Organic agriculture and food in Malaysia

I consume organic food, and so does my wife, especially during her pregnancy with our son, Zachary. However, my mom does not eat organic food – ever. She claims organic food actually makes us sicker not healthier. And she got this idea from her medical doctor.

Are organic agriculture and food healthier and better? What does science say? (photo from

What surprises me is the issue of organic food has inadvertently become like a religion to some people. Some believe in organic food fervently because they believe organic food are healthier, more environmentally friendly, and more socially responsible than conventional food. In contrast, non-believers not only mistrust organic food but also vehemently call them a fraud and people who believe in organic food as fools and being conned into parting their money.

So, are organic food good for you or not?

What does science say about the benefits of organic agriculture and food?

Organic food is produced from a system of food production that does not use any: synthetic agrochemicals (such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides), hormones (such as growth hormones), antibiotics, food additives, GM (genetically-modified) crops and animals, and feed derived from GM sources. Organic farming encompass four key principles:

  1. Health – health of soil, plant, animal, humans, and environment must be sustained or enhanced
  2. Ecology – farming practices based on living ecological systems and cycles and to work with them, emulate them and help to sustain them
  3. Fairness – practices that are fair to life opportunities
  4. Care – practices that are based on precautionary and responsible manner to protect the current and future generations and the environment

In other words, organic farming stresses heavily on emulating or working with natural systems, care of human health and the environment and life in it, as well as being a socially responsible system.

Consequently, it is no surprise that some people might find organic agriculture’s “back-to-nature” and human health principles appealing. Nonetheless, the issue of organics is increasingly becoming polarized. At one corner you have proponents and the other corner opponents, each putting forth scientific arguments arguing for and against organic agriculture and food.

As Prof. James McWilliams at Texas State University remarked, “We draw these bright lines between organic and conventional food, but science doesn’t draw those lines. They crisscross, and you have people on both sides of the argument cherry-picking their data.”

"The real cost of organic food" by Jeffrey Kluger (Time, Sept. 6, 2010) (photo from

I read with interest the Time article (Sept. 6, 2010) “The real cost of organic food” by Jeffrey Kluger. The article argues that although organic food are more expensive (no surprise there), organic food carry lower risk of health problems because no pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones are used. Moreover, in some cases, organic food carry slightly more micronutrients than conventional food. Cattle raised on grass (cattle’s natural food), as opposed to cattle raised on cereals (cereals are not cattle’s natural diet), have a higher ratio or omega-3 acids which could reduce risk of cancer or heart disease. Grass-fed cattle also have lower risk of E. coli (a dangerous bacterium) transmission because of reduced crowding as compared to grain-fed cattle that are often kept close together to one another in cattle pens or barns 24/7/365.

And then there is a matter of taste between tomatoes grown organically and conventionally. The taste of conventional tomatoes that are genetically engineered to ripen slower can never match the taste of natural tomatoes. Taste the two types yourself. And as any good chef would tell you: they would never use any tomatoes bought from supermarkets in their kitchens.

However, recent scientific evidence point to the importance of not being overly passionate on organic agriculture. Here are some recent findings:

  1. It is difficult to meet world food demand by using only organic agriculture. It is well known that crop yields from organic farms are lower than those in conventional farms, in particular during the early years of farming. Nonetheless, long-term projections still show that crop yields from organic farms could be as much as 40 to 50% lower than those in conventional farms. A 40% yield reduction in developed countries would require 67% more agriculture land to produce the same amount of crops. Consequently, this puts more, not less, pressure on land use if the world would fully adopt organic agriculture.
  2. There are strict regulations in place, in particular by developed countries, on pesticide residue levels in food. Regular food safety check ensures pesticide levels in food remain below threshold levels. Ironically, food grown organically could contain more plant toxins than food grown conventionally. When no pesticides are used in organic farms, crops face higher stress level from attacks by pests and diseases. And as a defense mechanism akin to antibodies inside a human body, the plants would protect themselves against damage by producing natural defense chemical compounds, called plant secondary metabolites. These secondary metabolites are however toxins and could harm human health.
  3. Long-term field experiments have shown organic farms applying organic manures show higher nitrogen pollution than from conventional farms. Pollution from fertilizers can be reduced provided fertilizers are applied at the quantity and at the time when the plant requires them. In other words, if we could apply fertilizers to match the timing and quantity of plant requirement, fertilizer loses and pollution would be minimized. This kind of matching can be more easily done using conventional fertilizers. Natural fertilizers like animal manures cause higher fertilizer pollution because the delivery of nutrients is not synchronized with crop nutrient demand.
  4. Organic farming are also not able to sequester (that is, help to store) more carbon in the soil because, as stated earlier, organic farms typically have lower crop yields; thus, lower amount of carbon are stored in the soil. It was calculated that if all cereal crops in Sweden were to be grown organically, it would result in a loss of soil carbon, equivalent to an average annual CO2 emission by 675,000 Swedish cars. As a side note: CO2 is a greenhouse gas, its excessive amounts in the atmosphere are currently causing detrimental global warming and climate change.

Finally, one notable negative of organic agriculture is its high labour requirement. Organic farms require more manual labour than conventional farms because pest, disease, and weed controls are done manually, without resorting to any chemical spraying, in organic farms. Labour shortage are an acute and serious problem in many developed and some developing countries. Most organic farms in Malaysia are small between 0.8 and 4 ha partly because of Malaysia’s persistent and long-term labour shortage problem.

Organic agriculture is an important type of agriculture farming. Scientific evidence currently show that the issues of organic agriculture and organic food are not clear cut as proponents and opponents of organics would like to have us think. The evidence instead point to both the good and bad of organics.

Cuba: A sustainable agriculture revolution to teach the world

Perhaps the story about the organic revolution in Cuba would be helpful to us contemplating about organic agriculture. Cuba is a country about 600 km from Miami, USA or over 17,000 km from Malaysia. In the late 1989, Cuba’s closest allies and trading partners, the Soviet Union and the socialist block in Eastern Europe, collapsed. Almost overnight, Cuba lost more than 80 per cent of its imports. Oil and trade embargo on Cuba further destroyed her economy and agriculture. There was little fuel for the tractors, little fertilizers, little pesticides, and few spare parts for farm machinery. Cuba was not only facing economic ruin but also a major food crisis.

The calorie intake per person in Cuba fell from 3,004 calories a day in 1989 to only 2,323 calories a day in 1993. But today, Cuba has an average calorie intake per person of 3,547 calories per day, which is even higher than that in 1989 and higher than what the US government recommends for US citizens.

So what happened in Cuba?

Facing no possibility of importing food, fuels, or agrochemicals, Cuba had to reinvent her agriculture to one that is more self-reliant, based on sustainable agriculture practices of requiring low external inputs. Many more key reforms were done, such as by introducing urban agriculture. Cuba’s vacant urban lots are transformed into “organoponicas” for growing food crops organically without any pesticides and agrochemicals. Nearly all of vegetables and fruits in Cuba are grown organically, and Cuba is today 80 per cent self-sufficient in vegetables and fruits.

Vacant urban lots in Cuba are transformed into urban gardens for growing crops organically. Notice the apartments in the background. (photo from

Cuba's agriculture reinvention shows that sustainable agriculture does work and organic agriculture can feed an entire nation (photo from

So successful is the organic farming in Cuba that Oxfam International called Cuba “the largest experiment in sustainable agriculture”.

Cuba has much to teach us all. Cuba is different from other countries, of course. For one, Cuba enjoys plenty of labour to work the organic farms. But Cuba remains a very good example that the principles of low-input sustainable agriculture can work and that organic farming can feed a nation, provided there is enough effort and motivation to make it successful.

Organic agriculture development in Malaysia

Over in Malaysia, organic agriculture has a relatively young and less spectacular history. The development of organic farming  followed two concurrent paths, one led by the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and the other by the private sector.

One NGO that played an pioneering and prominent role is CETDEM (Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia) who became wary of conventional agriculture practices, in particular over issues on environment degradation, health of plantation workers from pesticide use, food safety, and low external sustainable agriculture. In 1987, CETDEM realigned itself to follow the organic movement.

Tan Siew Luang of CETDEM, one of the pioneers of organic farming in Malaysia (photo from

However, it was only in the 1990s that many pioneering organic farms were established such as the organic farms in Penang and Kuantan, Sustainable Living Centre in Gopeng, Perak, Lifestyle farmhouse in Melaka, Ecofarm in Rompin, Negeri Sembilan, and Nakim Farm in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan.

The early consumers of organic food in Malaysia were the health conscious group, typically those who were suffering from cancer or some degenerative disorders.  The other group of organic food consumers were Buddhist vegetarians.  However, nearly (98 per cent) all organic food consumers in Malaysia were the Chinese.

Organic food was a niche market in Malaysia then. Normal retailers and supermarkets, for instance, did not carry organic food. Consequently, some people took the initiative to setup informal, home-based distribution centers to help to obtain and sell organic food. These informal, home-based distributors were run by people who themselves followed natural or alternative health systems and diets.

A major milestone in organic food development in Malaysia occurred when Steven Leong established a manufacturing facility to produce organic compost and fertilizer, the first in Malaysia. It was only when organic fertilizers and compost could be supplied in bulk and in steady supply could organic farms be more firmly established and produce higher yields in Malaysia.

In 1995, Premier Organic Produce, the first organic marketing organization, was co-established by Steven Leong. Premier Organic Produce was the first dedicated commercial wholesaler of a wide variety of organic produce (mainly vegetables) and with comparative quality with conventional produce.

Today, organic food still remains a niche market, but one that is growing rapidly. In 2001, for instance, only 131 hectares (ha) in Malaysia were organic farms. In just a span of five years, the land area for organic farms grew by an incredible 18 times to 2,367 ha, of which 962 ha are perhaps certified organic, as surveyed by the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and the Foundation Ecology & Farming (SOEL), Germany, in 2007.

Zenxin at Kluang, Johor is the largest organic farm and the leading retailer and distributor of organic food in Malaysia (photo from

Organic dragon fruits (pitaya) at Zenxin farm (photo from

Compared to other countries in the region, Malaysians are among the most knowledgeable in organic food and their health benefits. While the Chinese still remain the major consumers of organic food in Malaysia, the younger Chinese generation (mid-thirties and forties) have started to take a keen interest in organic food, unlike in the past where it was mostly the older Chinese generation. Other races such as the Malays and Indians have also started to try organic food, although their numbers still make up a small fraction of Malaysian consumers.

Starting from 1999, family-run organic shops started to emerge in the Klang Valley and in other major towns in Malaysia. However, the growth of family-run organic shops have been short-lived. Since 2006, very few family-run organic shops have opened. Instead, their roles have been taken over by big retailers like Cold Storage, Jusco Supermarket, Tesco, Giant, and Carrefour. All large supermarkets in Malaysia now carry certified organic food in large quantities and varieties. Smaller and more upscale supermarkets like Mercato, Isetan Supermarket, and Village Grocer also stock certified organic food.

Selina Gan, Managing Director of the leading organic food retailer, Country Farm Organics, in Malaysia (photo from

The hub of vegetable farming in Malaysia can be found in Cameron Highlands. Grace Cup Sdn. Bhd. and Cameron Organic Produce Sdn. Bhd. (established by Lee Ong Sing in 1997) have established organic vegetable farms in Cameron Highlands. Large local organic retailers such as Country Farm Organics and Zenxin have established a foothold in distributing and selling organic food to consumers.

Nonetheless, organic agriculture and food are facing several challenges in Malaysia. Although the demand for organic food in Malaysia is growing, the supply of local organic produce is not keeping up with the increased demand. Local supply can fall by as much as 50 per cent in certain periods of the year. Beside the inconsistent supply, the varieties of local organic food are also limited. Consequently, Malaysia still needs to heavily import organic produce from other countries, especially from Australia, U.S., and New Zealand.

Another problem facing organic food consumers in Malaysia is the price difference between organic and conventional food. Although it is well known that organic food is more expensive than conventional food, their price difference in Malaysia is particularly substantial, by as much as 100 to 300 per cent, compared to only 25 to 30% price gap in the U.S. and E.U.

Despite the higher price and limited variety of organic food in Malaysia, I foresee that organic agriculture and food would continue to rise rapidly in Malaysia as Malaysians become more health and environmentally aware.

My students visit to GK farm, Kajang, Selangor. Famous organic farmer, Gan Koon Chai (grey T-shirt, middle) poses with my students. Note all of them are bare-footed as Gan believes being bare-footed promotes better health.

Gan Koon Chai and his organic farm in Kajang (photo from

Another well-known organic farmer, Yahqappu Adaikkalam, posing with my students at his farm, Lord's Garden

Yahqappu Adaikkalam showing his compost for organic fertilizers (photo from


  1. Friedman, L.S. 2010. Organic food and farming. Introducing issues with opposing viewpoints. Greenhaven Press, MI.
  2. Gan, S. 2008. Plenary paper in “Organic ASIA – The Way Forward:  Innovations, Challenges and Collaboration for the Future!”, 28–31 October 2008, Sarawak Cultural Village, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.
  3. Kirchmann, H. and Bergstrom, L. 2008. Organic Crop Production – Ambitions and Limitations. Springer Science+Business Media.


  1. Hi Christopher, I am loving this post. It’s great to see more people seeing the importance of organic farming and eating here in Malaysia.

    I would just like to inquire regarding organic farming, such as how to start and what is needed to be done, etc.

    I have always been interested in organic farming and eating, and would really love to have my own farm someday, hopefully.

    I have just graduated in December, so in terms of financials, I am not stable just yet but would like to know what steps that I can take now to start my organic farm along with perhaps making some income on the side. If that is possible.

    To be honest, I am not very interested in working in corporate and would like to venture into more things suited to my interest such as farming.

    Your reply is much appreciated, Thank you

    • The best option for you is to gain some experience working in an organic farm — a sort of intern. Google “GK farm” on its address at Kajang. The owner is friendly and even conducts classes. Pay him a visit. Alternatively, you can contact Cetdem organization for advice and addresses where you can find organic farms nearest you.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the insightful article on organic food. Recently I took interest in organic food after my first baby. Before this, I’m not too bothered with organic food even though I think it is more healthy. But for my new born, I started to buy organic broccoli and pumpkin from the supermarket (organic section) believing that it has less or no pesticide. But myself I still eat conventional food mainly the cost of organic is so much more ( x2 to x3) as you mentioned.

    Understand that organic plantation has lower yield and more labour intensive. I’m not undermining the organic producers but somehow I feel organic food in Malaysia is sold at a premium because it is market as such. Hope you can share your thoughts.

    Btw, I’m trying to grow some mushroom and search online where to buy the seeds but with no luck. This is how I come cross this article. Do you know where I can get some?


    • Yes, organic products are more expensive for several reasons, one of which is the lower yield and more labor demanding. Another reason, as you pointed out, is the target market. Organic products are still niche market, and they are targeted at health- and environmental-conscious consumers. The consumers are also more well to do, so the price for organic products are also higher. But not all foods are organic or can be available all year round in Malaysia, so it is very difficult to be 100% organic all the time. Organic food consumers usually try to increase their organic food intake but cannot be totally 100% organic. Organic fruits or even organic chicken are not always available in the local market. And good luck finding organic beef!

      Mushroom is not a plant, so you can’t grow them like you do with plants. In nature, you will find mushrooms growing under shade (cool, moist, and away from direct sunlight). Planting mushrooms will require a little more skill beyond just dropping seeds into a hole in the ground. Why not visit an mushroom farm to see for yourself how they plant it? There are many mushrooms farms around. Depending where you are, you can use the keywords “mushroom farms kajang” and you will get plenty of hits. Many farms welcome visitors and even have a shop at the farm to sell their products to the public. Just take note that showrooms for mushroom planting are a little different than the actual houses that are used to grow mushrooms. This is because the showrooms are modified for visitors’ comfort. The actual mushroom houses are dark and the floor is very wet (the mushrooms cannot be watered directly). You can call the farm to see if they can arrange a private tour for you.

  3. Hi Christopher,
    Good day to you

    I reside in Malacca, and am looking to do worm cultivation primarily to obtain worm castings for my (small) vegetable garden. Also I can use the worms to compost our discarded fruit peels, vegetables, etc.
    Do you know anyone doing worm cultivation, where i can buy some worms from?
    Your assistance is much appreciated.
    Thank you

  4. Hi Sir,

    It was so interesting to read the whole article but I just noticed that most of the organic farms were located in West Malaysia only. I am curious to know if there’s any in East Malaysia that doing the organic farming?

    • Yes, most organic farms in Malaysia are located in the Peninsular. However, use Google to search for farms, i.e., type “organic farms sarawak” and you will get hits. A visit to organic shops in and out of your area and talk to the shop owners and they can tell you nearby organic farms.

  5. Hi Chris,

    Thanks on your interesting article on organics.
    I am retiring next year & thinking to spend some time in a organic farm ( in a natural environment).
    I am 50yrs++ still healthy & able to contribute to the farm.
    Do you have a list of farms I can contact on this inquiry ?

    johnny chong

  6. hello sir… I am Monica Praira Philip. I am doing a research about organic foods. May i get some info about organic foods and the place of organic farms?
    Thank you…

  7. Dear Sir,

    We are a company active in preserving the environment by bamboo applications.

    One of our product which may interest your organisation is Bamboo Bio-Char.

    Bamboo Bio-Char is a very good soil improvement agent, widely used by many organic farmers.

    Our bamboo Bio-Char are produced using local wild bamboos from very remote mountains and are very clean. Our bio-charcoal making process are using gasifier retorts combine with gasification technology which produce very little waste and uses very little burning material, which are normally just bamboo.

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  8. I am very much interested in organic activities. I am eager to know how we can improve the best organic manure ?

  9. Hi Christopher,

    I really enjoyed your article. It is very informative. I was especially impressed by the Cuba story and learned quite a bit about organic farming in Malaysia. My views on the pros and cons of organic and conventional farming is mixed. Although both are different, both are also commercial. I’m always a bit skeptical when something becomes overly commercialised. I believe that the way forward, and to ensure sustainability and most importantly, quality, is not to make organic farming too commercialised, in terms of scale. I am particularly interested in community gardening or local farming (similar to the Cuba model). Trimming the supply chain will lower prices I think. I remember reading about a local farmer’s market somewhere in PJ. As for community gardens, well, my neighbour has a small plot of garden and she has managed to grow a decent variety of herbs and a bit of vege. I’m planning to do the same in my own garden, with luck, lots of it…

    We don’t have to go 100% organic. We can always replace whatever we can with organic produce and products within our budget. Even if we can replace 30-50% of our greens with homegrown, chemical-free greens will make a big difference in terms of health.

    Sorry for rambling. Interesting blog you have here… keep it up! Be well! Cheers!

    • Thanks for sharing! Yes, it is very difficult to be 100% organic, and you are right about community farming. What a good way to bring neighbours together, and it does not have to be organic too. Urban agriculture means agriculture done within the city and because of its scale, it often isn’t necessary to use chemicals or at least, minimize the use of chemicals.

  10. Sadly there seems to be virtually no organic stuff available here in Kuching. I know of 2 shops, both fairly small and with limited choice.

    Oh, also a luxury supermarket, which does have some grass-fed beef but at truly crazy prices (300 ringgit for a raw steak, or an all-you-can-eat buffet at the Hilton for 100 rm? Mmmm…)

  11. This is quite an interesting article. You provided balance arguments pro and con of the organic food, although understandably you veered to organics food later in the article.

    Thanks. i learnt something today.

    btw, i think I’ve came across one independent study saying there’s no significant difference between organics and non-organics food. it caused quite a ruckus, obviously from the organics group.

    Just wondering, do you feel organics food contributes more to your health? it seems the taste is better from what you said, but how about from health aspect?

    again, thank you for the article.

    • It is unfortunate that discussion about organics have become polarized: either good or bad. I too have come across many articles or studies like that. It only causes confusion because the actual situation is there are pros and cons to organic food. Non-organic food ought to be just as good as organic food, provided non-organic farmers adhere strictly to pesticide use. Unfortunately, consumer and supermarket demand for “perfect-looking” fruits and vegetables have caused farmers to over-spray their crops to ensure good marketability at harvest time. I have been to a farm in Johor where the farmer sprayed pesticides on his vegetables a day before harvest because he was afraid that his produce might be rejected by the Singapore market if his vegetable leaves have one hole too many. In the US, apples are considered the most harmful food because they contained the highest amount of pesticide residues.

      But before we blame it all on the farmers, we must understand that farmers only overspray because we, the consumers, demand flawless looking fruits and vegetables. The farmers would be the most happy people on the planet if, by tomorrow, supermarkets and consumers would suddenly prefer a vegetable with many holes on the leaves over one with no holes. Pesticides are a cost to the farmers, and the farmers would be most happy if they have a profitable reason to reduce their pesticide use.

      Most people have a romantic picturesque of organic food being produced in green lush fields under clear blue skies. Organic food may have once been produced by small, family-owned farms, but today, increasingly more organic food are produced by large corporations, sometimes by the same large corporations that also produce conventional foods. So, it is all ultimately about profits at the end, even for organic agriculture. Organic food is produced because there is growing demand for it, and there are people who are willing to spend extra money for organics. We should not be misled into even thinking that free-range chickens or cattle roam free all the time — despite what the nice picture on the organic food product shows to us. In some farms, free-range only means the animals roam free for the last one or two weeks of their lives before they are slaughtered for their meat.

      I am a moderate. I am not entirely for or against organic food. Organic food carry lower *risks* of pesticide residues, but I am not convinced that organic food are always more healthy than conventional food.

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