UAE farmers say local markets are thriving as Covid-19 encourages shift to healthy eating

Surge in shoppers seeking out organic produce at farmers' markets

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UAE farmers say business is booming, as the pandemic has made customers more health-conscious.

There has been a surge in the number of people looking to buy fresh organic products.

Hundreds of people visit local produce stalls in Dubai's Business Bay district every Friday morning, for much of the year.

The Bay Avenue farmers' market has been running for more than a decade, but interest in just-picked, locally sourced produce has never been higher, according to farmers who sell their produce at the market.

We immediately noticed there was a bigger demand for organic products soon after the pandemic began

"We immediately noticed there was a bigger demand for organic products soon after the pandemic began,” said Emirati Mohammed Al Mulla, 29, who runs Nature Farm in Sharjah.

‘It wasn’t easy to import organic products because of the global lockdowns, which meant people started to pay more attention to what was available locally.”

The market, which runs from October to April each year, provides a vital connection between local farmers and the community, Mr Al Mulla said.

His comments came as UAE retailers reported a significant rise in the number of packaged organic products being consumed, as the pandemic placed a focus on health and well-being.

During a presentation at the Gulfood exhibition last week, Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry said sales of healthy food reached Dh1.8 billion ($480m) in 2020 – a rise of 4.9 per cent from the previous year.

Organic food sales increased by 8.7 per cent, reaching Dh125 million ($34 million).

The benefits of organic food are much debated. A study by Harvard Medical School said organic products did not appear to have a nutritional advantage over conventional counterparts.

However, the same report did state that organic foods have fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, and were free of hormones and antibiotics.

Mr Al Mulla, who sells organic fruit and vegetables grown on his Sharjah farm at the market, said he was not surprised by the rise in demand for organic food.

Farmer's Market at Bay Avenue
Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National
Reporter: Patrick Ryan

“Organic food has zero chemicals which makes a huge difference to the quality,” he said.

“Customers are more educated than before and are asking more questions, and want to know about where the food has come from.”

Eat local and pay less

It has often been the case that organic food was seen as something of a costly luxury. However Mr Al Mulla was quick to dispel that suggestion.

“It’s wrong to think that organic produce is more expensive,” he said.

“It only becomes more expensive when you factor in the cost of importing it from another country.

"But with the farmers' market, customers can get produce that was grown only a 40-minute drive away."

Another farmer who is a regular fixture at the market in Business Bay said he was initially surprised by how many people were turning up when the market reopened in October.

"I would say there are as many people coming to shop at the market as any other year which – given the pandemic – shows how much people want to buy healthy food," said Abdulla Al Owais, a 29-year-old Emirati, who runs Modern Organic Farm, in Sharjah.

"There are still hundreds of people coming every Friday morning.

“We haven’t even had to do any marketing, people are seeking us out now because they want to get organic food to help them stay in good health during the pandemic.”

He also said he had received a significant increase  in orders from supermarkets during the early months of the pandemic, as the shops were inundated with requests from customers for locally produced, organic food.

"A lot of people wanted to eat healthily but because of the restrictions on movement they had to order the food online," Mr Al Owais said.

He said his own business also had to adapt to keep up with the changes caused by the pandemic.

“We’ve started to take orders online and through WhatsApp, which we never did before,” he said.

"It’s a new venture for us but it’s something we had to do to stay connected with our customers.”

The farmers' market takes place at Bay Avenue Park every Friday, between 9am and 2pm, until April 9.