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\nThe UAE is a melting pot of diverse cultures and it’s no wonder the demand for organic is rapidly growing as more and more people encounter the sector worldwide. Last year Etihad Airways announced an exclusive partnership with Abu Dhabi Organics Farms to supply fresh organic produce for its in-flight First Class dining menus and this year Hilton launched an organic breakfast across its regional hotels. So why the sudden love for organic?
\n“As many different cultures move into the Middle East, with background knowledge of “organic” products, the demand is increasing as rapidly as the population growth. The increase in the popularity of organic products is attributed not to a change in what organic means, but an awareness of what inorganic means,” said Allen Smith, culinary director and chef, Maybury Cafe, Dubai.
\nYael Mejia, brand consultant to Baker and Spice and orchestrator of the Farmer’s Market in Dubai, which was launched to make organic local produce cheaply available to the local population, says people are reacting positively to the availability of organic produce: “The public response [to the Farmer’s Market] was amazing and we have had continued discussions with the market customers who expressed their enthusiasm. Clearly the demand is there and you can now find the produce in supermarkets too.”
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\nPrice is always a tricky one and it can sometimes be difficult to find reasonably priced dishes that incorporate fresh, organic produce. But Sebastian Nohse, resort executive chef, Madinat Jumeirah says it is important to consider this in the grand scheme of things.
\n“The market is educated, and while customers don’t mind paying extra for higher quality or organic items, it cannot, and should not, be used to squeeze a higher profit out of your produce.”
\nChris Clark head chef at Comptoir 102 cafe, Dubai adds it is important to understand why such costs are higher.
\n“Costs go down as scale goes up. In other words, a big farming operation can offer less expensive produce than a small-scale local operation. The second factor is quality. Certain chemical fertilisers and pesticides can increase yields and time to market, yet they also drastically compromise quality. Bespoke shoes handmade in Italy, for example, naturally cost much more than mass-market shoes made in countries with extremely lax labour protection laws. People understand this concept easily, yet many still are comparing genetically modified and otherwise industrial foods to natural organic foods. There is no comparison.”
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\nFrom mislabelling to the definition of the term ‘organic’, confusion is rife in this sector. Madinat Jumeirah’s resort executive chef Sebastian Nohse says often people mistake the term organic to mean healthy.
\n“There is still so much more to do as this is kind of a grey area with misconceptions. Reputable suppliers registered with Madinat Jumeirah go through a detailed traceability check so we always know that items we have purchased as organic are certified and fully traceable.”
\nMaybury’s Allen Smith says confusion stems from the varying organic regulations which can differ from country to country.
\n“Terminology is not universal, some organic foods can have a percentage of inorganic material within the fertiliser, and can also be labelled less than “honestly”. Another factor to consider is whether or not the vegetables or fruits are genetically modified or heirloom,” he says.
\nRipe, supplier of organic produce works closely with qualified specialists to ensure its information is always accurate. “We work with organic farms that are locally and internationally certified and we visit all of our farms regularly to ensure we have good communication and know how our product is being grown,” explains Becky Balderstone, founder and owner, Ripe.
\n“We recently started our educational program called ‘Raising with Ripe’ which encourages and supports schools to try and educate further on the importance of eating organic and local. By reaching out to the children and their parents we have managed to educate a lot more on the subject.”
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4. Regional challenges
\nOrganic farming here sounds great in theory but in an arid desert region, is it realistic? Ripe’s Becky Balderstone says it’s possible but it can be a challenge.
\n“Extreme weather conditions, especially through the summer seasons, put a lot of additional stress and pressure on the plants. So without conventional pesticides and herbicides it can be challenging.”
\nA further challenge comes in importing organic produce. Naturally, they incorporate fewer chemicals and so have a shorter shelf life. Heat and handling can further impact the quality of the produce.
\nBut Madinat Jumeirah’s resort executive chef Sebastian Nohse says so long as produce is handled correctly, it still reaches in a good enough condition to be used well.
\n“Nowadays the infrastructure in Dubai is excellent and again it depends where you source your base product from. Quite often, the cheapest is not always the best — you have to make allowances somewhere,” he says.
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5. Impact of scares
\nFollowing the horsemeat scandal, Dalene Wray, general manager, OBE Organic made the observation that such scares, be they to do with bird flu, tainted milk or anything else, tend to result in a spike in consumers opting for organic foods.
\nComptoir 102’s Chris Clark agrees: “I think people do indeed trust the integrity of organic foods. However, I think people are also clever enough to understand that just as horsemeat can fraudulently be labelled as beef, pesticide-laden pseudo-foods can also be labelled as organic. Integrity must be established and maintained by independent organic certification companies and by government food safety agencies.”
\nMaybury’s Allen Smith adds that whether generated by the media or genuine, scares have a positive impact on the way we consume.
\n“We are forced to seek out alternative sources. Currently, the trend is to trust small farms over mass production ‘factory farms’ that crank out staggering amounts of food. These ‘factory farms’ are often contaminated with some harmful bacteria that cause sometimes life-threatening illnesses,” he says.
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6. Organic tastes better
\nYes it does, but apparently that’s not a given. While no use of pesticides and chemicals do contribute to a better taste, and as Madinat Jumeirah’s Sebastian Nohse says “are as nature intended them to be — tended to, cared for and ripened naturally,” it seems there's more to it than that.
\nBaker & Spice’s Yael Mejia and Comptoir 102’s Chris Clark add that it is the system that is key to promoting excellence in flavour.
\n“More often than not [good flavour] depends on using the correct plant varieties which are suited to the climate, and the terroir, and of course good husbandry. There is excellent conventional agriculture which does not abuse or over use chemical intervention and there is bad organic agriculture which despite being labelled organic is a bad product,” says Mejia.
\nClark adds that things like season can also affect the quality and taste of organic produce. And if taste is a priority, often it is better to look locally, he says.
\n“Local foods tend to taste better than foods picked prematurely and ripened during shipping. We should also acknowledge that foods are indeed sometimes ‘organic’ without being officially certified as such. Small farms cannot always afford to pay for certification and instead prefer to sell ‘high-quality’ organic produce.”
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7. Capitalising on local production of organic
\nIt’s a known fact MENA, particularly the UAE is heavily reliant on imports. Though this can affect things like the quality of produce thanks to handling, transportation and limited shelf lives, there is little that can be done about it. However it is important to look at what the options are for producing here and exporting. Maybury’s Allen Smith says anything is possible but at what cost?
\n“The soil, must be brought in, sand just doesn’t have the nutrition and cannot hold moisture. The sun here is so intense that it will burn many tender plants or trees, so shade is a consideration. Start up would be the big expense.”
\nSebastian Nohse, Madinat Jumeirah’s resort executive chef says growing organic locally is possible and there are lots of people doing it already, but there are many challenges — from agricultural to legal.
\n“The agriculture laws here are not as strict as they are in Europe, so if somebody likes to cheat it will be difficult to pick this up. This is why we work with a very selective producer for Madinat Jumeirah, they’re fully certified and their facilities are audited. The advantages of this mean we can get premium produce at its peak because it does not need to be transported, which means that the route from “soil-to-table” is less than 24 hours.”
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8. Made at home
\nWhile there are limited amounts that can be produced in such climates, and only a limited range, one thing that is a win is dates.
\n“The products that can be made from date palms have not been fully explored. There are many things that can be made from dates and exported. There are approximately 40 types of dates, and just about all that we see being exported is the dates themselves. They are excellent and the UAE should be very proud of them,” explains Allen Smith, culinary director and chef, Maybury Cafe.
\n“As for other possibilities, a lot of plants thrive in sand dominated soil. So, if some type of composting were to be developed, say from all the landscaping plants removed from roadsides, and vegetable trimmings collected from hotels and restaurants there could be a significant amount of composting done here. This rich compost combined with sand would be perfect for herbs, fruits and vegetables,” he adds.
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9. The farmers
\nAre enough farmers farming organically? If everyone farmed organically, would organic produce be more cheaply available?
\nNot necessarily believes Ripe’s Becky Balderstone: “Organic will always remain more expensive than conventional because organic plants yield less product. But the point of supporting local organic is that it will encourage more local farms to convert from ‘conventional’ farming to organic farming practices. The risk with conventional farming in the UAE is that we don’t know how much or what type of chemicals are applied to the product that we eat,” she says.
\nThe problem really is the availability of product: “If more farms were to convert to organic this would not be as much of an issue.”
\nMadinat Jumeirah’s Sebastian Nohse agrees, adding “ many of the farms don’t have the facilities to run large dispatch operations.”
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10. Organic chefs
\nMore chefs are demanding organic in favour of quality and health.
\n“Unfortunately we are now living in a world where chicken tastes of antibiotics, carrots taste of nothing and a tomato can only be identified by its texture! An exciting day for a chef is when you receive products that have amazing flavour appeal and not all vegetables look like they have been photo-shopped or produced by a 3D printer,” says Madinat Jumeirah’s Sebastian Nohse.
\nIn addition, many chefs are concerned about consumer health.
\n“Many chefs are realising they can enhance the nutritional content of their menu simply by choosing higher quality, organic produce when available,” says Clark.
\nAnd then of course, there’s the planet and the keeping it running for future generations: “Few people realise that the soil from the mass farms is depleted of most of its nutritional value which is why we have to add fertiliser. Things like composting to fertilise the soil are of tremendous benefit. It reduces garbage weight, landfills, factory waste and accidents and is better for the planet.