Organic food has long been a tough market in Dubai. While in Europe and North America, consumers have never been presented with as many organic food options as they are today (mega chains, such as Waitrose and Whole Foods, have seen to that), Dubai has been operating with a single supermarket chain dedicated to organic, free range, cruelty-free produce: Organic Foods & Café.
This year, however, has marked a shift in the Dubai landscape. Two new restaurants have made organic produce and free-range meat their cornerstone: az.u.r in the Harbour Hotel & Residence and the recently relaunched Signatures in the Jebel Ali Hotel. Organic Foods & Café has expanded with its third outlet taking up a massive space in The Dubai Mall, not too far from the city’s first Waitrose, a UK supermarket chain that has built a reputation for its particularly enlightened food policies (not merely organic, but fair trade, sustainably sourced and local).
But, while such developments might make it seem as though the city is finally developing a taste for mainstream organics, not everyone is convinced that Dubai offers the same market for organic food that exists abroad.
‘We have a lot of organic products available,’ says Jannie Holtzhausen, the CEO of Spinneys in Dubai, ‘but really, organic products make up a small percentage of our sales.’ Even Nils El Accad, the founder of Organic Foods & Café, disputes whether there is actually an increased demand for organic food in the UAE.
‘I supply many restaurants in Dubai, and I can tell you, almost none are using organic products,’ he says. ‘In my opinion, there’s not enough demand to say it’s a trend.’
Location might have something to do with this. After all, how viable is an organic food market when you’re living in the middle of the desert? ‘The UAE is a challenging environment to farm, and even more challenging to farm organically,’ Holtzhausen agrees. ‘We have low water availability, and the water we do have sometimes contains a high saline content. We also have poor soil. As a result, farming in the UAE often requires fertilisers.’
Holzthausen isn’t even convinced that organic food has the health properties typically attributed to it.
‘I do not believe there is any scientific proof that organic food is safer or healthier than non-organic food,’ he declares. ‘I believe there is room for organics, and don’t suggest the movement has no merits, but it’s incorrect to suggest that products produced on commercial farms under strict guidelines are not safe.’
El Accad doesn’t agree. Organic produce, he claims, has 50 per cent more vitamins than non-organic. ‘The average conventionally grown apple has 20 to 30 artificial chemicals on its skin, even after washing,’ he says. The suggestion – borne out in some studies but refuted in others – is that these chemicals can weaken immune systems, reduce nutritional value and even be linked directly to certain illnesses.
As for whether organic food is appropriate for the UAE, El Accad is emphatic that it is. ‘We have to redefine local, and what buying local means,’ he says. ‘In the UK, or France or America, sure, there are farms near the city centres. Here, sourcing local organic food means going to Africa. They have,’ he reiterates, ‘great organic farms there.’
An inorganic truth
Nils El Accad and Jannie Holzthausen have some pretty different views on the use of science in the production of food. Check out their opinions
Genetically modified food
Nils El Accad: ‘This is the first time we’ve been able to cross the species barrier, and we’re playing God. You’ll have companies that use fish genes to keep tomatoes from losing their water, so they can look fresh weeks after they’ve been picked. It will look good a month later, but nutritionally, there’s nothing left in it. Let me ask you, is that tomato still vegetarian? We haven’t even begun to understand this technology and the effect it will have on our eco-system.’
Jannie Holzthausen: ‘I believe that in 10 or 20 years, we will be able to use science to feed the growing population, regardless of dwindling water supplies. That is, if we use science responsibly.’
Nils El Accad: ‘We do not sell farmed fish, a method which uses artificial feeding, growth promoters and antibiotics. Our seafood is only caught in the wild, and is not cultivated under artificial conditions. It therefore does not come into deliberate contact with any unnaturally present artificial substances.’
Jannie Holzthausen: ‘If we don’t farm fish we will soon not have any fish left to eat. There are organic fish farms and we try not to sell fish that is on the red list of endangered fish species, unless it is farmed under approved methods.’
Nils El Accad: ‘If meat is organic, you know it’s not going to be fed antibiotics and hormones. It won’t be fed animal protein either. If it’s organic, it’s automatically free range. But if something is simply labelled ‘free-range’, I’d draw a big red circle around it. There isn’t adequate legislation to ensure what that really means.’
Jannie Holzthausen: ‘Organic meat or chicken doesn’t certify that the growing methods are animal welfare friendly, it states a feeding regime. We have to be clear what we mean by labelling something organic. Responsibly produced non-organic meat farming does not necessarily imply the use of growth hormones or antibiotics. Also there is more than one organic certification body and not all apply the same rules.’