Organics: the need for green

PHUKET: “Who would you rather pay for your health – the hospital or your farmer?”

By Claire Connell

Friday 13 July 2012, 01:09PM

The question may have come from the mouth of an 11-year-old, but Pura Organic Foods Managing Director Martin Smetsers believes truer words have never been spoken.

American teenager Birke Baehr, now 13, was speaking at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design – conference about his plans to become an organic farmer when he grows up.

Martin runs the Pura Organic shop and distribution outlet in Thalang, which supplies fresh organic fruit and vegetables, plus other food items found across Thailand, to resorts, hotels and private buyers in Phuket and surrounding areas, with a thriving free home delivery service.

Originally from The Netherlands, Martin spent most of his working life in the global financial markets, and met Klaus Hebben while working in London.

Mr Hebben moved to Phuket to set up the Thanyapura complex in Thalang along with the organic resort and farm Thanyamundra, in Khao Sok.

Martin was asked to set up Pura Organic Foods at the end of 2010 to distribute the products from the farm, and find other sources in order to increase the varieties available.

“I’ve eaten organic food for the last 22 years, largely because when I grew up in Holland I was lucky to be living only 5km from an organic farm. I eat it because it tastes so much better, and the health reasons are an added bonus.

“As I have not been ill for more than half a day in the last 22 years – and I know I don’t look like the healthiest guy in the world – you could say I am quite healthy.”

Martin says all the fresh produce at Pura comes from Thailand, such as green fruit and vegetables from Thanyamundra; white asparagus from Prachuap Kiri Khan; cherry tomatoes on the vine, potatoes and onions from Mae Hong Son; fruits from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai; and buffalo milk from Chachoengsao.

In total, Pura has around 1,000 different items, ranging from organic rice and pasta, coconut oil, and olive oils, to wines, and bath products.

They also stock organic yoghurt, produced in Phuket by local company Swash, and will be introducing organic soups and healthy hotel minibar snacks, such as juices, in the future.

But isn’t organic food more expensive than regular fruit and vegetables purchased from the local market? The answer is yes, but not overly so.

Martin admits that most of Pura’s goods are on average between 20 to 40 per cent more expensive than what can be found at the local market. However, some products, such as wild rocket, are 30 per cent cheaper.

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The cost increase largely comes down to the effort required to make – and keep – the food organic, such as protecting product from being contaminated, the effort involved in crop rotation and keeping the soil healthy.

There’s also the risk of crop disasters, and most of the farms are small scale, such as Thanyamundra, which covers an area of some 60 rai.

In Thailand, there are tens of thousands of agriculture chemicals registered, mostly fertilisers and pesticides, many of which find their way into the food chain and the environment, says Martin.

There are also lax regulations around the use of the word “organic” on food products, something which is strictly controlled in the US. In Thailand, anyone can put “organic” on their food, and there’s no way of knowing if it is in fact true.

Most farms Martin buys organic produce from are checked by inspectors of organic certification agencies, which only issue these when they are satisfied with the level of organic correctness.

Pura has copies of these organic certificates on file. Additionally many farms are visited by himself, and their processes double-checked.

But Martin is not fanatically against chemical fruit and vegetables, and puts everybody’s decision about healthy food down to choice.

“Using chemicals in products is bad for you – it won’t kill you, it’s just better not to. To put it simply, what do you think is better, putting synthetic chemicals into your body, or not?”

Farmers not only use chemicals to keep insects away from their crops, but also to help them create a bigger, better product – such as a glossy, fat tomato – and increase crop yield.

“Over the last 50 years or so there has been an increase in the use of chemicals; while the prices, nutritional value, and taste was reduced. Simultaneously health costs went up,” says Martin.

But does the organic food actually taste better? Martin guarantees the organic fruit and vegetables taste better than the ones from the local market – no matter which market his staff go to.

Martin says, “That little chap Birke who wanted to be an organic farmer and asked his audience, “Who they would rather pay, their hospital or their farmer?” is inspiring. It’s great to explain in simplicity – organic is simply good for you.”

Visit the Pura Organic website here.



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