Organic Produce in Singapore - Myths and Facts
After ten years of living in Singapore, I am still marvelling at the massive selection of organic products on display today at some of the supermarkets. Not just fruit and veg, pretty much every product category is now available in organic form. This is in sharp contrast to the lonely, limp broccoli and carrots - the only organic produce for sale – way back when I first arrived. Now, every aisle is groaning with organic products, from chicken and potato chips to toothpaste and milk. I even saw an organic mojito on the cocktail list at a bar recently!
Much as variety is to be welcomed, there still remains a hazy confusion in my mind around organic produce. Is it really worth it, particularly given the fact that organic food has yet to be unequivocally proven safer, healthier and more nutritious than its regular counterpart? More about that later.
It feels to me that organic food remains a near-luxury for many people, even if our instincts whisper to us that it has to be better. This started me thinking about organic food, because I often struggle to justify the cost when the science doesn’t always stand up, despite what the wellness and hard-core healthy foodies would have us believe. So, I’ve been looking into it, and wanted to share some viewpoints which may help you make the best choice for yourself.
What Makes A Product Organic?
What exactly is organic food? Broadly speaking, each national food regulator follows a set of strict guidelines prescribed by the Codex Commission (CODEX). This is a United Nations and World Health Organisation body, whose purpose is to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in food trade through a series of guidelines for organic and other foods. In other words, the CODEX is the global blueprint for organic standards, adopted by countries who want to harmonise and regulate the organic industry. This covers rigid production standards for growing, storing, processing, packaging and shipping of food and includes:
- The avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs (e.g. fertilisers, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives), irradiation and the use of sewage sludge;
- The avoidance of genetically modified seeds;
- The use of farmland that has been free from prohibited chemical inputs for a number of years (often three or more);
- for livestock, adhering to specific requirements for feed, housing, and breeding;
- the keeping of detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
- the maintaining of strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products;
- undergoing periodic on-site inspections.
And that’s just for starters. In addition to the daily running of the farm, farmers are typically required to engage in a number of additional activities:
- Study - the organic standards, which cover in specific detail what is and is not allowed for every aspect of farming, including storage, transport and sale.
- Compliance— farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards, which may involve modifying facilities, sourcing and changing suppliers, etc.
- Documentation— extensive paperwork is required, detailing farm history and current set-up, and usually including results of soil and water tests.
- Planning— a written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing everything from seed to sale: seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilisation and pest-control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.
- Inspection— annual on-farm inspections are required, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview.
- Fee— an annual inspection/re-certification fee.
- Record-keeping— written, day-to-day farming and marketing records, covering all activities, must be available for inspection at any time.
Once a producer or farmer has satisfied inspectors that they have met all the above criteria, they will be granted their certification and the end-goal of marketing their products as “certified organic” is attained. However, it’s not then over - short-notice or surprise inspections can be made and specific tests (e.g. soil, water, plant tissue) may be requested. This keeps farmers on their toes and vigilant in maintaining compliance.
Larger countries like the USA, NZ, Australia and all EU countries have long held strong organic certification standards and the necessary bodies to accredit and regulate. Surprisingly though, in Asia, the only countries who offer national organic standards are Japan, China, India, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan.
What About South East Asia?
Unfortunately, there is no regional standard or certification currently available in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar. The UN, under its Food and Agriculture Organisation, has set up an Asia Regional Organic Standard (AROS) towards which ASEAN member countries are moving, as a step towards establishing their own national certifying systems and bodies. Singapore is not there yet and the AVA has not laid out any timeframe by which this will be done.
I am sure that there are plenty of food products farmed and grown in our region that unofficially achieve many of the globally accepted organic standards in SE Asia, notably vegetables, fruit and rice, but it's good to note that such products have not been tested against established international benchmarks. They are self-prescribed organic until they become officially certified, which cannot happen until that country makes standards available.
For many small producers in SE Asia, this step will be crucial in building credibility and consumer confidence both locally and internationally, the latter being the opportunity that offers greatest commercial growth especially for a small country like Singapore. But the high cost of successfully completing the accreditation process may deter producers, as this cost is inevitably passed on to the consumer.
Singapore – What Does Organic Mean Here?
As I mentioned above, Singapore has no national standards or definition of organic food, nor do we yet have any national accreditation or authentication body for organic food. Instead, the AVA relies on the CODEX standards.
The AVA states on its website that it has a "... requirement that food products labelled as “organic” (or similar terms) must be certified as organic under an inspection and certification system that complies with the CODEX guidelines for the production, processing, labelling and marketing of organically-produced foods ..."
Simply put, this means imported products are certified as organic by other countries, but not by Singapore. As consumers, we must accept food labelling in good faith, as the AVA does not check the veracity of organic claims; instead, the AVA can request a valid organic certificate for a product if it decides to. Many argue that this policy leaves our market wide open to mis-selling and mis-labelling, especially if something is simply called "organic" (rather than certified organic) as these products are not actually authenticated or certified by any body, anywhere. This issue was raised by local agricultural scientist, Liew Ching Seng in the Straits Times. The AVA's response merely re-stated what I've written above. It's worrying that there’s nothing to stop a Malaysian tomato farmer from selling his products in Singapore and claiming they’re organic. No meaningful checks and balances are yet in place to proactively prevent this from happening, so buyer beware, for now.
Good News - New Organic Standards for Urban Farms in Singapore
I've written previously about the brilliant progress being made by the new-wave farmers in Singapore who are growing organic products in urban and indoor farms. There was further good news a month or so ago with the announcement of Singapore's first organic standard for urban and indoor produce, which officials believe is possibly the world's first organic standard for produce grown under these unique conditions. Although not yet implemented, this is a wonderful move in giving local consumers confidence in buying locally grown produce, and I really look forward to seeing these accredited products hit the shelves.
Is Organic Food Better?
This is perhaps the number-one question we need to be asking. The term “organic” refers to how a food was produced, and countless scientific studies argue that organic food is NOT necessarily an indicator of a food’s superior nutritional quality. There are thousands of views on this contentious issue, but I’m happy to share one article from the highly credible science-based publication, Futurism, which has reviewed the main claims about organic food, and analysed these claims against the best science available; the reality of pesticide use in organic food production, the use of GMOs, and the big question – is organic healthier – are all covered.
Sadly, there are many such myths floating around, and this is possibly what discredits the organic movement most. A good example is something I spotted on another US food blog a couple of weeks ago. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a pro-organic body in the US published its annual “dirty dozen” - a list of foods we are told must be eliminated from our diet due to deathly pesticide concerns. This is a classic case of creating fear where none need exist, and yet I see this list being quoted on many news and media sources, as truth. This organisation has been hammered by scientists who accuse the EWG of rabid and unethical scare-mongering. In this article on Medium, the author (a scientist) states, “For those unaware of this annual fear campaign, the EWG publishes a list of “dirty” produce, claiming that they are woefully contaminated with pesticide residues that will kill us all. The goal is to erode trust in conventional agriculture and promote a transition to pricey organic alternatives”. He then methodically takes the evidence apart.
Similarly, scientists at the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California also published a damning response to the EWG in the Journal of Toxicology, finding the study to be deeply flawed, and unscientific by any credible standards. This report by the American Council on Science and Health sums it up.
In terms of nutritional value, there’s no shortage of data. National Public Radio’s article gives a really fair and balanced view based on a number of credible science studies, finding both pros and cons to organic choices. According to Carlo Leifert, a professor of agriculture at Newcastle University and co-author of one of the latest studies included in this article, there are indeed benefits to buying and eating organic. "Taken together, the studies on crops, meat and milk suggest that a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids." But plenty of sceptics remain. "Such small changes are unlikely to represent any nutritional or health benefit," writes Ian Givens, a professor of nutrition at the University of Reading. In a statement on the new findings, Professor Givens points out that switching from conventional milk to organic milk would increase omega-3 intake by only very small margins; Givens is quoted in the Science Media Centre saying, "Overall, this is very detailed and valuable work, but the differences between organic and conventionally farmed produce should be evaluated as part of the whole human diet. When they are, most differences are very small indeed.”
Another less-talked-about but fascinating angle to the organic debate is food snobbery - the "them and us" position attitude which I believe is, unfortunately, quite real. AA Gill, former food critic for The Sunday Times, summed this up well: "What I really mind about all this is that organic is making food into a class issue. Organic brings back this pre-war system of posh, politically correct food for Notting Hill people, and filthy, rubbish chemical food for filthy, rubbish chemical people. Either you are a nice organic person or you are a filthy, overweight McDonald’s person. I find that really obscene. It has very little to do with food and a lot to do with weird snobbery". I love this video of Gill debating organic food with Anthony Bourdain - acerbic and hard hitting, but gems of truth on both sides.
So, the answer to whether organic food is better is simply that there is no definitive answer. There is no question that the impact of growing and farming organically is positive for the environment and for animal welfare. There appear to be modest increases in some nutritional aspects of some foods, but the question of whether the price premium and the hype is justified on the balance of the actual upsides to human health is questionable.
And Finally …
For my part, when I think about my family and their wellbeing, I most definitely advocate for food that’s as close to natural as possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s got to be organic, per se. This philosophy follows through in the products I sell at Sasha's Fine Foods.
With the emergence of home-grown urban farms, we will hopefully see some improved standards.. I do have reservations about the claims from some Singaporean and Malaysian farmers that their products are organic – this is something we hear all the time at wet markets and supermarket counters, but remember, there is no organic vetting process in either country. For chicken and eggs, there’s a trust issue here which I hope will be addressed when both countries have proper regulations in place. SE Asia has a way to go, compared with more developed food economies, so these changes can't come fast enough if consumers are to be convinced that local is as good as imported food.
I fully recognise that anyone with a serious health issue or those recovering from illness need to minimise any risk, and if going fully organic is deemed best by his or her medical team, then there’s no question such advice has to be followed.
In the meantime, I’m keeping it simple; I buy the best quality I can from sources I trust, I take everything I read or hear in relation to organic food with a pinch of (non-organic) salt and I do my own research to find the facts. I think we need to count our blessings and enjoy the abundance of variety of what we eat without getting lost in the paralysis of worrying too much and falling prey to everything we hear. That said, awareness of unfounded claims, especially here in Singapore, remains a sensible move.
I look forward to keeping you posted on the local organic scene and, hopefully, there will soon be good news to share as we move towards alignment with more evolved markets.
- Sasha's Fine Foods