You may not have noticed it, but nestling between "frenemy", "staycation", and the 97 other words that were recently added to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, was the less than silky term "locavore". I have said it to several people this past week, and without exception, nobody has had a clue what I was talking about. Yet the movement it describes - one that encourages people to eat only produce that has been grown or reared in their immediate area - has, in the UK, Europe and the US, become one of the fastest-growing food trends of the last few years.
It's not hard to see why. Thanks to the fluidity of the global market, during the height of the strawberry season in the UK, shoppers are encouraged to buy theirs from Kenya. The beef is as likely to be Brazilian as it is British. And asparagus, once an early summer treat, is available throughout the year. A combination of environmental angst, chefs' championing of seasonal eating, and a growing desire to support small businesses and the local community means there was bound to be a backlash sooner or later.
But in a country with a climate like the UAE's, "going locavore" poses some challenges: the supermarket shelves are stacked with cucumbers from Holland, carrots from China and apples from the US. What, apart from dates, can possibly sprout from the bone-dry desert? And that's where you might be surprised. At least I was, when I became a locavore for a week. The benefits, I was told, would show themselves in my overall health (the less food travels, the fresher it is), on my wallet (fewer freight charges means lower cost), and on the environment (one trundling truck ride as opposed to a 15-hour transatlantic flight). What would there be to lose, apart from a significantly reduced diet, itself a benefit of sorts.
It wasn't until I sat and thought about what I could get from the UAE that I realised my options weren't so limited after all. There are chickens from Al Rawda Poultry farm near Dubai - which also means eggs; the sea is teeming with fish; and there is plenty of milk and yoghurt from dairy farms in Al Ain. Baking is almost a national preoccupation, so bread abounds. But what about fruit and vegetables? Most of it, as far as I could see, was from Europe or the US.
First stop: Spinneys. There, among the foreign produce, I found mountains of cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as organic aubergines and courgettes - all grown, I was told, in farms near Al Ain. From one shop, I could easily rustle up an omelette for breakfast (using eggs from Al Jazira farm in Dubai), chicken with a tomato and cucumber salad for lunch; and chicken with roasted aubergines and courgettes for dinner. Not dissimilar from the sort of thing I would usually eat. A four o'clock sugar craving could be cured with a couple of dates.
In search of variety, the next day I went to Eat Smart, a shop in Abu Dhabi's Fotouh al Khair mall, which stocks organic produce grown at Abu Dhabi Organics, the UAE's first internationally certified organic farm, located near the city. There I found all of the above as well as sweet potatoes, pumpkins, ginger, apples and strawberries. Further trips to Lulu and Carrefour and the fridge was stocked with mint and coriander, as well as onions, potatoes, lettuce and beans - not organic, but grown in farms near Al Ain. The only thing I was lacking was snacks. Camel milk chocolates had so far eluded me, so it was dates or nothing.
By day three I needed a break from chicken, so it was off to the fish market in Meena Port. Lulu stocked little locally caught fish, but here were prawns, hammour, barracuda, kingfish and sardines - all from the UAE (if you are willing to extend your boundaries to include Oman, you could also buy sherry and seabream) - and at bargain prices (Dh4 per kilo for sardines, Dh15 per kilo of barracuda).
Other discoveries included the fruit and vegetable market, also in Meena Port, where Barakat, the biggest grocer for the local hotel industry, was selling UAE-grown spinach for Dh1 per kilo; UAE-grown herbs for Dh10 per kilo; Omani beans for Dh4.5 per kilo, Omani pumpkins for Dh1.5 per kilo and UAE-produced baby aubergines for Dh3 per kilo. Mazaraa, a grocery store in the Mushrif area of the city, which opened in March, stocks an even wider selection of produce from Abu Dhabi Organics.
It was all manageable - as long as I was organised. One late night and failure to get the right supplies meant relying on sandwiches filled with tomato and cucumber, followed by some dates - and acute pangs of hunger. With social engagements looming, the novelty of my new regime was starting to lose its lustre by the weekend. At a Thursday-night barbecue, I waved away the lamb chops and burgers in favour of my old friend chicken. A shopping trip to Dubai meant I had to prepare a packed lunch in advance (luckily there were leftovers from dinner). The lack of room for on-a-whim decisions was becoming tiresome.
I was starting to miss some foods, too: lentils, chickpeas, and my recent favourite, quinoa (a grain from South America), as well as rice, porridge and pasta, were all off the menu, since they are not produced here. These are important components of our diet, and not being able to have them made me question, not for the first time, the health benefits of being a locavore. On the upside, though, I had saved money. Without fail, all the UAE-grown produce was cheaper than its imported counterparts (bar the organic varieties). And it seemed considerably fresher, lasting a good few days longer than the vegetables I usually buy.
So becoming a locavore may be doable. But is it necessary? In order for it to benefit your health, says Laura Newton, a nutritional therapist based in the UAE, the solution is to pick and choose. "We live in an area that is essentially a desert," she says, "so you make the most of what you can get here and then choose the rest from elsewhere." Using this as a rule, she always tries to buy local vegetables. "I'll buy local cucumbers as opposed to cucumbers from Holland," she says. "I'll try and buy local lettuce, local broccoli, local or at least Arabian potatoes. I'll always try and go for vegetables that have been grown in the Middle East somewhere." She cites both her health and the environment as reasons. "The less your food has travelled," she says, "the more intact the vitamins and minerals will be. The way that food is transported, it's usually either deeply refrigerated or frozen and packed in a way that really starts to damage these delicate vitamins and enzymes."
It is, though, a balancing act. "Sometimes you've just got to buy stuff that comes from abroad," she says. "Even if you do take a very hard line, there will still be stuff in your kitchen that's from goodness knows where and has flown however many miles." When it comes to the rest of her diet, Newman is more concerned about the farming and rearing methods than its provenance. "I would always try to buy local as much as possible," she says, "but if I don't know how it is farmed, then I'd be tempted to pay for stuff that has come from abroad."
Newman buys French eggs, since she finds the free-range organic varieties hard to find in the UAE, and although a vegetarian, feels particularly strongly about meat. "If I'm buying it for other people, I would always try and buy organic, because anything they've fed the animal, you are then going to be eating in concentrated amounts." At present, though, there is little organic meat from the UAE.
For UAE residents who may be thinking of adopting a locavore diet for environmental reasons, relying solely on locally produced food can be an empty gesture, says Nils el Accad, the owner of The Organic Foods and Cafe. The business has two stores in Dubai and stocks locally grown organic vegetables including cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and aubergines. "You can grow organically and still produce a lot of carbon," he says. "Buying local for the sake of reducing your carbon footprint is not necessarily correct if you're using desalinated water, you're not composting, and you're not irrigating below the surface." He would even go so far as to say that the broccoli the store imports from a biodynamic farm in Egypt (a two-and-a-half-hour flight away) has less of an environmental impact than some of the food produced here. "The numbers are scary when you use desalinated water," he explains.
So what did I learn from my experience? Firstly, that the UAE produces a lot more food than I thought. And secondly, that being a locavore in the strict sense isn't necessarily beneficial for your health or the environment. So is it just a fad? Newton thinks not. "I think it will stand the test of time," she says, "because it's the only logical and sustainable way forward. The way we trade as a global economy and the way we produce food and consume it is completely inefficient. We've got loads of it and then we've got people who are starving. And we've got people who are incredibly sick because of the way they're eating and choosing to live their lives."
Ideally, she says, at least 60 to 70 per cent of our diet should be locally sourced, if possible. "But ultimately, it's about making the best choices that are available to you," she says. "If everyone did that, it would be enough."