The city gardener: On farmers’ markets and fresh food

The encounter with bananas, and farms and plantations in Oman, has led our City Gardener to reflect on something she cares about deeply: growing food locally and the benefits and concerns attached to it.
A farmer’s market. Courtesy of Shumaila Ahmed
A farmer’s market. Courtesy of Shumaila Ahmed

That bananas are grown in Oman takes me by surprise. In late November, we find ourselves driving through the Hajar Mountains in search of Wadi Bani Khalid. Descending into the narrow gorge of the wadi, we are met by a series of spring-fed pools, a deep aquamarine under the green shade of the dense vegetation that rises up from either side of the wadi floor.

Date palms and banana trees are grown in abundance here, interplanted with lime and mango. I climb up onto one side of the terraced mountain, into the cool shade of the trees and away from the picnicking crowds. It’s quiet, except for the tinkling of water in the falaj canals. Bunches of bananas, still unripe, hang within reach. Indeed, as my research quickly reveals, banana is one of the major fruits grown in Oman. Driving back to the UAE along Al Batinah coast, I see banana plantations all along.

Contrary to what I may have led you to believe, I do not intend to write today about how to grow bananas. Instead, the encounter with bananas, and farms and plantations in Oman, has led me to reflect on something I care about deeply: growing food locally and the benefits and concerns attached to it.

In Dubai, local fresh-­produce markets are in full swing; you can buy vegetables grown right here in the desert – lettuce and rocket, aubergine and tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, potatoes and fresh herbs; even eggs laid by local hens that are free to roam and pick their own worms, so to speak. This is not food grown intensively, or harvested who-knows-when and made to travel in containers and airplanes.

To the sceptics, it’s all quite insane. In a desert country that depends heavily on importing vegetables and fruits, what difference can a bit of local production make? Critics reject the markets as trendy places where people – bloggers, tweeters and rich expats – come to be seen. “It’s just a fad,” says a friend. “In the end, you’d still be pushing a trolley around the supermarket.” And from another: “Not everyone can afford organic vegetables.”

To address the second point, there’s no escaping the fact that better food – measured by taste, freshness or nutritional quality – costs more because it’s raised less intensively and with more care for the soil and the environment. Perhaps we should eat less to afford more good food, as the American author and activist Michael Pollan suggests. Or pay more attention to how much food is wasted here.

As for the “organic” label, personally I am more interested in being able to have a chat with the farmers at these markets about how they do things, and perhaps even visit a farm. Yes, for now our fate is tied to supermarkets. But farmers’ markets are a welcome way to get out of them and escape – at least for a bit – all things masquerading as food (those processed and packaged things) and to think about making food from scratch by getting back into the kitchen, which traditionally has been the heart of the nutritional wisdom we now search for in labels, health supplements and books.

Being in touch with food and its sources is important to me. I have lost the Hippocratic faith in food as medicine. I knew that I didn’t trust the commercial food industry, but it’s almost scary to see that I treat food as fuel and not as nourishment for my body. With that, a lot of the pleasure of eating is lost, too. In the UAE, add in the lack of community and the distance from the traditions I grew up with, and you may see why I am so attached to my little terrace garden, and why I support farmers’ markets. Growing food and buying local helps me deepen my own roots in the land here.

Shumaila Ahmed is a ­Dubai-based gardener, teacher, ­researcher and writer.

Published: December 18, 2014 04:00 AM


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