x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Feeding an appetite for organic food

Children across the UAE could be taught the benefits of organic food as part of a healthy-eating programme.

A shopper scrutinises the organic food on display at the Lulu supermarket in Al Wadha mall.
A shopper scrutinises the organic food on display at the Lulu supermarket in Al Wadha mall.

ABU DHABI // Children could be taught the benefits of organic food as part of a healthy-eating programme that will also raise the profile of the country's organics industry. Organic food has yet to be widely accepted in the UAE because of the small number of products on supermarket shelves, and their relatively high prices. And the UAE's several organic restaurants, cafes and supermarkets that sell the food are importing it, saying they have been frustrated by a lack of reliable local suppliers.

Salaah Abdullah, the head of the organic agriculture unit at the Ministry of Environment and Water, said it wanted to work with other ministries and officials to raise awareness of organic food. "We want to have a campaign for the society to show them the benefits of organic food, how healthy it is for the next generation and how harmful some chemicals can be," Mr Abdullah said. He also suggested educating pupils and providing organic options in school lunches. "It's like any other product. You need to give consumers a choice."

The programme was announced ahead of next month's food and hospitality exhibition Gulfood in Dubai, which will promote local organic produce. The UAE has eight organic farms, and seven more being developed. Al Ain has 1,300 hectares of organic farmland, the largest dedicated area in the country. The first farm certified was in Sharjah in 2005, producing organic vegetables and dates. Mr Abdullah said the ministry wanted organic-food retailers, cafes and restaurants to promote locally grown food: "It would make us feel comfortable if they use local products."

People in the food industry said they would be pleased to sell locally grown food, but they have been forced to import from countries such as the USA, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia because of supply problems. Nils el Accad, the owner of the Dubai-based Organic Foods and Cafe, said he imported his products. "There is no regular supply of produce in the UAE," Mr el Accad said. "I have no real alternative as of yet."

Mr el Accad said he had tried contacting Abu Dhabi Organics, the first certified private farm in the UAE, but was unable to make contact. The farm's website is still not operating. Eat Smart, an organic market and cafe was opened more than a month ago in Abu Dhabi. Ryan Vanrooyen, the group general manager of Elite Restaurant Management Company, which runs Eat Smart, said: "Many people are conscious about what they eat and they are becoming aware with the concept of organic all over the world."

Mr Vanrooyen said Organic Foods and Cafe supplied Eat Smart with many of its products. The ministry has set the target of 3,000 hectares of agricultural land dedicated to organic farming, while the Ministry of Health advocates organic food as a part of a healthy diet. Local or imported, however, organic produce is still expensive, with some products costing five times the price of non-organic food.

"It's a trade-off," said Hiba Salah, 22, a national who recently switched to buying organic products. "It's price versus health." Ms Salah's family eats organic meat and chicken, which can cost more than double the regular price. "We have no choice. We've got kids in the house. It's the healthy option because there are no chemicals," she said. Mr Abdullah acknowledged the high cost of organic food. "Society is accepting organic food but not accepting the price," he said. "I hope it is available all year and at a reasonable price to preserve the common health."

Iman al Tahan, 43, originally from Iraq, said she bought organic food when it was affordable, "but the prices skyrocketed so I stopped buying. I am willing to buy organic only if it's available at a reasonable price." Nizar Mouhanna, 39, said paying extra for organics did not bother him. "I've been eating organic food for 2½ years now," he said. "It's part of a macrobiotic programme I follow and I feel much better."

Rania al Halawani, a dietician at the MedGate centre in Dubai, said the benefits of organic food have not been proven, but any fresh food is better than processed or junk food. "There is still a big conflict over whether it really makes a difference or not," Mrs al Halawani said. "It has not been proven. As a dietician, I always encourage people to eat fresh foods rather than processed foods, but there is no conclusion about organic."

The most popular organic product in the UAE is baby food, according to organisers of the Gulfood exhibition, which will run at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre from Feb 23 to Feb 26. * The National, with additional reporting by Mitya Underwood