An over-priced trend or a sustainable concept? What does ‘organic’ food really mean and is it worth paying the price for your health and the environment?
The benefits are seemingly obvious. You wouldn’t voluntarily eat spoonfuls of chemicals so why opt for food that contains it? But other than keeping harmful toxins off your plate, eating organic means eating tastier food, having a more positive impact on the environment and even supporting small farms and independent businesses.
The concept of eating organic may seem like a modern-day trend created by the overly health-conscious, but in fact, the majority of historical agricultural practices was organic, just perhaps without being labelled as such. It wasn’t until the 20th century when new products started being incorporated into food production that weren’t grown naturally. This in turn led to the rise of an organic farming movement around the 1940s as a response to some people’s dismay at the industrialisation of the industry.
Even then, the awareness about consuming organic food for the benefit of people’s health and the environment was spreading. Ever since, the movement has grown, albeit slower than some would like, as more people become
aware of the benefits, farmers cater to increasing demand and governmental authorities put standards in place for organic agricultural practice.
What does ‘organic’ mean?
The concept of organic produce refers to the growing of foodstuffs – whether that’s fruits, vegetables, eggs or even chickens – without the use of unnatural products that are
Marius Pakker, the managing director of farms at local organic producer Mawasim, explains: “Organic [farming] follows rules that mean you’re not using any chemically manufactured pesticides or fertilisers for the growing of a product, meaning you’re limited to natural products which themselves should come from an organic source. For example, we use composted chicken manure, but even that can only come from farms that are organically certified. The chickens should have been fed on organically grown corn, and the seed of the corn should be from an organic source. So the whole process upstream and downstream should be organic in order to be able to call the chain organic.”
Along with the introduction of the mass production of food came the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to control insects, pests and diseases, all in an effort for companies to decrease costs, increase production and thus increase profits.
But this came with drawbacks: the pesticides seep into the earth and groundwater, people end up consuming toxic chemicals and our food may become cheaper but not without first being ripped of all its nutrients and taste.
Organic producers like Mawasim are proving that this doesn’t have to be the case. Growing fruits and vegetables according to strict local and European requirements, they keep a high standard to ensure every step of the process meets the strict regulations.
“We have about 56 different products we’re growing at the farm,” Marius explains. “We start by buying all the seeds, which come from organic and non-GMO sources. Then we fertilise the land with organic compost. For the rest, we grow it in the same way that you would conventionally – the growing time is the same but we’re more limited here because fewer varieties are available and we have fewer possibilities to control diseases and pests.
“We grow most of the vegetables in structures with netting so that the insects can’t reach the plants and as such transmit diseases from one plant to another. We also grow in glasshouses and greenhouses to control the temperature.”
What’s more, Mawasim uses desalinated water so as not to use up vital groundwater reserves, and is using nature to its advantage.
“In the control of pests like insects that can harm the plants, we use ‘beneficial insects’. We have certain insects that transmit viruses from one plant to another but if you put ladybirds in the greenhouse they eat the bad insects. Two years ago we weren’t able to produce cucumbers due to insect attacks, but now we can produce it year round.
“We also use natural products like neem oil; the neem tree produces seeds that contain oil that is a natural pesticide.
“We also grow plants together – for example, in the case of eggplants, they are much more attractive for bad insects than say, bell peppers. So if we have bell peppers in the greenhouse we plant eggplants next to them so all the bad insects will go to the eggplants and not attack the bell peppers.”
Naturally though, these practices result in higher production costs, making organic foods more expensive for consumers, which Marius cites as one of the biggest potential obstacles for the organic industry.
The ultimate question then, is if consumers are willing to pay the price for their health and
“There is of course a price difference between organic and conventionally grown, but it still remains a niche market,” Marius notes.
“People that are aware of health concerns and pay specific attention to healthy eating are eating [organic] more.
“There was a time when it was fashionable to buy organic, but I don’t really see that here; our clients are people who are aware of the risks of products being grown with chemicals and pesticides.
“The advantages, of course, are that you’re sure you’re not eating anything that could be contaminated with chemically-produced products, especially pesticides. There are a lot of side effects; more of these materials are being diagnosed as the cause of diseases, cancers and such. If you’re eating organic you know that you’re free of these residues.”
Sign up for a weekly or biweekly subscription and pick a ready-made or customised box of colourful produce to suit your taste and requirements, whether you’re a family of four or a single foodie. The contents of the box change on a weekly basis depending on what’s available. Visit: farmbox.ae
Food 4 Life
The concept at this online organic shop is simple: Pick a box that’s packed with everything from veggies to eggs then wait for your home delivery. Choose from one-time delivery, or sign up for weekly or biweekly orders. Visit: food4life.ae
Integrated Green Resources
From its Abu Dhabi farm, this organic producer distributes various products to local supermarkets including Spinneys, LuLu and Carrefour. You can also shop online through its e-commerce platform, The Honest Counter. Visit: thehonestcounter.com
This community-oriented company sells everything from organic vegetables to local honey and tea. Order online for delivery to your door, collect your order from a pop-up location at jones the grocer in Al Raha Gardens on Mondays or The Collection at The St Regis Saadiyat Island on Fridays, or visit the weekly market at Umm Al Emarat Park on Saturdays. Opening times vary. Visit: ripeme.com
Organic Foods & Café
One of the first dedicated supermarkets and cafes for organic produce in Abu Dhabi, this family-run business stocks handpicked products, including fruits and vegetables, pasta, dairy products, meat and chocolate. Nation Galleria, Corniche West. Daily 9am-11pm. Contact: 02 665 4244, organicfoodsandcafe.com
Mawasim Organic Supermarket
This Abu Dhabi-based farm supplies organic produce to local supermarkets such as LuLu, Spinneys and Carrefour, or you can buy direct online or from the dedicated supermarket on Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street, near Abu Dhabi CoOp. Daily 9am-10pm. And don’t miss the roopftop organic market at The Mall at WTCAD hosted daily from 1pm to 9pm. Contact: 800 629 2746, mawasim.ae
Greenheart Organic Farms
Offering UAE-wide, next-day delivery, this organic farm produces and sells locally grown fruits and vegetables as well as dry products such as bread, meat, snacks and cheese.
WORDS Rachael Perrett