Consumers in the UAE and the wider region are gradually developing an appetite for organically raised products, and farmers and retailers are seeing greater opportunities to make a profit from supplying goods grown according to a natural philosophy. Mazaraa looks like any other grocery store, with stainless steel refrigerated shelves lined with fleshy tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and leafy bundles of herbs.
But looking closer, there are still bits of the desert sand stuck to the parsley leaves, and in the corner there is a miniature model of the farm where the organic produce was grown - right here in the UAE. The store is the latest outlet catering to the growing preference among Middle Eastern residents for chemical and pesticide-free food. "We want people to eat healthy food, and we want to be the place which produces healthy organic food in Abu Dhabi," says Hassan Hajjar, the general manager of Mazaraa, an Abu Dhabi grocery store that grows its own produce in the emirate.
Demand for organic products has been booming globally, with North American and European consumers leading the way. But as the Middle East's retail sector matures, and illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease become more prevalent in the UAE, more food retailers are selling, and even producing, organic foods. The trend towards organic food in the region is still in its infancy but is growing rapidly, says Ric Bowers, the international inspector for the Soil Association, a UK organisation that certifies farms as organic and promotes organic farming through education and community programmes.
"The Middle East is mirroring what has happened in Europe and North America over the last 30 years, and the demand and the volume and sales is where the UK and Europe was between 1985 and 1990," he said on the sidelines of the Middle East Natural and Organic Products Expo in Dubai last week. "There is potential for considerable growth." Mazaraa, which means farms in Arabic, grows its produce at its sister company Abu Dhabi Organics, which is the first certified organic farm in the UAE. The farm is a 540,000-square-metre operation 15km from the capital's airport. Mazaraa opened in the Mushrif area of Abu Dhabi in March, but the outlet is still in trial mode as it needs time to grow produce and build up a variety of vegetables. Other plans for Mazaraa include an organic nursery and a pick-your-own-produce programme at the farm or from plants at the store. The company plans eventually to have a chain of stores across the UAE.
Other companies are getting into organics as well. Alyasra, a food company based in Kuwait, branched out into organic foods a little over a year ago, importing foods such as Yeo Valley yogurt, and started supplying its products to more than 60 outlets in the UAE in recent weeks, says Khalid Hajjar, the regional manager of Alyasra's organics division for MENA. He says there is a growing demand for organic foods in Kuwait, and Alyasra has sold about Dh10 million (US$2.7m) worth of organic product there and expects the market in Dubai to be worth twice as much.
"The demand is huge, simply put. And that's based on a number of very important factors," he says. "First and foremost we have huge health issues in the region. We're a young population with a lot of lifestyle problems at a very early age. Although organic foods might not be the total solution, it is definitely part of the solution." Still, one long-standing obstacle to growth of the organic food market is the higher price.
According to a YouGov survey, 21 per cent of UAE residents were no longer buying organic foods. Of the 33 per cent who said they had not bought organic food at all, two thirds cited the high cost. "There is an appetite for organic food in this region, but it has been dampened somewhat by the economic crisis," says Joanna Longworth, the chief marketing officer for YouGov in Dubai. "The fact that 21 per cent are no longer buying organic says to me that the economic global crisis has forced some people to see organic food as a luxury item. There is a trend in consumer behaviour where people are shifting brands to more economical ones, so this fits into that change."
Mr Hajjar of Alyasra says the key is to educate consumers about organics, ensuring that they know, for instance, that because chemical fertilisers and pesticides are not used in organic farming, crop yields are smaller and are necessarily higher. "Consumers don't mind paying more money," he said. "They just need to understand why they're paying more money." Mr Hajjar of Mazaraa says that growing organic produce domestically will help close the price gap.
"We feel the prices are not that much more expensive than conventional markets," he says. Prices for organic foods are higher by "about 10 per cent up to 200 per cent". "It depends on the location from where you import the products," he says. Because Mazaraa's production "is local, we cannot be more than 10 per cent". There are currently eight organic farms in the UAE and seven more in the process of converting their methods.
More farms and producers in the region are approaching the Soil Association to be certified, Mr Bowers says. "There is a potential for the industry," he says. "But that first will require actually starting to develop a market using imported products as well as some regional products. And as the market and the demand expands, then it enables local producers to start converting land." Other Middle Eastern countries have made moves towards developing a home-grown organic foods industry.
In Egypt more than 30 years ago, Dr Ibrahim Abouleish launched Sekem Initiative, which started with a small farm outside Cairo, aiming to convert the country to organic farming. Now Sekem produces fruits and vegetables, herbs, spices and seedlings, milk, and cotton for textiles and clothing, all grown organically. And in May, Queen Rania of Jordan launched a programme to convert 2 to 5 per cent of the country's agricultural land to organic methods by 2014.
Ernest Liniger, the regional representative of the Institute for Market Ecology, who is a consultant working with the king's court in Jordan to help farms convert to organic methods, says 22 farms in Jordan have already been inspected and certified as organic. The conversion programme is working with 28 other farms and will decide whether they are suitable to be organic next year, Mr Liniger said at the regional organic products conference in Dubai.
"There is a movement going on in the region," he said. "The main thing is most of the people on the farms do not actually understand what they are doing. They think organic is just no fertiliser; that's true, but organic is more a philosophy." This is one of the reasons that some regional organic retailers are pushing for a unified GCC certification for organic products. Mr Hajjar of Alyasra says having a stamp of approval that consumers can trust will help cultivate an organics industry in the region. Farmers and manufacturers would be more willing to put in the extra cash needed to convert to organic farming, if doing so could give them a clear edge. He says he is working with the Soil Association to establish a GCC-wide certification body.
"We need something that you can identify with, that's gone through a certification process, that the government and municipalities are aware that this is organic," he says. "Unfortunately, there are people who bring products here, say it's organic, and it's not. And we have no system here to ensure that doesn't happen." @Email:email@example.com