Tuesday, May 30, 2017

An Expat Perspective on Why You Should Grow Your Own Organic Fruit and Vegetables in Sri Lanka

I was reading an article a few days ago titled, "SL fruits could fetch better prices in int’l markets" that reinforced my concerns about food safety in Sri Lanka. In this article, an Agriculture Economist at the Ministry of Agriculture was quoted as saying "Sri Lanka has a better chance to gain good market prices for fruit exports in the international market compared to other South Asian countries due to local farmers using minimal quantities of agro –chemicals for fruit production unlike in vegetables".  

The fact that agro-chemicals are used heavily in food production in Sri Lanka isn't news to me. But, to have it confirmed and supported by the Ministry of Agriculture is another matter. I've been concerned about this for some time and have written a few blog posts on this topic. If you haven't read these, then check out "How safe (or toxic) is the food we grow and eat in Sri Lanka?" and "Sri Lanka: Pint-sized Plastic Garbage Island?"

Food safety is probably one of the main reasons that would force me to leave Sri Lanka. The only reason I haven't done so is because I've taken food matters into my own hands by growing my own organic produce. Concern over chemically-treated food and GM crops has been greatly debated in Sri Lanka and across the globe. It is undoubtedly a global issue, so moving to another country will have similar challenges though possibly less apparent due to government spin, posh wrapping and deceptive labeling.

Sri Lankan Context

Sri Lanka ranks quite highly on the list of countries that use large quantities of fertilizers while also importing fruit and vegetables from countries that are heavy users of agro-chemicals.

Back in 2008, an article titled, "Beware of fruits - with Carbide" was published warning of the use of calcium carbide as a fruit ripening agent in Sri Lanka. Farmers in Sri Lanka have historically been prone to excessive use of  chemicals, particularly calcium carbide, to ripen fruit.

I'm not sure if you've noticed this when you've bought fruit from the pola or shops, but I've had many instances where fruit I've purchased has developed black spots on the outer skin while the fruit remains unripe on the inside, or the fruit has turned bad very quickly for no apparent reason. These are signs of chemical use to ripen fruit. This is particularly common with bananas and mangoes I've purchased locally.

Calcium carbide has been banned in many countries as it is known to have traces of arsenic and phosphorous, which can be fatal for humans. It is also a known carcinogen and is believed to cause neurological disorders. Although calcium carbide is banned in Sri Lanka it would seem that calcium carbide is still secretively in use. The Sri Lankan Heath Ministry permits ethereal to be sprayed on selected fruit as a ripening agent, but this is still a chemical being applied to fruit. All-in-all, this doesn't bode well and makes it increasingly challenging to purchase safe food.

Unfortunately, the general theme seems to be that farmers in Sri Lanka have a habit of excessive spraying agro-chemicals. In an article titled "Opinion: Consuming GMOs is least of our problems", the constant drive for farmers to increase yields was highlighted as driving farmers to spray plants with agro-chemicals above the recommended limit. Chronic kidney disease and other disorders have been linked to agro-chemical use, home-brewed alcohol and high arsenic levels in drinking water in Sri Lanka. The World Health Organization has already made recommendations to regulate fertilizers and agro-chemicals in chronic kidney disease-affected areas, as well as other recommendations.

I have an acquaintance who is a doctor working in one of the towns in the Uva Province. He sent me an article published in one of the Sinhala newspapers that spoke of a visit made by a professor from one of the Sri Lankan universities to a South-East Asian country to look into the link between cancers and the use of agro-chemicals. He apparently toured a chemical plant on that visit and, without revealing the nature and purpose of his visit, asked about some of the different fertilizers and pesticides that were being exported. He was shocked to discover that certain strong pesticides that were not permitted for sale in that country were being exported directly to Sri Lanka.

If this issn't bad enough, I've heard talk about some farmers having separate plots of land to grow vegetables for their own consumption that are not sprayed with agro-chemicals, and other plots of land to grow vegetables that are sold into the local market.

Reasons to Grow Your Own Food

I've already mentioned the most important reason for growing your own organic fruit and vegetables, and that is food safety. Given the predominant trend for those in the agricultural industry to use large quantities of agro-chemicals to grow fruit and vegetables, it has become an imperative to find safe and organically food. As I posted to this blog's Facebook page recently, a manager at a mostly-organic vegetable shop advised caution when buying **cabbage, carrots, beetroots, green banana peppers and potatoes**, as it's widely known they require the most chemicals in order for them to grow.

It naturally follows that good health is the other reason to grow your own food. If you know what you are putting into your garden in order to grow food, and let's assume it's only the good stuff like natural compost, natural seeds or seedlings and clean water then this is a major contributor to good health. Of course, good health also depends on other factors such as sleep, exercise, good habits and a healthy lifestyle, so you need to consider these things as well, not just the organic food component.

Another reason is freshness and taste. There is nothing that compares to fresh produce from your garden straight to your table. Just the other day I was nibbling on a newly grown okra finger and it was simply divine, super crunchy and remarkably edible without cooking.

Undoubtedly, growing your own fruit and vegetables is a money saver. You decrease your food bill by the amount you save on the food that has been grown in your garden. Unpredictable climate fluctuations have been causing extreme shifts in weather across the island. Sri Lanka seems to be polarizing between drought and flood conditions, which sends food prices skyrocketing as the process becomes more unpredictable and crop failures increase. Having your own home garden will safeguard you from some of the effects of this. Additionally, there is also an incalculable saving with the decline in health risk associated with the fact you are consuming safe food.

I have found a real sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as another good reason for growing my own food. This is particularly true given that I was never known to have a green thumb. When I was a kid I loved to pull out weeds, like a mini-meditation of sorts. But, if you had asked me to grow something, well, the results were never consistent. I may have managed to grow silver beet or some kind of green vegetable for a primary school project, but I had a lot of help from my teacher. So, when I see what's growing in my garden, I feel joyful and happy.

If you can't grow your own food, then consider this:
(1) Buy organic, where possible. This isn't always easy as it's not known if produce labelled organic at the shops or supermarkets is 100% organic. Government regulation of this part of the industry is in its infancy, or some might even say that it's practically non-existent. Plus, organic fruit and vegetable prices are skyrocketing as people are scrambling to find safe food.
(2) Buy from local people who grow their own food at home. I'd recommend getting to know the sellers at your local pola or market. Seek out sellers who are selling small quantities of fruit and vegetables they've grown at home. They are usually old grannies with surplus produce from their gardens at home.

What's Growing in my Garden?

The previous government under Mahinda Rajapaksa had a program called Divi Neguma that encouraged people to grow fruit and vegetables at home i.e home gardening. The objective under this program was to uplift the living conditions and nutrition levels of people. I'm not sure whether this program actually met its objectives and targets but, irrespective of one's political views, this program at its core was a great idea. I think it was around this time that the idea of growing my own food held vague but tentative interest for me.

Possibly a year later my interest in growing my own food had developed alongside an interest in protecting the environment, ensuring food safety and learning to live green.

I started out:
(1) wanting to know more about composting as a way to reduce the amount of rubbish I was putting out, which then led to
(2) considering what I could do with all that rich compost I was producing. That combined with growing concerns about agro-chemicals led me to
(3) visit a number of Ministry of Agriculture's retail outlets, a variety of shops outside of Colombo selling potted plants, and a few markets in and around Colombo delving into seeds and a variety of fruit and vegetable seedlings.
And, within a short time my home garden had started to transform.

There wasn't a specific plan as to how my garden went from a basic home garden with a few fruit trees, shrubs and flowers to a very productive organic fruit and vegetable garden with a steadily growing herb garden.


In the beginning, I probably started with a garden that already had a small ambarella (golden plum) tree, two narang trees (calamondin is a hybrid between a citrus and kumquat), a kohomba (neem) tree, and a pera (guava) tree. I also had some other trees and shrubs that  were more decorative, but I removed most of it to make way for more productive plants.

On my excursions I started looking out for seedlings and small plants and ended up with small saplings of mango, avocado, beli (bael fruit) and pomegranate. All are now much, much taller, though only the mango trees have been fruiting for the past two years. I also have a etteriya or lime tree that isn't fruiting yet, but the lime leaves are great in curries.

Papayas have been losing their taste in Sri Lanka for a few years now. I suspect farmers are being sold genetically modified seeds, but I don't know for sure. So what I've been doing when I manage to buy a papaya-tasting papaya (I know that sounds weird, but seriously it's rare to find a good tasting papaya these days), is to plant the seeds form that papaya into my garden, either in a pot of directly into the soil.  From my trips to the local pola and testing different kinds of papaya, the variety grown up near Vavuniya seem to be good, though I'm not sure for how long or even if they are simply hybrids that will only grow for one or two seasons.

Right now I have two fruiting papaya trees and three small trees that have been grown from seeds. I've been surprised at how many papayas have been fruiting in one tree and the significant sizes as well.

On the vegetable side of things, I have a veritable feast of produce. It amazes even as I am writing this list of what's growing in my garden - from herbs and leaves for raw salads and also for cooking, to different varieties of vegetables. Most, if not all, have Ayurvedic medicinal properties.

  • thebu (canereed)
  • murunga kola (drumstick leaves)
  • passion kola (passionfruit leaves)
  • nivithi (malabar spinach)
  • polpala (balipoovu)
  • gotukola (indian pennywort)
  • heen maduruthala (holy basil)
  • iriveriya (spanish thyme or cuban oregano)
  • rampe (pandan leaves)
  • karapincha (curry leaves)
  • komarika (aloe vera)
  • neeramulli (marsh barbel)
  • mukunuwenna (sessile joyweed)
  • bandaka (okra, also known as ladies fingers)
  • dandina ala (purple yam)
  • erabadu (indian coral tree)
  • inguru (ginger)
  • lunu kola (spring onions)
  • karawila (bitter gourd)
  • kohila (lasia)
  • sera (lemon grass)
  • kotmale (coriander) 
  • kos (jakfruit, though this tree isn't fruiting yet)
  • kankun (water spinach)
  • malu miris (capsicum)
  • amu miris (green chillies)  
  • kochchi miris (birds eye chillies)
  • lemon dehi (lemons)
  • beet (beetroot)

So that's my current list of what's growing in the garden. It's continuously transforming because I'm planting new things and waiting on good seeds or seedlings... At the moment, I'm waiting on cherry tomato seeds, carrot seeds and I'd like to grow some leeks and cabbage. I know there are lots of pesticides and sprays used on these, so it'd be good to have them organically grown in my garden. Even as I write this, I'm already adding to this list as I'd love to experiment at growing other herbs, fruits and vegetables.

A friend of mine, Dinesh, was recounting stories of ancient times in Sri Lanka when the kings could control the weather so that rainwater was strategically collected. At that time, it was possible to grow abundant food simply by relying on ancient knowledge of when to plant and harvest in accordance with the sun and moon. Furthermore, things like compost and additional water were not required in the process.

Considering where Sri Lanka is now, it seems impossible to fathom. Dinesh also shared a story of how he went to a Ministry of Agriculture shop and garden where he inquired about some specific seeds they were selling. When he asked if it was possible to plant them without using fertilizer, the female employee laughed and said "it's not possible, you have to use fertilizer otherwise it won't grow and produce the fruit or vegetable".

From my experience with home gardening over the past few years, I don't agree that you need to use chemical fertilizers. I know that it is possible to grow organic food using compost, which is very easy to produce in a tropical climate, such as in Sri Lanka. Compost aids soil fertility and crop yields as well as providing vitamins, nutrients, hormones and plant enzymes which are not supplied by chemical fertilizers. I've also read that compost is free from pathogenic organisms, weeds and other unwanted seeds. From a home gardening perspective, compost is also easier to use than organic manures.

You can purchase sacks of compost from gardening shops, but I recommend setting up a compost bin at home as many raw materials from inside and outside your home can go into producing good compost, and this will reduce your overall household waste output. I think my weekly household waste output is down to around 20% and this is largely due to composting, recycling and green living.

The fact that my home garden yields excess quantities of fruit and vegetables simply grown on compost is a testament to that. And it allows me to regularly share these excess quantities with neighbors, colleagues and friends, which is lovely.

How to compost food waste and cuttings using a compost bin:
(1) Buy a compost bin and place it in a suitable flat area in your garden, preferably in a dry area that has some access to some sunlight (i.e. not too shady)
(2)You will usually place raw waste by lifting the lid and depositing the raw waste into the bin. The compost will eventually be removed from the bottom of the bin when it is ready.
(3) Familiarize yourself with what is compostable - I regularly put grass trimmings, cuttings and leaves from the garden as well as raw fruit and vegetable waste from daily food preparation and consumption. You can also throw in used tea and coffee grounds. I also put some paper into my compost (like some pages of newspaper, paper towels, sheet paper)
(4) Non-compostable items - generally I won't put any cooked food waste into the compost bin particularly any oils or dairy items and no plastics, animal products etc.
(5) Water should be added regularly to maintain a reasonable moisture content inside the compost bin, though be cautious not to overwater.

Final Note

If you're living in Sri Lanka, I strongly urge you to consider growing your own food. I think by not doing so it could have a negative impact on health in the long run. If you live in an apartment or a small place, don't let that be a barrier. If you peruse my photos a majority of herbs, fruits and vegetables can be grown in pots. It's easier than you think.

One good example of how easy it is to grow in a pot is nivithi or spinach. I buy a bunch from my local pola for between Rs.40 to Rs.60. When I go home, I pluck the leaves off the stems leaving only the buds or little sprouts. I then prepare a pot with a bottom layer of coconut husk fiber then fill the pot up with rich compost from my compost bin. The next step is simply to press the stems into the pot. Within a day or two the spinach leaves will start to grow.

I recently bought some seeds for growing beetroot. I did the same thing with a pot by layering coconut husk fiber at the bottom then compost. I then planted the seeds into it and within a few days it began to sprout.

There are many more examples similar to these.

If you're visiting or traveling through Sri Lanka, I guess there will be challenges when you buy at the local markets or shops and dining out. I really can't offer more than awareness given that you're only in Sri Lanka for a limited time. However, I would recommend you look into places to stay and dine that grow their own vegetables in an organic manner.

There are some BnBs, homestays and maybe a small handful of hotels that actually grow some organic food or source it from a nearby village that does. I'd spend my hard-earned money at accommodation places and eateries that provide safe and organic food, and I'd be more than happy to recommend these to family, friends and colleagues too. Often when I travel I give feedback that this is an important area for me and why I chose to stay or dine at a place. Likewise, as a tourist and traveler to Sri Lanka you can do the same. Other ways of highlighting this issue is to give feedback or suggestions in your travel reviews on your travels around Sri Lanka, or put them into your tourist survey if you've been asked to complete one.

I haven't mentioned much about dining out in this blog post because I think it's a relatively straightforward conclusion that one would reach when you think about the whole food chain. Basically, if we're having difficulty finding safe food at the market and shops, why would it be any different for bakeries, cafes, restaurants, hotels and so on.

When we dine out, whether we do so consciously or unconsciously, we rely on the people that source and buy the raw foods for these eateries and establishment to be making smart and safe choices for us. That's a helluva a big leap of trust if you ask me. And let's not talk about the excessive use of flavor enhancers or additives, such as ajinomoto (MSG) in Sri Lanka.

There may be one or two places here and there that might be buying organic and marketing themselves as doing so, but the bulk of the market doesn't have it on their radar, or wouldn't be willing (or in most cases be able to) bear the cost of it.

The question I constantly ask myself is whether I'm willing to take the risk to my health with toxic food?

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