One of the defining features of modern consumerism is the upswing in our social and environmental consciousness. People are no longer happy to swallow a problematic status quo; instead, we want information. We want to know if our soap has been tested on anything furry, and whether or not the people who make our clothes are fairly paid. Most of all, we want to know exactly what we’re putting into our bodies each time we eat a meal.
Food for thought
‘If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it’ is one of the slogans of the natural-food movement, and it’s a concept that seems to make sense. After all, no one really wants to ingest ingredients that would look more at home on a bottle of fabric softener than a loaf of bread. But, while it’s easy to apply this thinking when it comes to shopping for packaged food with an ingredients label attached, what about fresh produce? Which unknown chemicals and pesticides are lurking on the skins and leaves of our fruit and vegetables? It’s unlikely you’ll find out – and even if you did, the scientific community is mired in debate about how potentially harmful these synthetic additives may or may not be. So, how do you make sure your five a day contains a decent dose of vitamins and not a cocktail of chemicals?
One way is to go organic, according to Lily Geerdts, who presents workshops across South Africa about leading a more nutritious lifestyle. ‘One simple exercise I did before switching to organic was to juice two carrots in separate glasses. The organic carrot produced less juice, but the colour was so much richer because of its nutrient content. And you could actually taste the difference. Conventionally farmed food looks beautiful and spotless, but you are not necessarily getting all the nutrients you’re supposed to.’
Geerdts, her husband and their three children eat about 80% organically – ‘My kids still have treats, of course’ – and the difference in their physical well-being has been remarkable. Her passion for a healthier lifestyle was ignited in 2006, when she adopted her husband’s son from his first marriage. ‘Kinah was five when he came to us; his mother had motor neuron disease and died shortly afterwards. That year, his school said that he was physically, emotionally and mentally underdeveloped.’
Geerdts was advised to medicate Kinah with Ritalin and take him to occupational and speech therapy, but she decided to try a more natural approach before leaping to chemical intervention. Within months of changing his diet and physical routine, Kinah had improved. ‘Let me be clear – I’m not against the conventional medical route,’ she says. ‘But, sometimes you can enable a child to get better another way.’
Today, Geerdts uses her personal experience to make a larger difference through her HeadStartKids programme. This non-profit organisation works with children aged three to five who live in underserved areas, equipping them for the best possible start to their schooling. The three-part programme focuses on movement, science and education, but one of its primary goals is to ensure that the children are physically well. To that end, HeadStartKids has partnered with Nutrilite, which provides organic plant-based supplement powders to ensure the children’s little bodies are adequately fuelled. HeadStartKids also assesses their height and weight, head circumference, vision and hearing every three months. ‘So often, children in Grade R are just not ready to go into Grade 1, and then they drown by Grade 3 and 4,’ says Geerdts. ‘So we make sure they are ready. They’re nourished, they have got energy, they’re dewormed and they can see and hear.’
It’s all about the farm
Another of Geerdts’s partners in her quest for a healthier public is Wensleydale Organic Farms. If you hear the word ‘organic’ and immediately picture a tiny subsistence farm yielding a motley bunch of carrots per harvest … well, think again. Wensleydale supplies major retailers including Pick n Pay and Dischem, and exports internationally too. Established in 1989, it’s been instrumental in the development of the organic sector in SA.
Why? ‘Our slogan at the farm is “health is the new wealth”, because if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of the ones you love,’ says Tiisetso Phaweni, Wensleydale’s marketing manager. ‘We make sure that we are what we say we are because we deal with people’s lives – we’re in this business to make them feel better from a nutritional point of view.’
‘Feeling better is what it’s all about,’ according to Geerdts. ‘ “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was a theme when I was growing up, but an apple today doesn’t have the equivalent nutrition of an apple 25 years ago.’
This lack of nutritional value is one of the criticisms often levelled against conventional farming methods. Critics suggest the dip in vitamin content is due to aggressive farming techniques that strip the soil of nutrients, and the idea that by speeding up growth through the use of artificial fertilisers, farmers don’t allow crops the time to fully mature before being harvested.
Organic farming, on the other hand, offers a more nutritious final product, according to the team at Wensleydale. ‘When produce is organically grown, in its own time and without all sorts of mechanical and chemical prodding, the sugar structures in the crops have more time to mature. This means they develop into tastier, more nutritious offerings that are more wholesome, filling and healthier,’ says Phaweni.
Proponents of the organic movement also cite the fact that, if produce hasn’t been unnecessarily interfered with, you can eat the entire fruit or vegetable, including the skin. ‘Conventional farming uses synthetic chemicals and pesticides, which may be harmful if ingested by humans,’ says Phaweni. ‘But what a lot of people don’t realise,’ continues Geerdts, ‘is that most of the phytonutrients – the bulk of the vitamin component – come from the skin of a fruit or vegetable. If you have to peel it to avoid pesticides, then your body isn’t getting what it needs.’
There’s another entity with a hat in the ring when it comes to the organic- versus-conventional-farming debate: Mother Nature. ‘Conventional and organic are two very divergent farming methods,’ says Phaweni. ‘It’s the domination of nature versus working in harmony with it. It’s production deadlines versus understanding that quality takes time. It’s short-term versus long-term goals, and it’s competition versus community.’
She says that the synthetic chemicals used in conventional farming speed up land degradation, a problem already felt all too keenly in the sector. ‘The key difference with organic farming is that
the state of the soil is improved instead of depleted, through soil-building practices such as minimum tillage, crop rotation, intercropping, cover crops, and the use of organic fertilisers such as manure or compost.
Organic systems that are managed properly also focus on responsible water usage to create better nutrient retention and a reduction in groundwater pollution. We place emphasis on how we can work with the environment instead of leaving the ecosystem worse off than we found it.’
One aspect that tends to put people off organic food is a price tag that’s often heftier than that of conventionally farmed produce. However, Phaweni says this is changing. ‘At first there was a marked difference in price point, but as the movement has gathered momentum this has largely disappeared.’ She adds that as more and more people switch to organic, the prices are becoming increasingly competitive.
Add that to the potential health benefits and a gentler impact on the environment, and ‘going organic’ sounds like a win-win-win.
Simple ways to switch to organic
1. Buy seasonally Organic farmers stick to the ‘seasons for a reason’ philosophy, based on the idea that certain produce (such as citrus fruit) grows when we need it (cold and flu season). Fruits and vegetables available out of season are either imported, which means they are flown in at a huge carbon cost, or they are grown and ripened synthetically, and are therefore not in harmony with nature.
2. Use organic products outside the kitchen too While the local market is still in its infancy, stores such as Faithful to Nature and Wellness Warehouse have a good selection of organic and natural household cleaners, toiletries and skincare products, so you can make a holistic switch.
3. Order a Wensleydale Organic Vegetable Box Delivered weekly and full of a wide selection of seasonal produce, these boxes take the legwork out of shopping organically. wensleydale.co.za
4. Drink your greens (and the rest of the rainbow too) Three days a week, Lily Geerdts juices a vegetable and a fruit for her family with breakfast. On the other four mornings, she whips up smoothies using raw fruits and nuts, Greek yoghurt and plant protein. ‘It’s a simple way to make sure they are getting their fruit and vegetables at the beginning of the day,’ she says.