Sowing the seeds of love: British Muslim farmers and the demand for good food
Friday, February 19th, 2016
It’s not just the British. Everyone, worldwide, is talking about the weather. Floods, droughts, smog and weird weather patterns. You may believe it’s all hype or you may believe that global warming truly is the greatest threat to our planet; either way environmental issues are now politically scorching-hot reflecting a growing concern among populations worldwide.
The connection between our food and the environment is now becoming increasingly advertised. Celebs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall have helped the mainstream really understand the negative impact of areas like factory farming, beef consumption, spraying crops and food waste. On top of this, research is constantly finding new correlations between what we eat and our own health (see recent findings of the link between processed meats and cancer for example). As a result people are becoming a bit more fussy about their food – ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘raw’, ‘chemical free’ are all buzzwords now associated with clean and healthy eating and living.
In short, people are becoming much more aware of the impact of what they eat not only on themselves but the world outside of them. People now want to know what their food is, where it came from and how it got there.
Islam speaks clearly on principles about man’s guardianship of the dunya; the Sunnah speaks comprehensively on issues such as health, food and medicines. Muslims doing the maths are starting to realise the saying “you are what you eat” contains a lot deeper meaning than perhaps originally thought. A change is definitely happening; a move away from only looking for the halal sign stuck under the picture of Medina in the butchers, to looking more deeply at the provenance – what farm did it come from? Did it lead a healthy, natural life? Who slaughtered it? Where? How?
Whereas 10 years ago these questions would have resulted in blank looks, today you can get answers to all those questions and more. For those wanting an ethical, transparent alternative, from source, then Brits are leading the way. Here are three British Muslim farms making a difference:
Willowbrook Farm – in the Oxfordshire countryside just off the M40, perhaps the best well known Muslim run farm in the UK, Willowbrook is a shining example of what halal and tayyib food production could and should be. Beyond farming, Willowbrook strives to raise environmental awareness and to connect with their customers through events and activities including the annual Willowbrook Arts and Music Festival. Having benefited from positive PR for many years, and with a comprehensive website, the business is well established and for this reason does not receive full attention in this piece. We will let their website do the talking.
ZUSS Halal, an acronym for the family’s names Zakariyah (son), Umran (Dad), Saima (Mum) Safiyyah (Daughter) – a family run business in Latchington, Essex. ZUSS, if anything came about by accident, explains Saima Khan. The family bought a 40-acre property for the storage potential it offered their electronics business. As parents they had become concerned about the food that their children were eating and, as they now had the land, decided to give rearing chickens a go. Eight years later and the family now owns an EU approved unstunned on-site abattoir, breeds, slaughters and sells a range of halal and tayyib products; offering full traceability by only slaughtering what they rear.
Having gone through the process of rearing animals and then butchering and eating them, the mum of two questions whether many people even understand, “what halal really even means”. “It’s not only about the slaughter,” explains Saima, “it’s also about the rearing.” For the family, how the animal lives its life is as important as how it is slaughtered.
A lack of education amongst Muslims in the UK, she says, has led to people focusing purely on price – nothing else. As a result the family spend a lot of time educating people as to why a quality free-range chicken could potentially cost 5 times more than a supermarket bird. There is little or no understanding of the impact of feeds, shelter, electricity, water, FSA vets bills legally required to be present during slaughtering, slaughter process, butchery, etc. on the final price of a chicken.
Interestingly there was a great stress on the fact that this “was not a business”, that in fact, they were sharing something very special with those who understood and cared. The family now are passionate about rearing top quality halal and tayyib livestock, ethically, and educating fellow-Muslims on the importance of “eating less meat but eating quality”.
Abraham Organics based in Keston in Kent– Abraham Organics started off selling organic halal meat direct to customers. Zeki Ismail, found that the lack of education within the Muslim community over what he was offering led him to pursue other means of developing his business.
“Only a tiny minority really understand what we do. Most Muslims are used to rock bottom prices and they can’t accept anything else. Those that have taken the time to understand what we do are loyal customers – they don’t want chemicals in their food, they want natural and organic, they want traceability and they want to know it’s truly halal.”
Although demand is high, long term clients seem to be limited to a select few; foodies, parents with young children, those with medical conditions and those making lifestyle choices. The number one reason why people do not purchase is price. Most people want the “natural” or “organic” labels, or think they do, yet when it comes to it, rarely commit.
Despite the challenge, Zeki has found demand from elsewhere, namely the wholesale market. The company now has gourmet, high-end restaurants up and down the country asking for his premium beef, chicken, sausages and burgers. Not only are the eateries’ clients demanding good quality meat but the restaurants themselves are recognising that they are in fact buying a highly superior product that genuinely tastes different as well as boasting ethical credentials. Knowledge of breeds, hands-on rearing, compassionate slaughter and quality butchering are all value-adds which are very difficult to find elsewhere.
Speaking with all the business owners as well as other stakeholders within the halal food industry, what becomes very clear very quickly is that we still have a long way to go in terms of changing people’s eating and buying habits. For many people, and perhaps rightly so, price comes before provenance. As a result the environment will continue to burden under great strain. If we want this to change then, for one, people have to stop eating meat daily. Every person I spoke with who is involved with animals said the same thing – “too much meat”. If everyone cut down the impact on the environment would be great, but the impact on ourselves would perhaps be greater.
On top of reducing meat consumption we also need to consider how our meat or food is being farmed. What are the benefits, not only to us but for the environment when using organic or natural methods? For one, these methods look to the long term rather than short term gain; science has shown that the earth’s natural healing mechanism takes care of many areas such as the quality of soil, water, air and biodiversity all by itself. One only has to look at the horrifying prospect of the global bee population being wiped out due to modern farming techniques, evidence that not every innovation in food production is good. In essence organic or natural farming methods are holistic – they appreciate that there is a connection between what you grow, what you feed animals, the environment and our bodies.
This article has focused only on commercial farmers as opposed to smallholders or other halal organic businesses such as online stores or specialist foods. What intrigued me was why they had gone into this way of life. Was it rejection of an urban living? Was it for profit? Was it simply wanting good food? In fact, it was none of the things as I initially imagined.
Upon reflection, what all these people have in common is that they have become conscious and aware of the fact that the food they eat is in fact a connection with the Divine.
Just as we constantly see people wanting to be “connected” by staring into their phones and frantically moving thumbs, these smallholders and farmers have all understood that when they eat something, they are in fact connecting with something greater, the Creator, and if this be so, in order to properly reflect the beauty of that Creator they must eat and/or produce food which glorifies His names and fulfils our duties to Him and all of creation.