Ever taken a bite out of an apple only to have your palette assaulted by the sour taste of chemicals? Or even worse, selected a mango that looked perfect and unblemished, too good to be true, only to discover that it tastes more like your garden variety of nail polish remover than fruit? If so, chances are you have been a victim to produce grown with the aid of harmful pesticides and growth hormones to yield the sort of crop that’s ideal for wholesale, but terrible for the customer who simply doesn’t know any better.
Which is why — and as the world turns increasingly health conscious — organic farming has set itself up as a major agricultural and lifestyle trend.
Soil, in itself, is a delicate ecosystem — a living, breathing entity of separate component parts essential to the whole. Organic farming poses a monumental challenge to interested farmers: to utilise benign methods that refrain from degrading the soil and tampering with the natural order of things.
Organic farming took off officially in Pakistan when chairman of Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (Parc), Dr Zafar Altaf established Directorate of Organic Farming on August 22, 2008 to help small farmers (because soil erosion/degradation due to the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, was bad for business and affected yield) and introduced innovative technologies like biofertilisers, biopesticides and bioherbicides.
According to Parc, it is expected that 33 per cent of Pakistani farmers are already producing mixed organic crops. At Chak Shahzad farms, more and more privately owned farms are adapting to the practice of organically growing fruits and vegetables through age-old crop rotation techniques, natural pesticides like neem and garlic, green fertilisers, mulching (a protective cover placed over the soil to retain moisture, provide nutrients and suppress weed growth) and encouraging useful predators that actually eat pests.
The idea here is to synthesise modern techniques to work with nature and not against its grain. This is true for Chak Shehzad, a farming-cum-residential area some 15 minutes beyond the capital, where the foliage grows wild and good husbandry practices ensure that livestock roam free and unfettered. It’s not exactly glamorous — with the overpowering smell of dung and narrow roads flanked by nothing but hectare upon hectare of cultivated land — but it certainly is beautiful. Islamabad pastoral, as author Phillip Roth would put it.
Our first stop: a gated house with ample farmland behind. Outside, a ceramic plate reads: “Organic Pakistan, Centre for Agriculture and Urban Planning.” Meet Bilal Hussain, Organic Pakistan’s marketing incharge, who braved the intense monsoon humidity (exacerbated further by the bucolic environment), to spare a few words about the business. “We’ve been up for a month now and are growing kavas (a dioecious shrub) of all kinds,” he says.
Hussain explains that their produce is 100 per cent organic, meaning pesticide- free (“It’s an old practice”), and prioritises the health benefits for consumers above everything else.
A few streets yonder, Abdullah Vegetable Farm employs similar methods for its diverse yield. After honking at the gates for a good 10 minutes, Ibrahim, a farmer, emerged from the bushes, cloth sacks of vegetables in hand. He peered through the iron bars a little suspiciously at first but eventually warmed up to the idea of answering a few questions. “Jee, all organic. We grow okra, zuccini and all kinds of salad leaf (to name a few).” When asked about how the scourge of pests is kept at bay, Ibrahim clarified that constant crop rotation prevented such problems; parasites tend to pick on one variety at a time. “Also, no artificial fertilisers are used.”
Interestingly enough, it’s not just Chak Shahzad farmers that employ organic practices. Fond of growing their own produce, area residents have transformed their backyards into veritable cornucopias.
“I work with my gardener to grow fresh tomatoes, turnips, basil, lettuce and beats. We use totally natural methods and have set up a barter system with other residents, one produce for another,” says one resident, requesting anonymity. She adds, “There’s nothing like waking up in the morning knowing that my next low- calorie and pesticide-free salad is growing right outside my kitchen window.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2011.