ABU DHABI // Consumers are willing to pay more for local produce that is certified as pesticide-free than they now pay for imported food, according to a survey released this week by a farming advocacy group.
Of 800 respondents, nearly two thirds said locally produced vegetables are reasonably priced or cheaper than imported ones. Nearly three quarters of respondents said they would be happy to pay a premium for local, fresh vegetables that are certified to be pesticidel-free and free from articicial chemicals.
Almost four in five said they felt that local produce was of "good quality", while 65 per cent said the produce was safe to consume.
"People are willing to pay a fair price for a [local] product if they are comfortable with how the product was made," said Christopher Hirst, the chief operating officer of the Farmer's Services Centre.
The Farmer's Services Centre (FSC) is an independent body that is charged with modernising Abu Dhabi's farms.
In the survey, most respondents, 59 per cent, put freshness ahead of price or quality. To that end, there must be more effort to ensure that food on supermarket shelves is the best the UAE has to offer, experts say.
Relying on imports for 85 per cent of its food, the UAE pays the price in taste. Produce is often picked before ripening and kept in cold storage for weeks.
Residents spend Dh1billion a year at small groceries - almost a third of the total amount spent on all food and beverages. Despite efforts by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, produce is often not properly stored, leading to faster spoilage.
According to Mr Hirst, in many supermarkets, fruits and vegetables are not well graded. "They take the good, bad, and everything in between, and some of those vegetables are not well managed in the shop so there will be rotting tomatoes next to the good ones," he said.
All of these factors make it difficult to get good produce. The FSC is hoping to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the market, and with a diversity that consumers demand.
According to Mr Hirst, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are grown in the UAE, but their quantities are too low to be noticed on the market. The FSC markets 46 varieties of produce, but often only a handful of farmers are willing to plant new vegetables.
To encourage diversity, the FSC has begun offering farmers contract growing, which will guarantee a minimum price regardless of market value, in exchange for specific crops such as iceberg lettuce, or squash.
Many farmers are reluctant to take risks, despite what consumers want. For some farmers, their knowledge base and agricultural systems are centred on common crops such as cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.
"We're starting to see a shifting set of people who are getting the technical knowledge and changing products, but it will take time," Mr Hirst said.