Organic market's growing pains

As plans are announced to expand the production of organic fruit and vegetables in the UAE, the closure of a pioneering enterprise casts doubts on the project's viability.

To fans of the Nazwa Organic farm, the offerings of fresh fruit and vegetables picked that morning were a wondrous sight compared to the stacks of tasteless supermarket offerings flown into Dubai from the far corners of the globe. The pale, fat bulbs of sweet fennel, tomatoes bursting with sharp juices, carrots with dirt clinging to the roots - all of it flew off Nazwa's shelves. Canny shoppers knew that to get the most produce they had to arrive before 10am. By midday the shelves were empty. A second shop had opened recently on Umm Suqeim Road and home deliveries were also a success thanks to word of mouth and expatriate websites. Overlooking this growing phenomena was Elena Kinane, an earth mother figure who once described herself as an "unstoppable promoter of organic food". Then, last week, customers received an unexpected e-mail from Ms Kinane, the general manager, announcing the farm and two shops had closed. While the owner has not yet made public his decision to close the operation, the news that one of the country's most high-profile organic enterprise was shutting down came just as the Government announced plans to hugely increase its organic operations elsewhere. According to Mansour al Mansouri, the director of agricultural development at the Ministry of Environment and Water, another 23 organic farms are to open by June next year, raising the total number to 40. Work is due to start in September, converting existing farms into organic producers, with new greenhouses that will allow fruit and vegetables to grow in a cooler environment. To accompany the expansion, the Government is preparing federal laws to regulate local and imported organic foods, which will include an organic trademark for farms that make the grade. The apparently conflicting announcements have reopened the debate about whether there is a market for organic food here. The problem is that the market in the Emirates is too small, says Nils el Accad, the owner of Organic Foods & Cafe, the only supermarket of its kind in the country, with two locations in Dubai and a third expected to open soon in Abu Dhabi. "There is no real data but if you consider other countries, the organic food market is four per cent, you can imagine what we have here. The growth of the market could be 400 per cent for all I know, but it's starting at such a small base it doesn't matter. I forced a gap in the market. I opened my company because I couldn't live here any longer if I didn't have organic food." Mr Accad is sceptical about the sustainability of locally grown organic food, however. "As long as you have local water you cannot achieve a low carbon footprint because of the desalination required. Composting is incredibly difficult to do in the heat. We're fighting the elements." He tries as hard as he can to supply his shops with fruit and vegetables from the region, importing them as sea freight to save on carbon footprint, he says. "My concept is that we've got countries around us, why are we even trying to grow organically in the desert? We have the money and management skills that we can use to help countries around us and help us, too, by buying land, putting in infrastructure, and then growing organically using local labour and getting it here. I don't want to spoil the party but, realistically, locally grown organic doesn't make sense." To all appearances, the Nazwa farm operation was a textbook example of a successful organic producer, and its closure will be a blow to champions of organic food. The farm was set amid 17 hectares of land in the middle of the desert off Hatta Road, about 50km outside Dubai. The Emirati owner, Abdulla Saeed Belhabb, began growing food 10 years ago, but in December 2009 the farm began selling its fruits, herbs and vegetables to the public. Within seven months, Nazwa established a cult following in Dubai. The farm's workers made a homegrown fertiliser, which included dead leaves and chicken manure from a free-range henhouse nearby. Seeds were planted in greenhouses where the temperature was reduced by using polycarbon roofs. Nazwa's website claimed the entire farm used 50,000 gallons of water each day from the farm's sweet water wells. No water from desalination plants was used. Ms Kinane also favoured natural pest-control methods, such as growing parsley next to the rows of carrots. A pilot programme to deliver boxes of vegetables and fruits to residents of Arabian Ranches was a success and the twice-weekly scheme soon expanded to other neighbourhoods. A box weighing between 7kg and 8kg with a selection of 14 types of vegetables cost Dh90, higher than supermarkets charge for non-organic varieties, but a bargain for organic food. The sudden closure has baffled and disappointed customers. Attempts to contact the management of the farm for a more detailed explanation have not been successful. "I am shocked and I don't understand why it has closed down, it was a wonderful operation," said Yael Mejia, a consultant to the Baker & Spice shop in Dubai and a founder of the original London store, who supports the organic food movement. "It was a bolt out of the blue. We didn't buy from Nazwa because they did not have enough supplies for us, but I would have loved to get it for Baker & Spice, having been to the farm.Nazwa provided everything which is right. It was picked on the day, it was local, and there was no carbon footprint in terms of its distribution channel from field to plate." Tala Soubra, 25, of Dubai, who blogs at the twitter site Fork It Over Dubai, said: "I would go there every week and it was one of the few places where the goods go directly from the farm to the shop. That was the nicest thing about it. People really want organic food grown in the UAE because once you pick something off the vine it begins to lose its nutrients quickly. If it comes from a long way away, by the time it arrives here it has nothing left in terms of nutrients." While many consumers complain that organic food is too expensive for ordinary families, the news that the government is converting more farms could make prices more reasonable. According to the ministry, its goals include protecting health, "achieving distinguished food production in quantity and quality" and "seeking the harmonised balance" of production and animal breeding while "minimising all forms of pollution". Ms Mejia believes there is still an untapped market for locally grown, organic food which the government should encourage for environmental and public health reasons. She points out that there are more than 40,000 farms in the country, so that even raising the number of organic farms to 40 would be a drop in the ocean. In spite of obesity and huge public health concerns in this region the government is still not doing enough, she says. For disappointed former customers of Nazwa, the lower organic prices were a big draw. Sally Prosser, a British citizen and Dubai resident who blogs at mycustardpie.com, says: "It's back to buying a patchy and often expensive array of imported organic fruit and veg." She now plans to feed her family by finding alternative organic suppliers or buying locally grown foods and is even contemplating growing her own vegetables. "I think there is a huge business opportunity for someone in the UAE to fill the demand of like-minded customers who were on the doorstep of the Nazwa shop," she said. "If someone, for instance, were to start free-range organic chicken production for meat and eggs, I am sure it would be a success." @Email:hghafour@thenational.ae