As demand for organic produce swells in Asia, entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative solutions to feed the growing market – and stay afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to one of the world’s leading institutes in the field of organic agriculture, The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), global organic farmland has increased substantially in recent years, with agricultural land area reaching 71.5 million hectares in 2018. The number of organic producers and organic retail sales also continues to grow year-on-year.
Asia is witnessing a significant growth market for organic produce. In 2018, organic farmland area in the region reached 6.5 million hectares, making up 9 percent of the world’s total. China leads the way with 3.1 million hectares of organic land, followed by India with 1.9 million. According to FiBL, increasingly more land is going to organic farming, and revenue generated by organic farming in Asia continues to rise.
In a report by market research company Mordor Intelligence, the market for global organic food and beverage is expected to register a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 16.4 percent in the forecast period 2020-2025. This growth is based on an increasing awareness among consumers about the health and benefits of organic food, as well as the rise of chronic diseases such as cardiac issues, cancer and diabetes. Inflating healthcare costs is also causing consumers to be increasingly focused on what they put into their bodies.
Pioneers in Southeast Asia
In Southeast Asia, there are many people at the frontier of organic farming, who are influencing their communities, people’s health and the environment. I met with Duncan McCance of The Frank Food Company, a company based in Central Java, Indonesia, who are bringing fresh, seasonal and organic weekly veggie boxes to customers in neighbouring Singapore.
Due to its small size and affluent population, Singapore is almost entirely dependent on imports for its food requirements. In January, Singapore’s imports on vegetables, fruits and nuts totalled US$142 million. The Frank Food Company is providing a solution for customers who are looking for fresh organic vegetables grown in nutrient-dense soil that reaches their homes within 12 hours of harvest.
The farm where Duncan first began to source his vegetables was located in the nutrient-rich volcanic soils of Central Java and is the first farm in Indonesia to gain Japanese, European, and USDA organic certifications. Farmers use a combination of permaculture, regenerative and organic farming techniques to produce vegetables that are sustainably grown and good for you.
“Our farm was located between 1,500 and 2,000 meters above sea level between Mount Merapi and Mount Merbabu – two active volcanoes,” Duncan shares. “The rich volcanic soil, in combination with the altitude, gives us the ability to grow produce that usually doesn’t grow in this region like carrots, beetroots and potatoes. Due to its altitude, we don’t get runoff from other farms using pesticides, ensuring our produce is 100 percent clean and healthy.”
The farm grows 65 different crops year-round and everything delivered is seasonal. “Some of the vegetables we can only offer to our clients for one week of the year, while others are grown year-round,” Duncan explains. Each week, customers receive recipe ideas based on the vegetables in each delivery.
Keeping in line with their passion for sustainability, The Frank Food Company offers customers a plastic-free vegetable box option, which excludes leafy greens due to hygiene reasons. Duncan says providing this option has increased sales by 30 percent. “Currently about 40 percent of our customers subscribe to this veggie box,” he says.
A co-operative was started by the farm to educate and encourage other farmers in the region to change to organic practices. Starting with just 14 farmers, the co-op has now grown to 75 farmers. “There is definitely a trend now that you can do the right thing and still get the sales,” Duncan says.
Duncan admits that some customers still don’t understand the concept of organic entirely, however. “I’ve had customers complain when they find a caterpillar or a snail in their lettuce,” he shares. “I have to explain that this is actually a good thing and shows that what they are eating is 100 percent free from artificial pesticides and part of a healthy ecosystem.”
Adapting during the Covid-19 pandemic
During the pandemic, when Singapore shut its borders, Duncan experienced challenges importing his vegetables from neighbouring Indonesia. He and his team had to work fast to find alternate solutions, and temporarily sourced organic vegetables from Malaysia, which was allowed to be imported at the time.
Once borders reopened, Duncan decided to shift to a farm in Sumatra’s nutrient rich highland soils surrounding Lake Toba, occupying the caldera of a super volcano. Sumatra has better transportation links to Singapore. “This way we could be closer to the farmers and our involvement would be deeper,” Duncan shares.