Factory food? Not for this farming family. They’re winning customers with an ethical approach going back to medieval times

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Lutfi and Ruby Radwan with their children, who help run Willowbrook Farm. (Harry Borden)
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Animals on the farm live “in tune with nature”. (Harry Borden)
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Willowbrook Farm is England’s only organic halal farm. (Harry Borden)
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Willowbrook Farm is England’s only organic halal farm. (Harry Borden)
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Willowbrook Farm is England’s only organic halal farm. (Harry Borden)
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Willowbrook Farm is England’s only organic halal farm. (Harry Borden)
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Willowbrook Farm is England’s only organic halal farm. (Harry Borden)
Updated 01 August 2018

Factory food? Not for this farming family. They’re winning customers with an ethical approach going back to medieval times

  • A 2010 study by industry body Eblex said that England’s Muslim community, which makes up just 5 percent of the population, accounts for 20 percent of lamb consumption — and halal farmers
  • Halal farmers are frequently targeted by UK animal rights groups, which claim that this method of killing livestock is “inhumane” because a small number of practitioners object to stunning the animals first

OXFORD: The first fat bulb of garlic has come through and Ruby Radwan holds it aloft proudly, pleased that her vegetable garden on England’s only organic halal farm is ripening for another season. Inside the greenhouse, leafy plants overlapping in the warm soil could be cucumber, melon or squash. “I’m still learning what everything is,” she admitted.

Neither Ruby, 53, a Briton of Pakistani origin who grew up in a North London, nor her husband, Lutfi Radwan, a former geography lecturer at the University of Oxford, has a farming background, but that didn’t stop the couple from surrendering city life for an empty plot of land in rural Oxfordshire, where they have established a sustainable environment based on holistic halal principles. “We were just brave enough to close our eyes and jump,” Lutfi said, comparing the move to a midlife crisis — “but a good one.”
That was 16 years ago this September and Willowbrook Farm has since gained celebrity status among Muslims in the UK, where the halal market is dominated by mass-produced meat to feed mounting demand.
This kind of “factory-farmed rubbish,” which accounts for the overwhelming majority of chicken, lamb and beef in Britain’s butchers, is “clearly not halal,” said Lutfi, who takes a broader view.
“Halal is an all-encompassing term, it isn’t just ritualistic slaughter,” he told Arab News.
Sifting through a mound of soil that needed to be moved before the end of the day, Lutfi expanded on the religious roots of his environmentalism. “The way of life we all have is increasingly haram,” he said.
For the 55-year-old, much of modern life is at odds with the Islamic concept of khilafah, or responsible leadership. Lutfi cited the overuse of plastics and pesticides as just a few examples of devastating human impact on the planet.
There are just a handful of small-scale enterprises populating this niche market. Lutfi reckons organic halal providers produce no more than 500 chickens a week, around 150 of which come from Willowbrook Farm — not nearly enough to meet mounting demand.
According to a recent report by Grand View Research, the global halal food market is expected to reach $739.59 billion by 2025, up from $436.8 billion in 2016.
This week at Abraham Organics, a UK farm which offers meat that is “halal, tayib, ethical,” online shoppers found that the organic lamb was sold out. The venture began selling to a handful of local customers, but now has orders “from Inverness to Skegness, Yorkshire to Buckinghamshire.”
Building Willowbrook from scratch, including the traditional-style English farmhouse, Lutfi and Ruby have effected a “natural balance,” where humans and animals live in tune with nature, from the solar panels and log burner that supply their energy to the well water irrigating the fields.
The aim is to create a system that produces wholesome halal food “by looking after the animals around us and providing a space for nature to flourish.”
Wool from their own sheep insulates the farmhouse walls, which were built with clay dredged from the garden pond and then mixed with sand and straw, using a technique dating back to medieval times. Everyone chipped in, even the youngest of their five children, Ali, who was “chief tool cleaner.”
Now 14, Ali has never had a McDonald’s burger and, although curious to try one, he is happy eating meat ethically reared on his family farm.
High street food outlets are still steered by cost, however, and the few that have ordered from Willowbrook Farm, where a whole chicken costs £13.44 ($17.60), compared with an average £3.50, have invariably gone back to standard suppliers.
“When people say we’re expensive, it’s only because there is an artificial subsidy being given to factory farming … the real cost is being paid by future generations,” said Lutfi.
The same goes for customers, Ruby said. The moral argument “is easily won,” but once out shopping people slide back to mass-produced meat. “If it’s cheap then someone is paying the cost somewhere,” she said.
The couple try to educate customers about the ethics that underpin their farming methods. “They need to know it’s a live animal that will be killed, plucked, portioned and packaged,” said Lutfi.
On Sunday tours of the farm, he likes to steps back into his previous role as a geography professor and talk visitors through the different ecosystems and habitats that thrive across the 45-hectare estate.
Having worked on a date plantation in Saudi Arabia and disaster relief programs in Mauritus and Senegal, Lutfi brings a global perspective to bear on the small corner of southern England under his stewardship.
“It’s a manageable size for a family farm,” he said, adding that the children have all played their part over the years, packing eggs or feeding the goats, guinea fowl and turkeys they keep as pets.
At Eid, they sell traditional whole lamb, known as qurbani, for about £240, though “we make it clear we have a small number and it’s ‘first come, first served’.”
Chicken makes up a large portion of their sales, but with poultry accounting for almost half the meat consumed in the UK — British people eat an estimated 2.2 million chickens per day — the couple have begun curtailing growth to stay true to their farming principles.
At present, they produce around 150 birds a week, which makes up a significant percentage of the total free-range halal market — amounting to about 500 chickens a week, Lutfi estimated. “We’re a drop in the ocean; everything else is factory farmed,” he said.
Controversy surrounding the animal welfare and human health implications of intensive methods has reached a height in the UK, which has seen a significant rise in “mega-farms,” where thousands of animals are packed into crowded spaces, pumped full of antibiotics and denied access to sunlight.
Halal farmers are frequently targeted by UK animal rights groups, which claim that this method of killing livestock is “inhumane” because a small number of practitioners object to stunning the animals first. Under Islamic law, an animal’s throat must be cut with a sharp instrument and its blood left to drain. It also ordains that animals must not be mistreated or caused pain during their lifetime.
According to the Food Standards Agency, about 88 percent of halal meat comes from animals that were stunned before slaughter, with other estimates suggesting the number is higher.
A 2010 study by industry body Eblex said that England’s Muslim community, which makes up just 5 percent of the population, accounts for 20 percent of lamb consumption — and halal farmers, supermarkets and restaurant retailers are keen to tap into the growing market.
“The Muslim community in England is late to the party, which is understandable because the first generations just wanted to establish themselves,” Lutfi said.
Now, Muslims are more engaged with the broader social concerns affecting British society, including ethical farming. “An awakening is underway and we’re at the vanguard,” he said.
Interest is apparent from the amount of people, Muslims and non-Muslims, who attend weekly open days, when visitors are invited to explore the farm and enjoy its facilities, which include a camp site, two tree-houses and an animal petting enclosure. There is also an annual arts and music festival, the fourth edition of which runs from July 28-29.
These events are almost always oversubscribed. “I came here to get away from city life and the community followed me,” Lutfi said. “It shows there is a need to break out of the urban setting and get back to nature.”
Living in this rustic idyll, the family rarely go on holiday and only recently bought a television. “Having all this space is a real privilege, a gift from God,” Ruby said.
No traffic can be heard out here, only the occasional whir of small aircraft dipping over the hills from the privately owned Kidlington Airport nearby. Looking left, the white blocks of John Radcliffe Hospital in the distance indicate the outskirts of Oxford, home to England’s oldest university.
Recently, the family has been finding new ways to lessen their impact on the environment. After watching the documentary “Plastic Ocean,” Ruby swapped her disposable bin bags for leftover chicken feed bags, and she plans to buy wooden toothbrushes in future.
“We can’t do much about the big things,” she said, “but we can make a small impact on our immediate surroundings.”

Blood donation in the Middle East: The gift of life that is easy to give

Updated 14 June 2019

Blood donation in the Middle East: The gift of life that is easy to give

  • World Blood Donor Day observed on June 14 to raise awareness of the life-saving importance of blood donation
  • Regular, voluntary donors are vital worldwide for adequate supply of safe blood and blood products

DUBAI: Blood donations in the Middle East have been described as “the gift of life” as the region struggles to cope with the demands posed by conflicts, humanitarian emergencies and the medical needs of a growing population.

International health experts have called on regular donors to step forward to mark World Blood Donor Day on June 14.

This year’s campaign focuses on blood donation and universal access to safe blood transfusion, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), more donors are needed “to step forward to give the gift of life.”

Those who benefit most from blood donations include people suffering from thalassaemia, a blood disorder that affects hemoglobin and the red blood cell count, as well as victims of road accidents, cancer patients and sickle-cell disease patients.

Experts say while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have launched numerous initiatives to raise awareness of the lifesaving importance of blood donation, there is an increasing need across a wider region for regular donors.

“Many countries in the region face challenges in making sufficient blood available while also ensuring its quality and safety, especially during humanitarian emergencies and conflicts,” Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, told Arab News.

The GCC countries say they collect in total more than 10 whole blood donations per 1,000 population per year, or about 1 percent, Al-Mandhari said.

According to WHO, blood donations by 1 to 3 percent of the population are sufficient to meet a country’s needs. Even so, achieving self-sufficiency is a daunting challenge for many countries.

Al-Mandhari said that more than 90 percent of the blood is collected from voluntary, unpaid donors, aged from 18 to 44, with an increasing proportion of repeat donors. What is more, blood demand is unpredictable and even differs with each blood type. “For example O- blood can be given to patients with all blood types. But AB+ can only be given to patients with AB+,” he said.

Then there is the issue of short shelf life.

“To be ready to help patients in all hospitals, countries aim to stock usually six days’ worth of each blood type at all times,” Al-Mandhari said. “Since blood has a short shelf life — a 42-day window — and cannot be stockpiled, blood banks are forced to depend on donors to help maintain stocks.”

WHO’s most recent report on blood safety and availability points to “gaps in the key elements of national blood systems” in the Middle East.

A Saudi donor flashes the v-sign for victory as he gives blood in Jeddah. The Kingdom has one of the highest rates of repeat donors in the region. (AFP )

While GCC countries have taken steps to keep stocks at optimum levels, other countries in the Middle East are lagging behind international standards. The WHO report shows wide variations in annual blood-donation rates among countries, ranging from 0.7 per 1,000 population in Yemen to 29 per 1,000 population in Lebanon.

Al-Mandhari laid out the solution in a few easy steps: “Governments need to provide adequate resources, and put in place systems and infrastructure to increase the collection of blood from voluntary, regular unpaid blood donors, provide quality donor care, promote and implement appropriate clinical use of blood; and set up systems for oversight and surveillance across the blood-transfusion supply chain.”

On the positive side, Saudi Arabia recorded a rate of 13.8 per 1,000 population, with a healthy spread across all age groups. The country also has one of the highest rates of repeat donors (91 percent) in the region. According to the WHO report, the proportion of repeat, voluntary, non-remunerated blood donation in the Kingdom is 65.3 percent, which “will keep the prevalence of transfusion-transmissible infections among blood donors at much lower levels than in the general population.”

In recent years, Saudi health officials have introduced a number of measures to ensure adequate stocks in blood banks, including those run by the Ministry of Health and dedicated centers. These include a large facility at King Fahad Medical City (KFMC) and the country’s Central Blood Bank.

In the Kingdom, to be eligible for blood donation, donors must be aged over 17, weigh more than 50 kg, and have passed a brief medical examination. The health ministry recently launched Wateen, an app designed to ease blood-donation procedures and help ensure facilities across the Kingdom have adequate quantities of blood by 2020.

KFMC officials say that every day at least 2,000 units of blood components are needed to sustain a minimum supply for patients at the facility and other governmental and non-governmental hospitals in Riyadh. Donated blood components are essential for the management of cases involving cancer, sickle-cell disease, organ transplant, surgery, childbirth and trauma, to name just a few.

The situation is not very different in the other GCC countries, which also need more donors.

In the UAE, Dubai Blood Donation Center, which accounts for roughly half of the total blood collected in the emirates, frequently highlights the urgent need for donors. In 2018 alone, it ran 635 blood-donation campaigns, which resulted in 63,735 donors and a collection of 50,456 blood units.

While all blood types are needed, negative blood types are in greater demand due to their rarity. “There is a continuous demand for all blood types as blood lasts for only 42 days. So donors are always needed to come forward to replenish these stocks,” Dr. Mai Raouf, director of Dubai Blood Donation Center, said.

“People can donate blood every eight weeks, with each donation potentially saving up to three lives,” she told Arab News. 

Given that transfusion of blood and blood products save millions of lives every year, and the fact that “regular donors are the safest group of donors,” the importance of encouraging people to return to donate blood, rather than be one-time donors, can hardly be overemphasized, experts say.

“Without a system based on voluntary, unpaid blood donation, particularly regular voluntary donation, no country can provide sufficient blood for all patients who require transfusion,” Al-Mandhari said.

“WHO is calling on all countries in the region to celebrate and thank individuals who donate blood — and to encourage those who have not yet donated blood to start donating,” he said.