Quietly, a revolution is taking place. And it’s coming to farms, gardens and markets near you.
Irrespective of age and background, people from all walks of life are being drawn to take matters into their own hands and create a positive impact in the world around us. Today we are faced with a daunting long list of seemingly insurmountable environmental problems. But we can take inspiration from the determination and vision of those who are turning to organic agriculture as a means to shape their environment, their health and their communities.
The organic agricultural movement taking root in Taiwan is driven by a deep environmental awareness. In sharp contrast to the mainstream food industry which has wreaked havoc with the natural world, this new generation of farmers have goals far loftier than just turning profits. For them, organic is a way of life. In this article we trace the stories of three unlikely heroes who have transformed themselves into trailblazers of the organic movement, and are carving an alternative, more sustainable path for us to follow.
Black Gold – Supercharged Organic Compost
Pierre Loisel is a French Canadian who has shaped the fate of Taiwan in more ways than one. He moved here fifty years ago, and was instrumental in encouraging technology companies to set up their headquarters on the island, which helped paved the way for the economic miracle of production on which Taiwan thrived for two decades. But when his young son complained that his father wasn’t spending enough time with him, Pierre resigned that very same day and started a farm on the allotment by his house.
Never shy of a challenge, he next embarked on a community project to clean up the local beach, where the authorities had started dumping waste. They built an incinerator but found that the food waste simply wouldn’t burn and blocked up the chimneys. Wondering whether a different solution could be found for these kitchen scraps, he consulted university professors and government officials but they had all but given up after struggling for years to compost the tricky elements into something usable. Known for its especially high fat and salt content, Chinese food waste is notoriously difficult to compost. However, their fruitless research didn’t deter Pierre, and after several smelly and frustrating experiments in his back garden which attracted hordes of cockroaches, he finally hit upon the golden method of creating odorless organic fertilizer. He realized he simply needed a large enough quantity for the temperatures to be high enough to activate the bacteria and kick start the composting process.
The result when he applied this “black gold” fertilizer to his vegetable garden was nothing short of miraculous; without the need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides Pierre could now grow an abundance of healthy and delicious vegetables and fruit. His garden became lush and green, and the microbes inside the fertilizer naturally kept the bugs at bay. Though the work was tough, waking up at the crack of dawn to truck around to local restaurants and schools to pick up the kitchen scraps, he had found a way to spend more time with his family, furnish the dinner table with the healthiest foods Mother Nature could provide, and earn a decent income. His reputation grew quickly, and people flocked to buy his produce, not put off by the higher prices. When his wife fell ill with a particularly vicious form of cancer Pierre fed her a diet of huge organic salads fresh from his garden, and doctors were astonished at her rapid recovery. Pierre remains convinced that his vegetables were instrumental in boosting her immune system during her battle with cancer.
Pierre happily shared his advice and tips with the government officials and environmental protection advocates who came flocking to see him. He’s even delivered an inspiring TED talk on the subject, in which he cheerfully chucks vegetables from his own farm at the audience and munches on lettuce leaves a la Bugs Bunny. Inspired by his success, a kitchen waste recycling program was rolled out across the county, and it is now second nature for city residents to separate their leftovers from their garbage ready for pig feed or compost. Public composting facilities tend to use only plant matter, as Pierre’s method is still unique because he uses anything he can get his hands on, including animal products and seafood shells. His composting therefore takes a longer stretch of time and can let off some fairly unpleasant smells, but the final result is super-charged organic compost which is loaded with nutrients and minerals.
Working together with his neighbors, they have developed an organic community farm of 8 hectares which now provides a beautifully rural landscape nestled in the suburbs of Taipei for all of them to enjoy and reap the benefits of fresh natural produce. Young agriculture students, men just back from compulsory army service, and older people looking for a career change all come to Pierre to learn the practical aspects about composting and organic agriculture in exchange for three months of farm labor. He also gives animated talks at public speaking events, and has been known to enthusiastically throw vegetables into the audience and munch on a lettuce leaf mid-sentence. Pierre is unabashedly optimistic about the future for Taiwan. He believes that organic produce can become one of Taiwan’s strongest exports and he’s certain that huge savings can be made from healthcare spending when everyone is eating organic vegetables and warding off chronic diseases – money which can be used instead to develop ecologically sound community housing projects.
The Life-Force of the Co-operative
In mainland China food safety scandals have become an everyday occurrence, worsened by lax regulations, poor education on the proper use of agricultural chemicals and the desire to cut corners to make easy profits. Recently Taiwan consumer confidence has also been rocked by an increasing number of scandals. Last year it was discovered that a well-known brand of cooking oil was being adulterated with recycled oil waste from restaurant and school kitchens, slaughterhouse waste and imported lard which was labelled unfit for human consumption. People are losing faith in the government’s ability to adequately regulate the food industry. Furthermore, despite a luscious terrain and year-round growing season, Taiwan now relies on 70% of its food being imported from abroad and food prices are rapidly rising. To counter these trends, locals are finding innovative ways to replenish consumer trust and provide local producers with a fair wage and a steady source of income.
A shining example of successful community collaboration is the Homemakers Union Consumer Co-operative in Taizhong, which was started up by a plucky group of women in the 1990s. Although they lacked business skills and financial capital, by each investing in the business they managed to create a strong core project. Motivated by concerns over the environment and supporting local producers, they set up personal relationships with farmers whom they could trust to use organic methods. Initially they had to work hard to market their products to housewives, and convince them that their organic produce was safer even if the vegetables were sometimes more unsightly. Nowadays, however, almost twenty years since opening the Co-operative is one of the largest in the country. Tellingly, each time a food safety scandal breaks they get a fresh wave of customers.
They work with 120 farmers, employ 400 members of staff, and have over 53,000 members. Built entirely on trust and mutuality, members often pitch in to help the farmers when they need a hand. Everyone involved sees the value of investing in good quality organic produce sourced from their local community, and the co-operative takes care to ensure full traceability. They stock a full range of organic produce, importing only the items which cannot be made in Taiwan. All imports are carefully checked at a local laboratory, a measure which is far more stringent than government regulations. This precaution turned up a batch of dried mushrooms which was laden with nerve damaging poisons, demonstrating the risk that authorities are taking by failing to check these imports. The success of this Co-operative is testament to the determination of the women who started it up, and to the values of honesty and trust which a community can foster when they work together towards a common goal.
Community Market Values
Organic farmers markets have also grown in popularity in last few years, and there are now over 70 markets operating across the country. But the first was only opened as recently as 2006, and was entirely down to the vision of one man, Ray Tung, who founded the Hope Market in Taizhong. On paper, Ray was a very unlikely hero for the organic movement in Taiwan. He had attained a PhD in agriculture in America, and upon returning to Taiwan happily took a post in a top university and began teaching his own students exactly what he himself had been taught: that agricultural chemicals were absolutely safe. It was only when one of his students began challenging his assertions that he began seeking answers from organic farmers around the country.
Despite his university education, these small-scale farmers turned out to be his best teachers. Ray became inspired by the organic movement as a philosophy which stretched far beyond simply refraining from the use of industrial fertilizers and pesticides. Although their work was much more demanding, they taught him about the values of human life and caring for the environment. They taught him about putting integrity over profit.
Cabbages and turnips fresh from the fertile ground
Unfortunately, the farmers knew little about marketing, and lacked the resources to establish distribution networks. Taking lessons from the organic movement which was sweeping across America, Ray saw the potential for organic farmers in Taiwan to sell their wares at a farmers market, and started developing a model of community supported agriculture which he could apply to their context. With such fresh and delicious produce, they simply needed a platform upon which to educate the wider population about the values which underpinned their work. The rest would fall naturally into place.
It turned out to be difficult to convince the farmers that his idea would work. Nevertheless when he invited them all to a meeting, they shared many stories about the plight of their parents’ generation. This preceding generation of farmers had been convinced by salesmen that chemical fertilizers and pesticides would improve their yields, and they had continued to use these chemicals even after falling prey to nasty diseases – a side effect of their long-term exposure to the poisons – because they didn’t know any better. After making the switch to chemical-free farming methods, many had experienced several years of hardship and poor yields while the fertility of their soil recovered. Organic farming took patience, trust and hard work, and even convincing their own family members that they were doing the right thing wasn’t always easy. Farmers also reminisced about the large numbers of snakes, frogs, fish and birds which used to inhabit the land. It was clear to them that chemicals were turning their once vibrant ecosystems into wastelands. The meeting proved a great success. Inspired by their newly formed community, they launched the market soon afterwards.
The market turned out to be very popular, but it has done far more than simply sell organic produce. Farming can often be an isolating endeavor, but the market provides the farmers with a place to share ideas and tips and build supportive friendships. They arrive each weekend energetic and excited, and feel inspired to be part of a greater movement. It also gives them a face-to-face relationship with their customers, where they can build trust and loyalty and share their passion for organic farming methods. It takes a huge sacrifice and change in consciousness to become an organic farmer; it’s not simply about avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So Ray has been very careful not to let big businesses worm their way into the market. He believes that it these small-scale farmers who take the greatest care to protect biodiversity in their farms, and need the most help to find a steady market.
The Road Ahead
While the organic movement in Taiwan accelerates, there are several tensions which lay ahead. For one, the government approved regulatory systems for organic certification are not stringent enough in checking that farmers abide by the terms of organic production. This diminishes consumer trust in the government’s organic logos, and undermines the value of the work of those organic farmers who are truly committed to the cause. Until the government gets its act together, farmers have to rely on their own ability to build their reputation and earn the loyalty of their customers on a personal basis. But this model of small-scale production and local consumption is proving to have its own strengths. By cutting out the middle man and selling direct to the customer, the farmers have more control over their prices and get a larger cut of the profits.
Despite these difficulties, the demand for organic produce in Taiwan is soaring and consumers readily pay the price difference. And there are several more promising signs. Government initiatives such as the Citizen Farmers Scheme are extremely popular; this program grants plots of land that have been set aside to Taipei residents who wish to indulge their inner amateur agricultural enthusiast and provides courses in organic farming. Many farms offer people a chance to experience life on an organic farm first-hand as a volunteer through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) organisation. Permaculture, a movement which promotes a holistic approach to farming, is also taking hold and several farms teach permaculture courses and provide accommodation and food in exchange for a few months’ of labor.
The word sustainability gets thrown about a lot these days. It’s hard to talk about organic farming without being too romantic or too practical. But if we consider seriously the astounding fact that over half of the world’s population now lives in cities, we can see some serious problems are on the horizon. At some point, we’re going to have to learn how to survive on a planet that needs to sustain 8 billion people. The strain on our natural resources is only growing while the biodiversity of the planet is shrinking. Small-scale organic farmers are unlocking the secrets which may be key to our continued existence. They’re showing us that it is possible for us to put greed and self-interest to one side for the benefit of the common good. They’re proving to us that we can be good neighbors and responsible guardians of the land. We need not despair.
Do you know of any more organic food trends or communities within Taiwan or elsewhere that are worthy of our attention? Get in touch, leave a comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org Let’s get the global movement towards sustainability more inspired and connected!