Since last summer I’ve been looking into stories about what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s downright scary about Turkey’s food supply. When you become a parent you suddenly want to educate yourself about things you’ve never thought enough about in the past. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the organic food industry and what’s holding it back when so much of the world no longer needs convincing as to its merits.
Recently, I talked to Zeynep Çelen, the natural living (these are my terms) guest expert on Star TV’s Melek about the organic food scene and her take on what needs to be done if it’s to take root. If I were to derive a one-word response from her on the greatest obstacle to Turkey’s organic food movement, it would be: attitude.
You’ve been quite vocal in social media countering negative opinions towards the organic foods movement. What’s the problem?
ZÇ: In Turkey people don’t trust new things. They’d rather pay less and know they’re eating sh-t [unhealthy food] than risk being tricked. We don’t trust that people are doing the right thing, and we suffer.
But as I understand it, organic food is the only food that’s stringently regulated in Turkey, right?
ZÇ: Yes, with all the scandals in milk, olive oil, honey people are beginning to understand how scary the regular system is. When non-organic food is tested, we’ve found banned chemicals. Migros has just started Iyi Tarim, a program that meets EU standards for non-organic foods. But I don’t know how stringently they test these things.
In conventional farming — what you call artificial farming — there is always an allowed amount of pesticide on each tomato you eat. Can you believe that? In organic there is no amount of pesticide, and if or when they find a residue on organic products and cancel the certifications — the amount they find is usually less than a tenth than the allowed amount in conventional farming.
What are your credentials? How did you get involved in this movement?
ZÇ: I studied biology and then did a Masters in ecology. A few years ago I discovered and became involved with a group called Buğday they had a magazine—which is now out of print—but provided materials on how to live “naturally” in Turkey. I helped them with everything, then started doing EU-funded projects getting involved with farmers and producers, helping to educate them as well as create more than just raw produce but value-added products so they can earn more money and stay viable. I was also on their committee for several years, but then I started teaching yoga.
And your guest expert role on Melek, the TV show?
ZÇ: They found me through a video I did on uzmantv.com which has experts giving how-to videos on everything, which Melek‘s producers watched. Then last June they emailed me. I’d almost forgotten about the video but you never know when something you do in the digital world will pop up. As with Buğday, we try to educate people about harmful choices they’re making and then give them a positive alternative. I consult with several doctors and organic producers on each topic to try and investigate beliefs get rid of the myths and then educate them on healthy alternatives.
What’s the most important thing for the organic food movement?
ZÇ: Consumers need to find their voice. They are incredibly powerful. But to do that we need to educate the consumer. A real tomato costs more than an artificially produced one. But despite higher labor costs it also employs more people, meaning more jobs, which is obviously a good thing. Certification is expensive, but it can be shared among producers. My philosophy is to pay more but eat a little less. I only eat out at two places because I know the quality of the ingredients they use. Prices will begin to come down as more people buy and produce organic, but the cost of a real tomato will never be as cheap as an artificial one.
It’s interesting when you talk to farmers who have gone organic. You should go and listen to their stories. They’re so passionate. One farmer made the switch because his wife was poisoned (not fatally) by the harmful chemicals they were using—people die every year here—once they stopped using the chemicals they see the changes quickly. Now they see birds and wildlife they’ve never seen before on their land.
What do you think? Do you trust the food you eat? Do you worry about where it comes from and what goes into it? Would you prefer to eat better food if it meant eating less? Let me know, I’m listening.