It doesn’t look much like a typical health food store. That’s because the Gongguan Collection Center (公館取貨站) of the Homemaker’s Union Consumer’s Co-op (台灣主婦聯盟生活消費合作社) isn’t one at all, even though it does sell fruit, vegetables, meat and household items that are grown or produced without the benefit of chemicals. The center is one of a growing number of outlets in a network around Taiwan established by the co-op to provide environmentally friendly, healthy foods. The co-op also aims to lead consumers to a better understanding of how they can make a difference on the environment.
“We are all natural-born consumers, so the consumer’s co-op was an obvious way to proceed,” Chen Hsiu-chi (陳秀枝), chairman of the co-op. Above, she said, consumers should feel they have a stake in the environment from which the products they buy come from.
The co-op is not just about selling produce. “We actually make it just a little bit troublesome for people,” Chen said, citing as examples the up-front membership fee and the requirement that new members attend a lecture on the co-op’s goals.
This is a very different approach from high-profile establishments that have sprung up in response to the demand for foods that are healthier and more natural, the latter term meaning foods that are produced without the use of chemicals such as hormones and antibiotics. There is Cotton Fields (棉花田, www.sun-organism.com.tw), with its emphasis on prepackaged health supplements; and Yuen Foong Yu (永豐餘生技, www.green-n-safe.com) and Tanhou (天和鮮物, www.thofood.com), which both combine high-tech and organic agricultural practices to appeal to a health-conscious financial and intellectual elite; and Li-Ruhn (里仁事業, www.li-ruhn.com), which takes its inspiration from Buddhist beliefs in man’s oneness with the natural world.
For Liu Tien-he (劉天和), founder of the Tanhou organization, his own investment in natural food production came after extensive surgery to treat cancer. Told to eat fish and avoid red meat, Liu worried over the many scandals involving contaminated fish products sold in Taiwan. Wanting a guaranteed source of uncontaminated fish and having made a fortune in the semi-conductor business, Liu decided to set up his own fishery in Penghu in 2001.
From the fishery, he expanded into poultry and subsequently organic agriculture, creating a cycle of natural production — using waste from the fish farm to make feed for the chicken farm, and waste from the chicken farm to fertilize plants. Over six years, Liu said he had invested around NT$1.3 billion in the operation, which recently set up a chic outlet in Taipei that provides everything from meat that is raised in Taiwan and natural (meaning that the animal has not been given antibiotics or hormones) to imported organic olive oil.
Tanhou is a large business and exports significant quantities of seafood to Europe, so it has obtained many of the most visible certifications of natural production and good practices, including Det Norske Veritas Food Safety System Certification, or DNV, and the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP. Liu said it is virtually impossible for small farmers to afford the fees for testing and certification by themselves. Tanhou is now one of many brands offering a guarantee of the production quality of meat and vegetables, and naturally charges a premium for this.
Exactly what these benefits are is something that has proved remarkably difficult to get a handle on, as seen from the impassioned and confused debate stemming from best-selling UK television chef Delia Smith’s rejection of organic food in February last year. Supporters such as Lesley Regan, a well-known consumer commentator, came out strongly to suggest that organic producers are taking advantage of consumers by charging higher prices for foods that offer little or no extra benefit to health or the environment.
The debate still rages, but Liu recognizes that people are always looking for ways to live a healthier life, and stands by the claims of better taste and health benefits of his naturally produced products.— Ian Bartholomew
Unlike these organizations, the Homemaker’s Union Consumer’s Co-op focuses on the environment, not the individual. “We are about keeping the environment healthy. The benefit to human health is an offshoot of this,” Chen said. Established in 2001, the co-op emerged out of the Homemaker’s Union and Foundation (主婦聯盟環境保護基金會), which has its roots in the environmental activism of the 1980s and has played an important role shaping a more environmentally conscious Taiwan.
“We want to work in a preventative way. We emphasize loving our bodies and our environment, together. To care for your health, you must care for the environment. If you don’t have a good environment, you cannot grow good things, and if you can’t grow good things, then you won’t have a healthy body,” Chen said.
A GRADUAL Approach
The co-op avoids using the term “organic” and has developed its own certification process. The reasons are two-fold. The first is the expense of government certification, which, said general manager Huang Jen-tung (黃仁棟), prevents most small farmers from participating. The second is that the term is not always meaningful on a small, densely populated island rife with cross-contamination of crops.
“In the Homemakers Union there were many people who were concerned about the environment,” Chen said during an interview at the co-op’s headquarters in a refurbished factory in Sanchong, Taipei County.
Aware of the high levels of contamination in the soil and numerous scandals associated with intentional contamination of imported food products, some members of the foundation decided to take control by instituting a system of collective purchasing directly from local farmers.