LOS BAÑOS, Laguna—“I love kale,” Enzo Pinga, who describes himself as a “twentysomething working the land,” told me when I was visiting his organic farm in San Pablo. When I asked about his favorite kale dish, he offered a simple recipe: good olive oil, garlic, and three types of kale from his own farm. “Just sauté it and let the flavor shine through.”
Enzo is one of many Filipinos, including a significant number of young people, who are turning to organic farming both as a career and an advocacy. This comes with rising demand: Many people are turning to foods that are labeled organic. Kale itself, a previously unheard-of leafy cousin of cabbage, is now a staple vegetable in Manila’s gourmet restaurants—all the better if it is organic.
Organic foods are defined as foods that are grown “without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation—and in the case of animals, without antibiotics or artificial hormones.” Starting as a fringe movement in prewar Europe that responded to the rise of industrial agriculture, organics are now a vast, multibillion-dollar global industry. Whenever I visit the Whole Foods Market—America’s largest organic supermarket chain—near my sister’s place in Amherst,
Massachusetts, I am amazed at the diversity of organic products, from shampoo to dog food.
The sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote in the early 1990s that modern society is characterized by the feeling of risk, and perhaps this milieu of uncertainty—exacerbated by the fact that many of our foods are now imported and therefore difficult to keep track of—has driven people to seek foods that are “safer” and more “natural” over those with pesticides and other chemicals that may turn out to be harmful to human health.
For others, there is also the growing concern over the impact of industrial food production on the environment. The enormous carbon footprint of meat production, for instance, is given by many as a reason for turning vegetarian. But even vegetables that are imported require a lot of logistics—not to mention chemicals to keep them “fresh.” Thus, locally-grown organic produce become the best option.
On top of these motivations, the appeal of organic foods can also be explained by their being a mark of distinction. Since time immemorial, food has been a signifier of wealth and status, which is why it is said: “You are what you eat.” The fact that organic foods are expensive and inaccessible to the majority means that they can be modern-day “prestige foods”—the way apples, oranges and grapes were in the past.
Farmers like Enzo are optimistic that as more and more people embrace organic products, prices will drop thanks to the economies of scale. But they acknowledge that for now, the greens they produce are not very affordable to the ordinary Filipino.
But Enzo also points out that many local fruits and vegetables are actually organic, effortlessly so, and these include the fruits—i.e., lanzones, rambutan, Indian mango, dalandan—that you can buy on the roadside. These are proof that organic foods need not be expensive.
And, of course you can also grow your own vegetables. In our house in Los Baños, my mother has been trying to do this, and we’ve had success in leafy vegetables like alugbati and talbos ng kalabasa. Says she: “It’s amazing how much you can grow even in such a small space!”
* * *
In the beginning, everything was organic. And even today, many Filipinos are eating foods that would be the envy of the Western consumer: We have the freshest deep-sea fish, and unlike in the United States where even cows are housed in feedlots (see Michael Pollan’s books for an eye-opener on industrial agriculture), we still have free-range beef, at least in the provinces (which is probably one of the reasons my Lolo Delio’s tapa frita tastes so good). The farther away from the cities you go, the better it gets: Meat from the free-range pigs in the villages of Kalinga was one of the best pork I’ve tasted. Native chicken, of course, is tastier than the broiler variety, making for great tinola.
Unfortunately, people are exchanging the really healthy, readily available foods for fast foods and canned goods, and are trading the natural flavors for the artificial ones conjured by “Magic Sarap.” It is, of course, a consequence of urbanization (there is no land to plant vegetables) and the conditions of poverty (there is no time to plant, since people are overworked to begin with) that people are resorting to instant and processed foods. But we also cannot discount the role society plays in influencing these food choices, in the first place, when kids’ taste buds become accustomed to artificial flavorings.
Alas, the persistent view that vegetables are “a poor man’s food” doesn’t help the cause of promoting them. As for embracing local produce over processed foods and canned goods, it’s hard to compete against the TV commercials of Judy Ann Santos and James Reid.
Thus, mountain villagers are not particularly proud of their tungsoy (watercress)—and neither do the lowlanders hold their pako (fiddlehead fern) in high regard. Alas, many of our rural folk, surrounded with sigarilyas and the many other “Bahay Kubo” vegetables, think more highly of pesticide-intensive cabbage than their unknowingly-organic produce.
Perhaps their attitudes will change when they find out how much the “titas of Manila” are willing to pay for the greens that grow in their backyards.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.