From corporate high-flyer to small business startup, Diane Squires investigates how seeking a healthier lifestyle sowed the seeds of a new organic food business. Photo by Angeli Castillo.
Christian Kuhl’s face lights up when he talks about food, but not just any food – organic food; chemical-free wholefoods, livestock that get to roam freely across green pastures and foods that haven’t been injected with growth hormones.
It’s a passion that developed after years of researching where food comes from and just what we’re ingesting into our bodies every time we eat.
And for Christian, his wife Signe and their two sons, healthy eating has become a way of life, so much so that they recently started ByNature, a family business specialising in sourcing and selling all-natural products that are farmed in ethical and sustainable ways and are safe and clean to consume.
It wasn’t always like this. The one time corporate high-flyer clearly remembers the day that set him on his new path in life.
He’d spent years working in a career most people would envy, travelling the world, moving from one highly paid job to another.
“It gave me many wonderful experiences,” said Christian, who along with his wife Signe is from Denmark but has lived in Asia for more than 15 years.
“But it was also very stressful. About eight to ten years ago I found myself very stressed.
“I wasn’t sleeping well, I had digestive issues, I was overweight, I was probably 20 kilograms heavier than I am now.
“I woke up one day and could barely get out of bed. I thought, this is no way to live.”
Christian said a number of things prompted his decision then to make some changes, but perhaps the biggest was the memory of his stepfather who, in his mid 40s, collapsed from a brain haemorrhage. He was in intensive care for months and to this day – about 30 years later – he can’t move the right side of his body and can’t talk.
“That’s no way to live your life, not if you can avoid it,” he said.
“I thought about him that morning when I woke up and decided I needed to make a change.
“I had been living the high life, earning good money, it wasn’t easy to change, but I decided I had to get healthy, and at first to me that meant get fit, but then I started educating myself about nutrition.”
Christian and Signe soon became very passionate about the kinds of foods they were eating and what they were feeding their two boys – Cornelius and William.
They started investigating food safety in Vietnam and around the world and just how fresh produce was actually grown and cultivated.
With his new interest Christian moved to a different workplace – still in an executive position, but one that brought him closer to the food industry – and started learning about the chemicals and manipulation of fresh foods to make it look a certain way, grow quicker and last on the shelf longer.
“I started changing our diets, started moving toward whole foods, natural foods, foods that haven’t been tainted by unhealthy chemicals,” Christian said.
“From that initial food company, I went to work for a large multinational in agriculture. I visited many farms and I was shocked by what I saw. Unhappy animals that were malnourished, maltreated and living on antibiotics.
“Vegetables and fruits that were grown and treated with an abundance of chemicals and irrigated with heavily polluted water. The impression was as far from my childhood memories of farm visits in Denmark as you can get. “
Christian pointed out that farming in Vietnam isn’t industrialised yet in the way it is in many western countries. Despite that, livestock are often fed or injected with antibiotics to induce growth and to prevent inflammation and sickness. Crops are supported with the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and many other treatments.
“The risk is the antibiotics accumulate in our body making us resistant to antibiotics over time and the growth hormones wreak havoc on our body,” he said.
“And our consumption of chemicals used on fruits and vegetables is skyrocketing. Generally there isn’t an immediate health issue with these things, it accumulates in our bodies over time.”
But he said sourcing organic, ethically produced and chemical free produce is not easy in Vietnam and so ByNature was born.
What Is Organic?
The term organic describes the way in which agricultural products, such as meats, vegetables, seeds and dairy are cultivated and processed.
To be truly organic, foods must be grown on clean soil without chemical fertilisers, pesticides, growth stimulants or preservatives.
Regulations vary around the world, in the US, for instance, products must be produced without any synthetic pesticides, must not be genetically modified and can’t be grown or cultivated using petroleum based fertilisers or sewage sludge based fertilisers. Livestock used for meat or dairy must have access to the outdoors and should have no traces of antibiotics, growth hormones or animal by-products in them.
To be labelled organic organisations must seek accreditation from approved certifying bodies, which involves an initial audit as well as ongoing random audits, with some authorities the regular audits can occur twice a year, as a minimum. The ongoing audits are never organised ahead of time. The company seeking certification must pay to be audited each time. And the costs are high, according to Christian. Along with the actual auditing, there are a number of operating procedures that must be adopted and complied with to ensure ongoing organic status. These regulations add significant costs and labour to food production, which is why organic food often costs far more than regular produce.
Is It Really Better For Us?
The scientific community has mixed views on whether organic produce is actually better for us. A 2009 study by the UK’s Food Standards Agency found there was no evidence organic was a healthier choice. However evidence has shown there are more vitamins and minerals in organic produce.
“I think it has been proven that natural products are more nutrient dense,” said Christian.
“I don’t think it has to be certified organic necessarily, but it should be free from chemicals and drugs.
“If you know where your food is coming from; how it has been grown and produced, then you will know if it is free from antibiotics, growth hormones and insecticides and whether it’s been sourced ethically.
“The problem is if you don’t know where it’s come from or if you can’t trust the organisation behind the product. That’s where certification is useful.”
Christian and Signe have started working with farmers in Vietnam, but also overseas to source organic meats and seafood. They are the only company in Vietnam to stock rice that has three different organic certifications – from the EU, the US and Japan.
They are getting ready to add pork, chicken, beef, lamb and seafood products to their list of produce. These will be imported from ethically approved and organically certified producers overseas. In parallel, ByNature is partnering with local farmers to raise animals to their requirements and standards. Ultimately, this will lead to more sustainable, flavourful, nutrient dense meat and seafood that is ultimately safer to consume.
“We are hoping we can raise awareness of what people may actually be ingesting when eating fresh produce,” he said.
“And then to provide a healthy alternative, something that hasn’t been touched by dangerous chemicals or drugs, and that is truly safe and more flavourful to consume.”
To find out more about ByNature go to Facebook: @ByNatureVietnam