Last week I received an intriguing text from Lahore – an invitation to attend a “Khalis Food Market” to be held on a ground located on MM Alam Road. The last farmer’s market I went to was years ago in England and I remember spending a fun afternoon sampling organic honey, cheeses and various kinds of olive oil. I decided I had to check it out and I was not to be disappointed. The Green’s Hall ground was covered with a huge tent lit up by fairy lights and inside were stalls displaying all kinds of organic food items – from cherry tomatoes to chilghozas to desi ghee to ostrich eggs! Families were sitting on tables sampling fresh fruit and vegetable juices and freshly cooked kebabs from various restaurants that had also set up stalls. It was an organic food enthusiast’s fantasy turned into reality – I could not believe all this was actually happening in Lahore!
Call me paranoid, but I just can’t eat a fresh salad in Lahore unless I know where it has been grown. The truth is that we continue to dump our waste water, which includes pathogens from raw, untreated sewage and hard chemicals from industrial effluents, into our canals, streams and storm drains with no regard to the consequences. Irrigation water in Pakistan just does not meet quality standards, which leads to the contamination of vegetables cultivated in certain areas, increasing the risk to human health.
To make matters worse, there are all the pesticides we use in our agriculture – about 5.6 million tonnes of fertilizer and 70 thousand tonnes of pesticides are consumed in the country every year. This is increasing annually at a rate of about 6 per cent. According to a WWF-Pakistan report, “There has been a four fold increase in the use of pesticides in the country since 1990”. And I don’t need to tell you about the increasing cancer rate in this country – we have in fact, one of the highest breast cancer rates in the world. Most veggies have high water content so they tend to soak up all the chemicals in the irrigation water. Given such high levels of contamination in the food we eat in this country what can one eat which is considered safe? Well, this explains the growth of an organic food movement in this country and the increasing demand for “khalis food”.
The NGO Roshni has been making pure whole meal bread for a few years now in Lahore and they have a home delivery system in addition to supplying their bread to Pioneer store. They had the first stall at the “Khalis Food Market” and they were also displaying their organic onions and garlic that they grow on their farm near Lahore, plus some delicious baked goods. They also had various kinds of nuts grown in the northern part of the country (chilghozas, walnuts, almonds etc) on sale. “These are internationally certified organically grown nuts”, explained their representatives. As for the response their stall had attracted, “We are very pleased, this is a great idea and I hope the organisers continue with it”.
Next, I meet Veena Jawaid who was displaying desi ghee, garlic and organic rice and flour that she grows herself, on her land, in Lahore. “I grow this for my family, not on a commercial scale. If the organisers do this on a regular basis then I can sell my surplus here. This has provided great exposure for my organic products”.
The organisers are Lahore based entrepreneurs Asma Shah and Rizwan Naeem and they came up with the idea to host this food market. “We did a lot of research before we organised this, but the response has just been overwhelming” explained a happy but tired looking Asma towards the close of the Khalis Food Market, which went on from 3pm to 9pm. “Even this morning we had people get in touch with us, saying we would like a stall to display our button and oyster mushrooms! Actually this was a first for all these organic farmers to get together and sell their produce in one place”.
“Our idea was to bridge the gap between the people growing products and the people looking for it”, explained Rizwan, who used to be banker. The Khalis Food Market attracted unusual vendors like cheese makers, suppliers of gluten free bread, those who gather medicinal herbs and producers of hormone free milk and ostrich meat! The company that produces ostrich meat, Ostruce, has an ostrich farm near Jhelum. They say that ostrich meat is high in protein and low in fat and good for your health. Their stall was also thronged by visitors – currently you can buy ostrich meat from Jalal Sons store in Lahore.
Both Asma and Rizwan said they would like to organise the food market on a regular basis, given the positive response by the Lahore public. “We need to have healthier food options – a place where families can buy food that is not harmful”, explained Asma. “We tell people spend more now on healthier food then you won’t have to pay more later on medical bills!” Rizwan further added, “From September onwards, we would like to do this on a regular basis, but we do need the city government to help us find a place where people can come every week and set up their stalls for the public”. This time around, they did not want to involve the government so they organised the Khalis Food Market all by themselves without any sponsors (selling only the stalls) and say they have actually lost money.
They hope to have another Khalis Food Market in Islamabad at the end of May, however, before the hot summer sets in. They are already spreading the word through social media. They would like to make organic food trendy to attract the younger generation. The central message, however, is that organically grown vegetables (grown without pesticides and artificial fertilisers and in clean water) are good for your health. As Asma pointed out “You can even grow these organic vegetables in your kitchen garden or small earthenware pots”. Given the amount of toxins floating around in this country, believe me, it is well worth the effort to safeguard your family’s health! ——————————————————————————————— The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ——————————————————————————————— The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.