incorporated some of her research in their Five Year Plan. She has also been encouraged to find that one person with four friends can have far reaching effects in terms of seeing how many indigenous trees can be planted just by passing on advice. Samiya is a woman who rides a bike – now a rarity in Pakistan, and though she complains that underpasses, being pushed over by traffic and molestation are problems she faces, she has faith in the effect on society of an example set by one person.

For Samiya, “looking to the soil for answers” was key to solving identity issues. “Using desi seeds and plants and using traditional farming techniques is a part of taking pride in one’s self and one’s culture – understanding it better before rejecting it.” At the age of 20, Samiya decided she wanted to work on the land. By 1993 she had convinced relatives and friends to buy farmland in Bedian, very wisely as it turned out because prices have sky-rocketed since Samiya’s first leap of faith. When she returned to Lahore from her studies at Mt Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she joined the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Gilgit to get first hand experience of rural living. “I then got married and left the country for six years and when I came back, I had very young kids, so I couldn’t do the daily round of the farm. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to get into farming full time.”

Marium, who studied for her masters at the University of Punjab, attributes her commitment to the environment to two pedagogues – Mrs Shah of LGS, who used to make her pupils go to the park and draw trees and write why they ought not be cut, and Ms Kauser Sheikh of Kinnaird College. “She was disappointed with her students who wanted to join LUMS or go into the corporate sector or get married or look pretty. . . We were her favourites, she took us under her wing and lent her backing to the ideological stands [as student activists] we took.” A Muslim who prays five times a day, Marium also sees Islam as an inspiration for promoting organic farming in the future: “You can’t separate religion from other parts of life . . . you’re not harming other people and animals by not using insecticides and pesticides, and so religion and organic farming connect.” As for a business that promotes healthy eating, Marium explains, “Many of my relatives have been afflicted with cancer, and I put it down to the use of fertilisersand pesticides, so I want to keep my kids away from that.”

Samiya and Marium crossed paths again at Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre. It was there that the seeds of friendship were sown and resulted in a fateful evening, as Samiya explains: “I had recently left Simorgh and was at Marium’s one day. We were chatting about our dissatisfaction with life and generally where we were headed and Marium said she wanted to do challenging work. I was thinking of doing this food business, but didn’t have the strength to go it alone, so I said, ‘Why don’t we do this together?’ ” ” And immediately I answered no!” chirps Marium, “but then I gave it some thought and I called her a day later to say I’d decide over my holiday abroad.” Two months later they were on the shelves. Both women caution that consumers must be wary. Suppliers may view the ‘organic’ label as an easy way to sell products more expensively without being held accountable – there is no organic certification agency in Pakistan. There exists an Organic Farmers Association of Pakistan, which apparently has a few hundred members, but “has no admission criteria.” This is a problem that the Ministry of Agriculture must resolve, and until it does, consumers could well be defrauded.

There is also the question of how sustainable is a labour intensive Daali-type organic movement. Costs would be lower for the self-sustaining organic farmer, and produce would be healthier to consume. However, Thomas Malthus and less privileged citizens must be spared a thought. Organic farming, especially the hand-picking type, yields less crop. Agribusiness and economies of scale are what feed the world’s sizeable population. But is dependence on such technologies, which deplete the soil’s natural goodness, sustainable in the long-term? If all of the Punjab, Pakistan’s most fertile region, were converted to organic farming, would there be enough food to feed Pakistan, or would only the rich be able to afford eating? How much land can be spared for organic farming for the privileged who want to eat healthy? The Ministry of Agriculture should conduct an honest feasibility assessment and discuss the implications openly with us, the stake holders. Until then, for those who care, there is the organic shop, the old Baba and Daali Earthfoods.

Meeting Samiya and Marium is a refreshing, heartening experience. Both are serious, intelligent idealists with a vision. Samiya has overcome a personal obstacle to try and live by the ideals she believes in. She seems like a person energised by the challenges associated with consciously taking the high road and living by the ideals she believes in. If we start seeing more women riding bikes in Lahore, can an organic farm movement be far behind?

Organic farmers looking for a wholesaler should visit http://www.daaliearthfoods.com

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