Saturday, May 26, 2012

Eating green vegetables and fruits - for better health?

Anyone will tell you that for a well balanced diet, it is essential to eat lots of green vegetables and fruits. We are fortunate that in Bhutan a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that are grown. However what is grown is not sufficient for the population. Further due to the climatic conditions, there are seasons when there are fruits and vegetables in abundance and other seasons where we depend a lot on imports for our consumption.

The recent rupee issue has highlighted the importance and the necessity of enhancing domestic production of fruits and vegetables. According to a data collected by the Department of Agricultural Marketing and Cooperatives (DAMC) in March 2012, a ‘majority of vegetable imports take place during winter and early spring. Furthermore during the lean season in Bhutan (November to April), vendors based at the Centenary Farmers Market in Thimphu import about 208 MT of assorted vegetables per week valued around Nu 3 million, which totals about 5,000 MT of vegetables valued at about Nu. 83 million’

This is a substantial amount of imports and a significant drain of our hard earned foreign currency (for the Rupee, as we are now very aware, is a foreign currency). While there would definitely be need for some import, it is important to now work towards actively promoting our own domestic production and towards the ultimate objective of self-reliance in this arena.

A recent kuensel article further compounded my concerns - albeit for a slightly different reason. According to the article called “Our source of all things green” the author takes us to a wholesale vegetable market some 80 km away from Phuensholing. A large thriving market, it appears that a substantial amount of vegetables and fruits from this market are purchased by Bhutanese vendors. What, however, concerns me is that the farmers appear to use pesticides on almost all vegetables and fruits. According to the article, pesticides are used for better yields, protection against infection, artificial ripening and faster growth of vegetables and fruits. It appears that synthetic fertilizer or pesticides are used excessively during cultivation and harvesting and lots of preservatives are used during processing, storage and transporting.

This is very disturbing given that much of our consumption of fruits and vegetables are from such areas and from people who may be more concerned about their own profits rather than the consumer’s health.

Numerous studies highlight the direct link between exposure to harmful toxins and our health. It is alarming to think about just how much toxins are being put into our bodies every day - all in the effort to eat well and live a long life. And to think that we tell our children that they must eat their greens to stay healthy.

(And that is only just for fruits and vegetables – I shudder to think of all the chemicals and growth hormones that may be injected into the meat.)

When I was growing up, I was always encouraged to eat lots of apples with the peel. The peel, I was told, was very nutritious and good for health. So I relished biting into the apple and eating it whole.

Nowadays, with all the chemicals and pesticides that are infused into fruits and vegetables to, we are advised not to eat the peel of the fruits such as apples as they have direct contact to pesticides to keep them from getting spoilt quickly. Imagine biting into an apple and instead of taking in nutrition, you are directly consuming something that has chemicals that will in the long run make you sick.

So in a way – the recent rupee situation has been quite an eye opener for us. It has made us realize just how important it is for us to enhance the domestic production of our fruits and vegetables. This will need to be done through a well strategized plan of action with support to farmers and producers and with the collaboration from many different stakeholders. It is no doubt a big task but one that is necessary and timely. I understand that efforts / studies are already being undertaken towards this at the national level (this is a subject that merits extensive discussions and not one that I wish to discuss here.)

In our own individual capacities, however, we also need to support our domestic producers by purchasing their products. First of all, by supporting our farmers we are encouraging more rural based employment and enhancement of rural income. With more demand for their products, they will be encouraged to expand, mechanize and collaborate with other farmers / cooperatives. In the long run through a proper and systematic network and linkages, the supply and prices can be stabilized and that is in the best interests of everyone concerned – the farmers, the consumers and also the country as a whole – for less imports means less demand on foreign currency.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that the Bhutanese products are more ‘organic’ in nature – simply because no / less pesticides are used. As such, organic products fetch a premium price in all countries where people have increasingly begun to understand its value. And so for the reasons that I have mentioned earlier, I feel that while Bhutanese products may be a little more expensive, in the long run it is an investment that is well worth it. Think how much you will ultimately save in medical bills alone.

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