SHE’S BEEN known to talk to plants, but maybe she’s only complimenting them on how delicious they are. A vegetarian for six years now, actress/model/
environmentalist Chin-Chin Gutierrez probably only vaguely remembers the taste of meat, but doesn’t look like she regrets eating only vegetables and fruits.
In fact, she looks pretty darn good. But maybe that glow is also coming from her glee over the attention the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its advocacy of vegetarianism and animal rights are getting these days. The 30-something Gutierrez is among the celebrity endorsers of PETA issues, and while her print ad for the group has yet to appear (Ms. Gutierrez’s ad came out a few months after the release of this issue of i Report — Ed’s note), PETA is already reporting record queries in the country about what vegetarianism is all about.
PETA Asia-Pacific director Jason Baker says when he first came to Manila last year, the Philippines was ranked 31st in terms of volume of requests for vegetarian information that PETA got from its website. By November though, the Philippines had shot up to seventh place.
But that’s not all. Local fashion, lifestyle, and cooking magazines have also begun devoting cover stories and features on vegetarianism, vegetarian diets, and recipes. Food courts in malls are gracious hosts to vegetarian restaurants. Fast-food chains like Burger King now sell veggie burger, while Seattle’s Best and Starbucks offer soymilk.
“It’s amazing because you can’t get veggie burger from Burger King in the rest of Asia,” says Baker.”“You have soy milk in Starbucks but in China, which is where it originated, they don’t have it. Starbucks may not be for everyone but when you have soymilk entering the mainstream, you really have a change there. It’s no longer just a vegetarian restaurant on the outskirts of the city that is serving this. And that’s the exciting thing.”
It’s also quite a feat in a carnivorous country like the Philippines, where celebrations inevitably turn into “big lechon happenings” and there are still a considerable number of macho men wanting to turn Bantay into pulutan. Baker thinks PETA’s celebrity-dominant endorsements have a lot to do with the great reception his group is getting. But perhaps it’s also because Filipinos are experiencing multiplying aches and pains brought about by a 24/7 lifestyle and illnesses that can be traced back partly to bad diets or simply bad food. More Filipinos have become conscious of what they are eating, and going vegetarian is just one among many options some are considering to help repair their aching bodies or just to keep healthy. From those who have decided to do away with junk food, there are also those who want to make sure what they eat is as free of human intervention as possible.
EATING, WHICH humans merely used to do as a matter of survival, has indeed become increasingly complicated and dangerous in today’s world of corporate-controlled, technology-driven industrial agriculture. So much so that to satisfy your hunger, you now have to make sure you’re not slowly killing yourself in the process.
Health red flags obviously go up once the animals destined for our stomachs begin falling sick. For years now, fish and other bounty from Philippine waters have succumbed to seasonal plankton infestation commonly referred to as “red tide” and other toxic contaminants like lead, arsenic, and mercury. In addition, diseases have been known to plague factory farm animals from which the food for our everyday sustenance is derived. Filipinos should count themselves lucky that local factory farms have so far been hit only by foot-and-mouth disease, which afflicts pigs. Abroad, cattle have been hounded by mad cow disease while chickens have fallen prey to the bird flu virus.
Illness outbreaks from food-borne pathogens are likewise becoming common. E. coli, believed to live mostly in the intestines of cattle but which has also been found in the intestines of chickens, deer, sheep, and pigs, has been associated with ingesting contaminated ground beef. Salmonella found in chicken eggs makes more than a million Americans sick every year.
Commercially grown fruits and vegetables, which were thought of earlier as safe, have also been found to be laden with a lot of pesticides and other chemical preservatives. And in the advent of biotechnology, staple grains like rice and corn have been subjected to genetic manipulation, the long-term consequence of consuming which may prove inimical to human health as well as to the environment and local agriculture.
The onslaught of a fast-paced lifestyle, which has given rise to fast-food restaurant chains all over the country offering supersized orders of fatty, high-calorie and cholesterol-heavy “value meals,” is also taking its toll on personal health. And if all these are not yet enough to make anyone paranoid about what he is about to put in his mouth, groups like PETA are always at the ready to serve up data designed to be more than food for thought.
PETA’s undercover investigations reveal, for instance, that today’s factory farms subject animals to cruel treatment and inhumane conditions, keeping them in cramped stalls and cages, and often bleed them to death while they are still fully conscious. Animals from factory farms are also fed a steady diet of powerful growth hormones and antibiotics that humans ingest when they eat the animal flesh or drink cow’s milk.
PETA is thus trying to push into the mainstream vegetarianism and veganism (strictly vegetarian regimen shunning even dairy products and eggs), which are derived from the conviction that only a plant-based consumption is truly beneficial to human health — while at the same time helps preserve the environment and promotes animal rights and welfare.
PETA’s arguments are not without backing by medical and scientific researches that serve to debunk people’s earlier notions of their proper dietary requirements. The fact that people with cancer still harbor hopes of beating the illness by eating organically grown food is because doctors and oncologists themselves are prescribing a low-fat, plant-based diet. Vegetarians, scientific evidence has shown, are about 40 percent less likely to get cancer than nonvegetarians.
As studies by leading epidemiological experts like Dr. T. Colin Campbell reveal, “the vast majority of all cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and other forms of degenerative illness can be prevented simply by adopting a plant-based diet.” Eating meat, with its high fat and cholesterol content, has been proven to cause heart disease. Animal protein in meat and dairy products, meanwhile, is the prime carcinogen that causes human cancer.
Diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, hormonal imbalance and other diseases have also been linked to the consumption of meat and dairy. Cow’s milk, which the dairy industry would have people believe helps prevent osteoporosis, is actually high in animal protein that causes calcium to be leached from the bones. A study of the Harvard Medical School of 75,000 nurses even found that the women who drank the most milk had the most bone fractures.
Chin-chin Gutierrez herself says she turned vegetarian because of health concerns, and specifically because she was alarmed by family members and relatives who had suddenly become afflicted with ailments like diabetes and cancer. But now she also says that with all the pollution in the environment,’“the least thing we could do is to be careful about what we put in our mouths.”
FILIPINO VEGETARIANS aren’t that many yet, and seem to be confined to environmentalists like Gutierrez, along with animal-rights activists and cancer patients. But PETA’s campaign is certainly gaining converts among the more youthful and trendy lot; Baker says that last year, PETA gave away 25,000 vegetarian starter kits in the country.
PETA’s media-targeted campaign has deliberately been splashy, and last year even released an ad with former “Baywatch” babe Pamela Anderson, clad only in lettuce leaves, urging people to”“turn a new leaf” and go vegetarian. In contrast, the Slow Food campaign has been quietly establishing a foothold among older urbanites. Founded in 1986 by longtime activist Carlo Petrini who started out picketing the first McDonald’s outlet in Rome, Slow Food—yet another reaction to the fast-food lifestyle—now has 80,000 members in 100 countries.
That it is now in the Philippines is largely due to the late Doreen Fernandez. A year before her death in June 2002, the white-haired, bespectacled academic and food critic gathered a small group of people cooking to discuss the idea of launching the slow food movement in the country. She handpicked the group’s members from local food circles who either worked in food preparation, marketing, restaurant operation, teaching and research, or simply loved to cook. The eclectic mix eventually formed the first Filipino Slow Food chapter, or convivium (from the Latin word for feast or banquet), in November 2003.
“Slow Food is for savoring the gustatory pleasures of the world and keeping those pleasures existing,” explains Ipat Luna, an environmental lawyer and one of three members of the group with no direct link to the food industry.”“So the more that people patronize nontraditional, nonseasonal, nonlocal foods, not only is one’s health on the line but also the capacity to keep providing slow food, which is better-tasting and friendly to the planet.”
In other words, Slow Food is the exact opposite of fast food: small-scale, local, seasonal and traditional. And by local, food is not meant to just be grown locally but by someone the consumer knows. As a consequence, Slow Food also frowns on commercial manipulations of food whether it is processed, genetically modified or pesticide-laden.
That’s where the movement’s connection to organics comes in. Organic market entrepreneur Mara Pardo de Tavera, also a convivium member, puts it this way: “With Slow Food, there’s the whole aspect of growing things organically. Because how can you be traditional if you don’t practice traditional farming? Traditional farming is equal to organic. Before the use of chemicals, everything was organic.”
Pardo de Tavera lives and breathes organic food. At one point in her life, she used to tend one of the first natural food stores in New York. She also has a European degree in hotel and restaurant management that further refined her whole concept of food and pointed her toward a more natural lifestyle.
In 1986, after living in the United States for eight years, Pardo de Tavera returned to the Philippines. At first the homecoming seemed a bad idea because she had a hard time finding organic food in Manila. And just a month after her return, she got sick and even contracted chicken pox. “I was so frustrated and so unhappy,” she recalls. “I said to myself“‘why did I come back to this?’ But then I decided to look at the other side of the picture. If I was going through this, I really had my work cut out for me to change peoples’ diets and mindset about food.”
THAT ORDEAL served to inspire her in setting up the first organic market in the country (and the whole of Asia) in 1993. Originally located at the Greenbelt mall park in Makati, the market has had to be relocated twice in the last two years to give way to the park renovations. Today the organic market is open three times a week (Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday), from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., on the side of the mall complex along Legaspi Street.
Organically grown produce as fruits, vegetables, rice and other cereals, free-range chickens, eggs and bangus (milkfish) are sourced from pockets of organic farms in Luzon (Bulacan, Cavite, Nueva Ecija, Zambales, Mountain Province, Benguet, Palawan), Bacolod, and Mindanao (Bukidnon, Cagayan de Oro, Davao).
The choice of Makati was intentional. “It has to be in Makati because we have to set the trend. It has to begin at the top and trickle down,” explains Pardo de Tavera. And in the business scheme of things, the preference for the city could just be as apt as no place makes the same marketing impact as Makati does.
The organic market has since branched out to the equally upscale Alabang Town Center. Pardo de Tavera has also become a regular supplier of the organic food section of Rustan’s Supermarket in Makati and Rockwell. She has her sights now set on putting up an organic supermarket, a one-stop shop for all the needs of people who have opted for an organic lifestyle.
But the growing demand for organic food now comes as well from those with fewer pesos to spare, even areas that cater to the Prada-from-Patpong and DKNY-de-Divisoria crowd have organic markets. Less posh supermarkets now also have organic food sections, some of which even offer organic rice.
The trouble is, consumers can’t be too sure if what they are buying is organic or not. There is no government regulation on organics certification and labeling. At least with the markets managed by Pardo de Tavera, they can be assured that the produce are certified organic. At this time, only Pardo de Tavera does her own independent checking, which even extends to the process of production.
Known to be “autocratic” about keeping a reputation for being strictly organic, Pardo de Tavera has no qualms with booting out dishonest concessionaires from the markets she manages, giving them only a day’s notice and no second chance. “It’s because I also eat the food,” she says. “Everything we sell here, I bring home. That’s my lifestyle, always has been.”
So it also ends up being the obligation of the consumer to find out. Anyway, organic producers are voluntarily labeling their goods. Some consumers are also trying to grow their own vegetables in the backyard — the ones that only need regular care and no fertilizers like kangkong (swamp cabbage), sayote (chayote), and alugbati (Ceylon spinach).
But many organic foods are still priced out of the reach of low-income buyers. Pardo de Tavera admits that her organic markets’ produce are a bit more expensive.
“It’s because we’re not even hitting half of one percent of the market in Metro Manila,” she says. “We still have a limited market outreach. On top of it, we don’t get subsidies from government — no assistance, no one who’d provide capital for a delivery truck. The farmers have to develop their own farms, manage themselves enough to come to this market and sell.”
The output of organic farms is definitely no match to that of commercial farms that spray a lot of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers to boost harvests. All that organic farmers have are the manual inputs of composting and killing pests with their bare hands.
ALTHOUGH HEALTH-conscious consumers represent just a small segment of the population, they are generally well-heeled. That makes them a very lucrative market.
Multinational firms have thus lost no time setting up subsidiaries or funding companies devoted to producing products alternately labeled as “low-fat,” “low-sodium,” “vegan,” or “nonmeat.” It’s a development that has pleased some consumers who want to eat healthy but don’t want to sweat too much trying to find stuff their doctors would approve of. But not all alternative food activists see it positively.
PETA’s Baker at least allows that change will have to come by embracing the mainstream. As one who cares about the suffering of animals and the end to eating meat the most, he says that the vegetarian and vegan options that companies now offer — whether forced by economics or by society — is saving animals’ lives, probably more than he can ever do in his lifetime.
“I really believe that over the last 20 years, people are not relaxing more, not spending more time cooking at home, eating more packaged foods, eating more at fast-food restaurants,” he says.
“So I really don’t believe that the trend is gonna reverse. There’s going to be more of these. It’s not one I have the ability to stop or fight.”
Baker’s advice therefore is to support veggie burger at Burger King, as well as similar vegan alternatives as these are huge steps in the right direction.’“If we don’t and they get rid of it,” he says, “they’ll never have one again.”
But slow foodies like Luna like to make an exception. “We feel that processed food is processed food, which still doesn’t respond to the issue of fast life,” she insists. “And when you investigate who owns these companies, you go back to the same corporations that fund research on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and their commercialization.”
A case in point is the Hain Pure Food Co. owned by Hain Celestial Group Inc. whose brands (Arrowhead Mills, Bearitos, Breadshop, Celestial Seasonings, Earth’s Best Baby Food, Garden of Eatin, Health Valley, Imagine Foods, Terra Chips, Westbrae, Millina’s, Mountain Sun, Shari Ann’s, Walnut Acres) make up about half of the products sold in health food stores. One of its principal stockholders is the biotechnology company Monsanto. Hain also has a tie-up with multinational food and agriculture giant Cargill to develop’“enhanced foods” for the health-conscious.
“If you have a political conviction on slow food, you won’t buy these brands because your money goes to Monsanto,” says Luna. “If only for health reasons, then probably you would. But you just can’t separate the personal from the political. The health of the person is tied up to the health of the planet.”
For Gutierrez who says she’s not into converting people, the little things that the likes of Burger King are doing is a straightforward business signal that they’re accommodating consumers’ needs. “It’s not being pretentious,” she says. “It has to earn. It’s a business.”
What is important, she says, is for individuals to try to carve out a lifestyle that’s sustainable and stick to it. Gutierrez says, “It’s not enough that you’re not doing anything wrong or hurting anyone. No. By not acting and making some difference, you’re actually agreeing to a culture that doesn’t sustain life — the lives of people, animals, the environment, and of future generations.”
Where to Buy Organics
- Organic Market
open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Alabang Town Square, Muntinlupa
open Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 12 noon
- Rustan’s Supermarket
Rockwell and Makati branches
- Organic Producers
along Katipunan Avenue (near Miriam College Gate 2)
open Tuesdays and Thursdays
- Healthy Options
Rustan’s Supermarket, Ayala Avenue (near Glorietta)
with branches in SM Megamall, SM City North Edsa, Greenbelt Mall, SM City Manila, Shangri-la Plaza, Festival Supermall, SM Bicutan, SM Pampanga and Cebu
- Market One
Lung Center, Quezon Avenue, Quezon City
- Palawan Organic and K-Organics
97 Maginhawa Street, U.P. Village, Quezon City
CAFÉS and RESTAURANTS
- Balai Vege Food
G/F FAF Building, 123 Visayas Avenue, Quezon City
Madison Square, Ortigas Avenue corner Madison Street, Ortigas with outlets at SM Cubao, Tutuban Center, SM City North Edsa, SM Megamall, SM South Mall, SM City Manila and del Monte and Banawe Streets
offers vegan versions of Filipino dishes, including vegan chicharon
- Chimara Neo-Vegan Café
Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, Makati
sells soy ice cream
- Daily Veggie N’ Café
540 Banawe cor. Calamba Streets, Quezon City
- Greens Café and Restaurant
Scout Tuazon cor. Scout Castor Streets, Quezon City
- Happy Veggie Health Food
Gilmore Street cor. Aurora Boulevard, Quezon City
- Jagad Yoga
1026 Pasay Road, Makati
- Karma Free Food Vegetarian Center
Rooftop Garden, 4/F Maharlika Bldg., Baguio City
- Likha Diwa sa Gulod
C.P. Garcia Street, Krus na Ligas, Quezon City
- Manila Sanitarium Hospital Cafeteria
45 Donada Street, Pasay City
- Mother Sachi Vegetarian Restaurant
1182 Chino Roces Ave., Makati City
Tel. 8978232 8908324
- Oh My Gulay Caterers
7A Embassy Terrace Homes, Quezon City
- Quan Yin Chay
821 Masangay Street, Sta. Cruz, Manila
- Satya’s Vegetarian Junction
2/F Llanar Bldg., 77 Xavierville Avenue, Quezon City
sells homemade soy “mayonnaise” and offers mock tuna spread
with branches in Greenbelt and Glorietta
offers soy gelato available in four flavors — coffee, chocolate, vanilla and strawberry
also offers soy gelato
- Burger King
sells veggie burger (not listed on menu, order without mayonnaise and cheese)
- Seattle’s Best
sells soy milk and soy latte
sells soy milk and soy latte
- Meat Magic
available at Manila Sanitarium Hospital Cafeteria and Quan Yin Chay
- Country Vegefoods
meat-free products include Ve-G-Sausage, Ve-G-Tapa and Ve-G-Franks available at Rustan’s