When it comes to organically-grown food, the question is no longer: "Are they better for you?" Instead, people are asking: "Are they worth the premium price?"
Never mind that scientific evidence has shown that organic products are indeed the healthier alternative; many still write them off as a mere "lifestyle choice".
Only one in five Malaysians are willing to fork out more for them, according to the Nielsen 2011 Global Online Environment and Sustainability Survey, which polled over 25,000 Internet respondents in 51 countries.
But what if we told you that by paying RM3 more for a bag of organic vegetables, you are potentially helping to support the livelihood of the less fortunate?
That's precisely what's happening at the Badan Amal Nur Zaharah in Janda Baik, Pahang.
Just 40 minutes' drive from Kuala Lumpur, Janda Baik is a quiet enclave located in the heart of Banjaran Titiwangsa. It is here that Nur Zaharah, established in 2005 by chairperson Datin Norjan Noor, serves as a welfare home for children and young adults between the age of four and 20.
At a glance, the boy's home at Kampung Chemperoh (the girls live apart at Kampung Sum Sum Hilir) seems ordinary enough, consisting of a simple white-washed double-storey building with walkways that circle the upper tier. Instead of a garden, however, the home is surrounded by a field that stretches out on slightly more than half a hectare of land. Half of this sea of green is used, not as a football field for the boys as most would expect but, as an organic farm that helps generate a modest income for the organisation.
"We grow a variety of leafy vegetables like kailan, sawi and siu pak choy," says manager Yahya Yusof, 29, who runs the home and farm. Once a week, hired workers will transport boxes containing 3kg worth of fresh produce, via motorcycle, direct to their customers' doorsteps - all 30 of them who reside in KL.
"Instead of depending solely on public donations, we decided early on that we wanted to do something more proactive to support the centre," explains Yahya, who obtained a degree in Islamic law from Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia in Nilai, Negri Sembilan. Upon graduation, he came to learn of the need for self-sustainable orphanages in the country and was keen on seeing what he could do to help.
The father of two then took on the task of heading Nur Zaharah, but not before he had spent some time in Singapore learning about how to better manage welfare homes.
Every month, the farm draws an income of RM4,000 - a generous sum if one was feeding a family of four. But Nur Zaharah is home to 41 young residents. Running the centre requires RM25,000 a month.
As a symphony of bleating cuts through the air, Yahya reveals that for extra income, the home collects rental for a goat shed - and the farm uses the free organic goat manure to fertilise the crops.
Yahya says the home is "still surviving", but adds that support is always welcome.
Apart from public and private contributions, Nur Zaharah is also banking on its newly-opened Coffee and Craft Shop to help bring in additional revenue. The shop, run by skilled personnel, offers java brewed from the farm's own coffee beans, while the crafts are all-natural wood décor made from recycled materials.
Nutrition is usually a problem that plagues the underprivileged but it is hardly a problem at Nur Zaharah, as the home essentially grows its own food. And the air at Janda Baik is crisp and fresh, ideal even for growing children.
"Every Saturday, the kids will help in maintaining the farm. They seem to enjoy it. They were the ones who planted the passion fruit (vine)," Yahya says, pointing towards the robust green spheres that dangle intertwined with the iron fence.
Every child, it seems, has his or her own "tree", in which they take great pride. When their tree bears fruit, the children feel a huge sense of achievement, not unlike the feeling one has after creating a masterpiece, says Yahya.
While organic farming is still a small industry worldwide - accounting for less than 2% of global retail production, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation - Nur Zaharah is certainly setting a good example when it comes to self-sustainability.
"My aim is that in 10 years' time, the farm will be able to generate enough income to fully support the home," Yahya says.
There is value in organic farming, and Nur Zaharah has found a way to maximise its benefits to support the welfare of the underprivileged. Their stance is not unlike the Organics 4 Orphans organisation (organics4orphans.org) founded in 2008 by Canadians Dale and Linda Bolton, which set out to teach communities in Africa how to grow high-quality organic food so that everyone could be fed. While their vision is to improve the health and lifestyle of orphans, they are also helping rural Africans to escape from extreme poverty.
Pricey though they may seem, organic products are, in more ways than one, life-savers. Doesn't that say something about their worth?
This article won the Best Environment Story award at the HSBC-Wild Asia Responsible Journalists Programme held in Janda Baik, Pahang, in Oct 2011. The programme, in its second year, was designed to inspire and challenge journalists to look deeper into the root causes of environmental and social issues, to help them understand how the natural world interrelates with our daily lives.
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Lee Mei Li
Lee Mei Li is a journalist and was a participant at the 2011 Responsible Journalists Programme.... more inside »