Penelope Walsh finds out why the demand for organic produce has grown – and where to buy it
Organic food and farmers’ markets have blossomed in popularity in Dubai this year, as residents start to take a keen interest in the provenance of what they’re eating for reasons related to health, ethics and the environment. The force with which the organic movement is growing was illustrated with the launch of three new farmers’ markets in January, starting within days of each other and operating in three different corners of the city. These markets enable customers to buy locally grown and organic ingredients directly from those who grow them.
For Ripe, already well known for its Al Quoz farmers’ market on Saturdays, demand for this concept has been sufficient to launch a new market taking place on Fridays in Jumeirah. Also unveiled in January, Blue Planet Green People, another organic-focused grocery store, has just launched its first farmers’ market, now taking place every Friday in JLT.
Perhaps most significant is that a desire to push the organic agenda is now coming from on high. A new organic vegetable market in Deira, operating on Fridays and Saturdays, has been instigated by a government initiative to promote organic farming in the UAE.
The launch of three new markets within such a short timeframe seems to be more than just a trend: it suggests a tectonic shift in the demand and perception of organic eating.
Maryam Al Jenaibi, coordinator of agricultural developments at the Ministry of Environment and Water, says the new Deira event – called the Organic Produce Market – has been organised in partnership with Dubai Municipality as part of a long-term project to promote organic farming in the UAE. ‘Consumers are not always aware of what they are eating – it can be difficult to know the source, ingredients and practices that have been involved in producing the food we eat,’ she explains. ‘We started the farmers’ market because we wanted to give customers a healthy choice, so they can buy food free from harmful substances such as pesticides. We also want to encourage farmers to take up these organic methods of farming. By doing this, we can enable people to look after their children, the next generation. Our aim is take care of the environment and the health of our people.’
The Deira market runs weekly, with eight UAE farms onboard to sell their produce. One of the farmers involved in the new Deira market is Obaid Bin Ghubash from Organiliciouz, an organic farm based in Al Thaid on the Sharjah border. He was prompted to start his business after concerns regarding healthy eating and the detrimental effects of agricultural chemicals. The Organic Produce Market, Obaid tells us, is an initiative that ‘prompts organic and healthy eating, which is exactly what we believe in’. He explains that the market focuses entirely on locally grown produce, and reveals that while people in Dubai are becoming more aware of the benefits of eating organically, there is still some way to go.
He argues that farmers and the media play a huge role in helping consumers to understand the importance: when asked if Dubai has enough farmers’ markets, he says he believes every community needs one, to allow everyone easy access to fresh, local and organic food – ‘whether it is vegetables, fruit, meat or dairy’.
Becky Balderstock, founder of Ripe, which opened its second market in January, confirms Obaid’s standpoint that more markets are welcome in the city. ‘Ripe is always striving to make healthy eating more accessible and more enjoyable for our community, and another weekend market helps us do just that,’ she explains. ‘There’s always a need for more farmers’ markets here in Dubai. We hope to be able to bring our markets to more communities across Dubai and make eating local, organic food easy, accessible and enjoyable for everyone.’
At the opposite end of town in JLT, Renu Ojha, general manager of organic grocery store Blue Blanet Green People, says health concerns have been the company’s primary drive in pushing organic eating.
She cites the increased prevalence of issues such as obesity and cancer as an indication of how unseen ingredients are having a negative impact on our health. ‘I remember cancer being considered a rare disease. Now I bet you can think of at least three people in your circle of family and friends who have been affected,’ she says.
Blue Planet Green People sees organic eating as one factor in a move towards a healthier lifestyle, and has instigated several community projects, such as nutritional mentoring for mothers who want to help their children to eat healthily and exercise more frequently. Renu jokes that organic eating is like a relationship. ‘There are those who flirt with organic eating by occasionally treating themselves to a Dhs60 pack of cereal. For most people, those costs are not sustainable to make organic food into a confirmed lifestyle choice.’
However, she points out that a product such as organic cereal is available in vast range of prices, and that the benefits of organic food come into play once consumers make a decision to see organic eating ‘like a marriage, and become committed to it’.
The idea for the farmers’ market, she tells us, was a natural progression of the company’s concept to promote affordable and accessible organic eating. She also says the market gives consumers a chance to talk directly to the farmers that have grown the produce – an important part of the education process.
Blue Planet Green People works with six farms across the UAE, including Organiliciouz, Greenheart Organic, Mazaraa and Al Suwaib, although the company is working on a system whereby only two farmers at a time will supply goods for a day’s market. This, Renu explains, maximises the farmers’ chances of selling all the produce they have brought with them, because several farmers returning home with unsold stock would be wasteful.
The market has evolved into a family-friendly day out, with activities and workshops such as the children’s storytelling sessions and gardening workshops – the latter are primarily aimed at adults, although children can join in. It has also become a community affair, with neighbouring shops in JLT setting up tables alongside the farmers to offer their own produce: snacks, coffee and cakes are available from nearby Brazilian café Sweet Brasil, and Syrian olive oil is sold by Arabic restaurant Lafat. Even local residents have become involved, with market stalls being set up by those who can offer home-baked items, handicrafts and more. And Renu is enthusiastic about this growth. ‘As long as it fits with our organic and sustainable ethos, everyone is welcome at the farmers’ market.’
Where and when: the new farmers’ markets
Blue Planet Green People The gourmet grocery store has launched a family-friendly farmers’ market in JLT. Fri 10.30am-2.30pm. Outside Al Seef 2, Cluster U, JLT (04 369 5209).
Organic Produce Market Head to this new government-initiated market for fresh and organic produce from local farms. Fri and Sat 9am-4pm. Next to Deira fish market, Deira (no number).
Ripe A stalwart of the organic movement in the UAE, the company acts as an aggregate through which farmers can sell their produce. The new location in Jumeirah is the second Ripe market in the city. Fri 9am-1pm. Le Gourmet Café, Jumeirah Beach Road, near THE One (04 380 7602). Sat 9am-1pm. The Courtyard, Al Quoz (04 380 7602).