Obsessing about organic

You may think my interest in organic food is close to an obsession. In truth, I have sometimes wondered if it goes a bit too far. But then again, I believe the concern is well founded. I also know there’s a significant, international network of people who share this concern, communicating regularly, intelligently and passionately about it via the internet.

The bottom line is this: I wish to know what we, as a family, are eating. I’d like to know more about how it is produced than is generally assumed I need to know. I’d like to have some assurance that our food is produced in a way that minimizes harm to the environment. And to go further than ‘just organic’ I’d prefer the food to be locally produced and fresh, and therefore seasonal.

It sounds like a tall order. But these are fundamental principles. The agricultural engineer who assists in our garden tells me that one issue in Egypt is the use of hormones in agriculture. The purpose is to accelerate growth and maturation of crops, maximizing yield per crop cycle and harvests per year.

On top of that, my visits to agricultural suppliers in search of equipment have confirmed that chemical fertilisers and pesticides are common stock in trade. Presumably there’s a reason for this – there must be a market for the stuff.

Profusion and confusion
Consumers in Egypt are definitely up against some barriers. That said, while doing the major monthly shopping today I registered a noticeable improvement in range of produce and competition between companies within the retail organic sector.

Still, a major disincentive to buying organic food is its cost. Whether you are talking about Europe or Egypt, it is expensive and arguably beyond the means of families on a tight budget.

And it is not widely stocked in Cairo’s shops, being exclusively the preserve of international supermarket chains. Small, local shopkeepers appear to be excluded from the distribution network. But you need a car to get to the supermarkets – they are not in the middle of residential areas – which effectively excludes vast numbers of the poorer sections of Cairo’s population.

So far, I have traced five companies that market organic food: SEKEM (brand name Isis); Bio Land; Wadi; Jana Agriculture; and Health and Appetite. There may be more, of course, but to say this is a niche sector in the vast field of Egyptian agriculture would be an understatement.

Then there’s certification. Far from being standardized, it’s a minestrone soup, with a Central Lab for Organic Agriculture named on some labels, and one overseas entity, the “Istituto Mediterraneo di Certificazione”, on others. One company gives an accreditation certificate number, but does not name the issuing organization. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) website there is no standard for organic certification in Egypt, and only Tunisia in the entire Arab Middle East has one. Most countries in, say Europe, have a number of such standards: they may be governmental or private, and they should be approved, for example by IFOAM.

So companies may state their produce is “chemicals and pesticides free” but we, the consumers, generally have no idea who checks this out, and whether it is consistently true.

Mysterious disappearing fruit
But for me, the real conundrum is that, while Cairenes have a pretty good range of organic vegetables to choose from – and it is getting more adventurous by the week – plus olive oil, herbs, herbal teas, honey and eggs, there is absolutely no organic fruit on the market except for limes and preserved (i.e. not fresh) dates.

This is bizarre in the extreme. Egyptian fruit is superb. The seasonal variations and range of choice are wondrous, the quality excellent. Throughout the year, on just about every street corner, you come across stalls selling heaps of fruit, or even specializing in just one kind. Currently bananas and citrus fruits are in season, with trucks coming in from the countryside every day, fully laden, to supply shops and stalls across the megacity.

So what is happening? I can only suppose the organic fruit (there must be some!) is going overseas to Egypt’s export markets. This leaves us with outwardly excellent fruit, yet no choice between conventional versus organic, and no way to avoid the produce of a method of agriculture that is deeply unsettling.

Unless, of course, we grow our own. So there’s only one way to go: back to the not-quite-organic-since-we-sprayed-the-fruit-trees garden!

Coming next: Lifting the lid on GMOs – and it’s a can of worms!
Cosmetics the natural way

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