This is written by my friends at FOLO Farm in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, as a response to an SCMP news article on food security during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Offering a response to this news as a small organic farm community in JB.
We don’t have to be afraid if, from this pandemic experience, we can all support each other to wake up and act decisively to regain our food sovereignty.
5 years ago, before we started FOLO farm, we would have been more worried, maybe even paralyzed, by such news. This worry would have then colored and informed our actions: Throwing in a few more bags of rice in the supermarket, visiting the instant noodle and canned food aisles again, temporarily suspending our knowledge of how bad processed food can be… Following the herd.
Today, not only are we much less worried, we feel it in our bones a certain warmth, a subtle sense of resilience. It’s surprising, why the article, the virus, did not shake us much into fight or flight… So some of us decided to reflect and try to understand the reasons grounding this subtle feeling of resilience, in hope that we can be of some service to those who are worried.
𝗥𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗼𝗻 𝟭: 𝗙𝗼𝗼𝗱 𝗶𝘀 𝗲𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘆𝘄𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲, 𝗶𝗳 𝘄𝗲 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝘁𝗼𝘂𝗰𝗵 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗶𝘁.
Through the years, we have made friends with many fellow farming communities and friends who love growing food naturally. For the sake of our farm, we scoured articles and youtube videos and looked for the quiet competent teachers of farming. As a community, our collective knowledge of what is edible and what is not, and collective experience of identifying, harvesting and eating our own food, grew more and more reassuring. It also helps that we know exactly where our network of farms and farmer friends are, because we have been there and have their mobile numbers.
Instead of worrying about food export restrictions on items like rice, fruits etc, which we no doubt love, we somehow don’t feel as needy of them. We can walk along many parts of our city and surrounding lands. Look around, and recognize the various types of cassava growing that can be fermented, the odd sugarcane here and there, sweet potatoes, Job’s tears. Look down, and we know that we can forage on the leaves of the wild Chinese Violet, the red fern, the wild Bayam, the jack bean, masak lemak the leaves of tapioca, long bean, have as salad the ulam raja, free growing kangkong by the streams, yams, gingers.. and rest in the fact that we know how to grow at least 30 varieties of vegetables without imported fertilizers and pesticides, and how to save most of their seeds or cuttings. Look up, and we can differentiate 20+ different fruit trees from other trees, recognize when they are flowering, see the tender leaves of the common mango tree, cashew tree, and petai pods as traditional ulam .. And know that we can eat the heart of the oil palm, the moringa fruit, the flowers, stem and shoots of the banana, fry the seed of the cempedak, harvest the jackfruit green to fill our stomachs, or our chicken’s stomachs if imported corn is “restricted”. And this is not some taste compromise – our kampung friends, farmers and elders, and our eager modern chefs, make some pretty delicious dishes out of them!
The antidote to fear is understanding.
And just like that, by choosing to have our own community farm, without mugging, forcing or formal courses, the tree of our understanding about food has grown over the last five years. Where people see a random green curtain, an abandoned land of trees, we see organic food. Free from imports, from global supply chains, speculations.
And we are only babies in the farming community! Imagine another 10 years of farming, foraging and friendships with farmers, Orang Asli’s and the kampung elders.
This first reason translates to our first appeal: When this is over, let us all set a deep intention to understand the food that nourishes us. No more outsourcing. Then act to create conditions for this understanding. Let’s have our young be in touch with Nature, with growing food as a community, so they will understand, have an eye for abundance, a feel for the soil, and have no fear. They say that the gift of non-fear is the highest gift. Mandate this skill and experience in schools, have a National Farming Service like National Service, have growing organic food as a core subject, like Math, Science, English, as a mandatory course for all first year university students. Give them new eyes.
“𝑊𝑒 ℎ𝑎𝑣𝑒 𝑡𝑜 𝑙𝑒𝑡 𝑐ℎ𝑖𝑙𝑑𝑟𝑒𝑛 𝑡𝑜𝑢𝑐ℎ 𝑛𝑎𝑡𝑢𝑟𝑒, 𝑏𝑒𝑐𝑎𝑢𝑠𝑒 𝑡ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝑤ℎ𝑖𝑐ℎ 𝑖𝑠 𝑢𝑛𝑡𝑜𝑢𝑐ℎ𝑒𝑑 𝑖𝑠 𝑢𝑛𝑙𝑜𝑣𝑒𝑑.”
-𝑬𝒎𝒎𝒂 𝑴𝒂𝒓𝒓𝒊𝒔, 𝑬𝒏𝒗𝒊𝒓𝒐𝒏𝒎𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒂𝒍 𝒘𝒓𝒊𝒕𝒆𝒓, 𝑻𝑬𝑫𝑺𝒖𝒎𝒎𝒊𝒕 2016
𝗥𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗼𝗻 𝟮: 𝗙𝗼𝗼𝗱 𝗶𝘀 𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲, 𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲.
Localization is cool, and comforting. It is comforting that we are 20 minutes away from a farm whose harvest we have a share in, alongside 150 other families. 25 minutes from a local goat farm, 30 minutes from a fruit farmer. A kacang botol is way cooler, grows way stronger here, retains its nutrients better, than a Mexican pinto bean. 100% of what we pay goes to the farm, the local economy. Marketing is word of mouth. The produce we grow tastes of the “terroir” of our land. Geosmin fills our lungs. The actions of the ones who grow our food are held accountable, and deeply appreciated, by the community. Responsiveness to change is immediate, risk is shared. Cast an extra bed of Bayam seeds and 30kg of food in 3 weeks. We actually know who our family farmer is, as assuring as knowing who our family doctors, lawyers and bank managers are.
Food security also means growing food without globalized inputs, fossil fuel-based pesticides, chemicals, imported technologies, gmo seeds. If one day the shareholders or political masters of Bayer and Monsanto decide not to supply their agri-products and services to Malaysia, we smile and thank them instead. We use local food waste, animal waste, landscape waste to regenerate, not degenerate, our soils. One day we hope to use local human waste too. We grow food while protecting our precious local watersheds, and grow water by sending cloud-forming bacteria up into the sky with more biodiversity and trees. We work with Nature as the engine of farming, as opposed to humans as an engine of farming, and rely less on “agriculture solutions” from far away, developed in different climates and contexts.
So another antidote of fear is trust, and trust needs to be close. Trust stretches thinner and thinner across distance and time.
With every extra mile and hour our food has to travel, another middle man appears, another pair of hands, another preservative, another coldroom to be kept sanitized, another drop in its inherent nutrients, another murder of the beneficial microbes on its skin, another country legislation to comply with, another plane that has to fly, another ship that has to sail. So many possible weak links.
So just like that, in five years, we have unknowingly learnt to trust and take refuge in the physical proximity between the dark rich soil of our farm and our bodies, helping us worry less.
With this second reason, our second appeal: When this is over, just as we don’t want our family doctor, our family banker, our friends, even our family vet, to be far away, let us support and have our own family farmers be near us, knowing their faces, growing our food, holding them close to our hearts. In fact, on our community farm, we have our family doctors, vet and lawyers eating our fresh nutritious organic food together with our families, and have grown closer to them! Let us re-organize our economies, our diplomacies, our policies, for 90% of our food to be not more than 90km away.
“𝑊ℎ𝑒𝑛 𝑤𝑒 𝑎𝑟𝑒 𝑐𝑙𝑜𝑠𝑒 𝑡𝑜 𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑓𝑜𝑜𝑑 𝑠𝑜𝑢𝑟𝑐𝑒, 𝑤𝑒 𝑟𝑒𝑔𝑎𝑖𝑛 𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑝𝑜𝑤𝑒𝑟.”
-𝑬𝒍𝒍𝒂 𝑵𝒐𝒂𝒉 𝑩𝒂𝒏𝒄𝒓𝒐𝒇𝒕
𝗥𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗼𝗻 𝟯: 𝗙𝗼𝗼𝗱 𝗦𝗲𝗰𝘂𝗿𝗶𝘁𝘆 𝗶𝘀 𝗮𝗯𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗾𝘂𝗮𝗹𝗶𝘁𝘆, 𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝗷𝘂𝘀𝘁 𝗾𝘂𝗮𝗻𝘁𝗶𝘁𝘆 𝗮𝗻𝘆𝗺𝗼𝗿𝗲
“Over the last 150 years, many of the world’s prime agricultural soils have lost between 30% and 75% of their carbon, adding billions of tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. Soil degradation has intensified in recent decades, with around 30% of the world’s cropland abandoned in the last 40 years due to soil decline.
Soil dysfunction also impacts on human and animal health. It is sobering to reflect that over the last seventy years, the level of every nutrient in almost every kind of food has fallen between 10 and 100%. An individual today would need to consume twice as much meat, three times as much fruit and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same amount of minerals and trace elements as available in those same foods in 1940. ”
– Dr Christine Jones, Light Farming: Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils
What is the link between the way we grow our food, the quality of our food, and food security?
It means that we would be healthier eating 300 grams of bio nutrient-dense sweet potato leaf grown from local microbes-rich soil, freshly harvested the day of consumption, than one kilogram of industrially grown cauliflower flown in from China. Our bodies would absorb more nutrients eating 1 serving of sweet organic fruit-fly bruised pomelo just ripened off our tree, than 3 servings of pesticide-laden oranges from the US. We would not just survive, but thrive better, eating 1 cup of hill-grown, buffalo-fertilized, mountain stream-fed heirloom rice grown on 9-month fallowed land from Sarawak, than 3 cups of urea force-fed, triple-rotation, GMO-seeded, weedicide and heavy-metal laden rice from Thailand (happens in Malaysia too).
Quality is not about how big and spotless the grapes are, how beautiful and fat the imported white asparagus is, how expensive the winter Kale or premium Australian avocados are in the supermarket. We are slowly, surely, seeing through this illusion.
Quality is about what’s inside, about asking how our food has come about, how was it grown, who grew it, under what conditions, and being fully satisfied with the answers.
Resilient humans come from resilient food grown naturally, coming from the same environmental conditions as them. Our Japanese friends process seaweed better than us. Our European friends have bodies that thrive on grapes and cheese. And so our bodies feel safer with kangkong sambal belacan, bittergourd soup, soursop, coconut-based curry and nasi ulam.
The third antidote to fear, we realize, is the quality, not the quantity, of what we have. We can put our hands to our hearts and say that the families of our farm community are in a much better health position to battle Covid-19, than 5 years ago, because of what we have consistently put in our bodies: Local, bio-nutrient dense, microbial-diverse food.
“𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑝𝑙𝑎𝑛𝑡 𝑏𝑒𝑐𝑜𝑚𝑒𝑠 𝑤ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝑤𝑒 𝑔𝑖𝑣𝑒 𝑖𝑡 𝑡𝑜 𝑒𝑎𝑡.”
And so from our humble 5-year experience, our final appeal: When this is over, let’s move away from Food Quantity and focus more on Food Quality, on nutrient density. Let’s move away from an input-output assessment of agriculture and the food we procure, to a processed-based assessment of agriculture. To secure a healthier, more resilient community in an increasingly volatile future of climate, food and health.
In gratitude to our loved ones,