RANGOON — Only a few shops are open in Bahan Township’s unusual bazaar at 6:45 am on a Saturday, when those who exercise nearby come to buy their produce. The once-weekly market began offering a rare selection of natural fruits and vegetables in March for customers concerned with food hygiene and safety.
The “Safe Food from Safe Farms” market was an initiative of the Myanmar Fruits, Flowers and Vegetable Producers and Exporters Association (MFVA) to ensure access to clean, natural and delicious produce. The market’s dozen or so vendors don banners showing where their farms are located: Naypyidaw; Hlegu, Pegu Division; Nyaung Htone, Irrawaddy Division; Aung Pan, Pindaya and Ywar Ngan in Shan State.
Zaw Min Tun, the manager of an organic farm in Naypyidaw owned by the Dagon International company, said while the new market isn’t yet bringing in much profit, he’s glad to be among the pioneering merchants bringing organically produced food into the fold.
“Our products may not be as beautiful as those that use chemical fertilizers,” he admitted, but ultimately, “they are absolutely safe for our health.”
Dagon International, which has been using organic farming methods and cultivating chemical-free crops on some 100 acres of land since 2011, also supplies hotel restaurants in Naypyidaw, but those who shop at the Rangoon market get a much better bargain. Zaw Min Tun said his clients in the capital pay about double the price for the fresh, local products.
All of the farms in the Safe Foods network are regularly inspected to ensure that they are chemical-free and produce natural foods through sustainable practices. The MFVA can “guarantee the safety” all of the market’s foodstuffs, according to the association’s secretary, San Lin.
“It’s not that the vegetables sold here are one hundred percent organic,” he said, “but what we recommend here is safe food.”
Unfortunately, he added, the 33 farms in the network are not yet ready to mass produce organic foods, but they will be in time. Organic agriculture requires pure soil, seeds and water sources, which poses problems for many farmers in Burma whose lands are near industrial sites. “Even if the farmers don’t use chemicals, they can be affected,” San Lin explained.
The MFVA has been providing technical support since 2010 for farmers who want to go natural, but they still have a long way to go. He said both the association and the farm owners hope to eventually produce certifiable organic produce and sell it in Rangoon, where demand is growing faster than in other parts of the country.
In just the past month, the Safe Foods market has been gaining popularity, especially among some of the city’s older residents, who have been some of the most loyal and enthusiastic customers.
“As an elder person, I am careful about eating healthy food,” said Daw Thwin, a 67-year-old woman who takes a daily walk in Bahan and shops at the market every Saturday. “We are reluctant to buy fruits at the regular markets out of fear of chemicals, but with this market we don’t have to worry about that.”
Food safety has always been an issue in Burma, but consumers often have little choice when it comes to safe food at reasonable prices. Media attention to excessive chemical use has also helped to make the public aware of health risks associated with certain foods.
As Daw Thwin hung around waiting for more shops to open, she said she had only one suggestion for making the market more successful.
“It could be improved by opening earlier for the morning walkers, as many people get up and do exercise at Kandawgyi Park,” she recommended. In their defense, vendors said the city traffic slows things down, but they hope to be able to meet consumers’ needs.
The Safe Foods from Safe Farms market is open every Saturday at Myay Padethar Kyun, near the Garden Mart and Education Center in Rangoon’s Bahan Township, but the market will be closed during the Thingyan holiday.