Although the organic-food market in Malaysia is still small, supermarkets and organic-food stores in the country aim to “invigorate” the market with increased supply of organic greens, a wider selection of organic products, and the opening of new stores that will offer enthusiasts the necessities to support an organic lifestyle. Chow Chui Lin reports from Kuala Lumpur ...
Just a few years ago, Malaysians who opted to go organic in their diet had very few options. They had to rely on the few speciality shops that imported organic foods or intrepid farmers who commanded a high price for their organic produce because of the limited supply.
Today, there is a much wider range of organic foods — at least the basics — sold in the market. Major supermarkets located in the more affluent neighbourhoods have expanded their range as supplies become more easily available,and most upmarket shopping complexes house about a handful of organic shops,
though many of them are more likely to sell mostly health supplements or dried foods
Organic foods have yet to gain a huge popularity in Malaysia but their demand has been steadily increasing, organic-food retailers say. The trend started about a decade ago when a
small number of concerned consumers began sourcing for organic greens in the hope of weeding out harmful fertilisers and pesticides from their diet.
There were then few farmers who were into the holistic-agriculture management system. The few who practised it had disappointing yields and what-ever was harvested was sold directly to the endconsumers.
Selina Gan, owner of Country Farm Organics, who has been an organic-food wholesaler for six years and is now branching into retail, remembers having to drive “quite a distance” to an organic farm every week to get her vegetables before she started her business.
She paid RM35 (US$9.20) for a basket of assorted vegetables during those years, she said. The farmers selected the vegetables that went into the basket and buyers were not always able to get what they wanted because of the uncertain harvest.
Jaya Jusco was among the first supermarkets to start selling organic greens at the request of their customers about two to three years ago. “We went into it because customers were asking for it. They said they had difficulty getting these greens which were also quite pricey,” said Lee Lian Eang, manager, food line merchandising, at Jusco.
“ One of the setbacks we faced when we started selling organic foods was that much of the produce was highly priced because of their scarcity and the high labour costs in growing the vegetables.”
The price of organic greens has since dropped by about 30% on the average over the years because of increased production and competition.
“ The market is still very small but we can see it growing by the month.There is still a lot to be done to invigorate the organic market in Malaysia,” Lee said.
Organic-food sales at the supermarket are minuscule, accounting for just about 5%-6% of vegetables sold.
“ We would like to build on it though, as it has very good potential. I think, a time will come when more Malaysians will be looking for organic foodstuff. Look at Australia, where the organic movement is much more advanced … at some supermarkets, as much as 90% of
the foodstuff are organic.”
Customers who buy organic foods fall into two categories, Lee said. The first group goes for organic food for health reasons, perhaps on the advice of their physicians. The second are the “ curious ones who buy organic on and off” to see if there is any difference between the various types of greens.
Feedback from customers indicates a demand for a wider range of organic food. “Those in the first category especially are always on the lookout for new things to add to their diet. The demand for organic fruits is good but, unfortunately, supply is short and, even if there are supplies, the prices are very much more compared to normal fruits.
“ At most, we have been able to get and sell some organic papayas and starfruits. I’ve been told that organic-fruit cultivation is rather difficult.”
Of the vegetables, common leafy greens like spinach and bok choy, and salad greens like lettuce, cabbage, cucumber and tomatoes are very popular while beans and pepper are slow movers, Lee said.
Jusco gets its organic greens from two suppliers: Zenxin for highland produce and D’Lonek for lowland greens. Zenxin has farms in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands and Gua Musang, while D’Lonek farms are all located in Negri Sembilan, where the state government is enthusiastically encouraging its farmers to go organic.
Lee said the shortlist of two suppliers was to enable the supermarket to better manage the authenticity of its organic foodstuff. “ It is not always easy to tell organic and normal greens apart, so we have to be careful where our supplies come from — that the produce sent to us is organically grown as claimed,” he disclosed.
Malaysia has already come up with an organic-food standard — the MS 1529:2001 certification that applies to both unprocessed plant and plant products, and processed products — to protect both consumers and producers from fraudulent claims in the market. However, its implementation has yet to take off.