Organic passion

Emotions are running high in the Middle East's organic movement


Emotions are running high in the Middle East’s organic movement. Caterer digs down to the heart of the debate.

Organic food is a sensitive issue. Advocates feel passionately about it, while those who have not yet embraced the movement are defensive, citing the touchy subject of commercial viability.

In a region so reliant on already-costly imported produce, it’s little wonder that the Middle East lags behind the US and European countries when it comes to sourcing even more expensive organic food.

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Opinions throughout the industry are strong and vary wildly. But, despite the financial drawbacks following the recession, and despite the challenges of location, Christoph Girsch, food and beverage manager of the Chedi in Muscat, believes there is light at the end of the tunnel for the Middle East and organic food: “Organic food is the way forward,” he says.

“No hotel or restaurant can stop it anymore. You need to have it.” Yael Mejia, founder of eco-café Baker & Spice, agrees: “It’s taken a lot of kicking and pushing and screaming and crying to get here, but it finally seems to be moving in the right direction,” she says.

The challenge for organic
With even the big hotel chains still reeling from the financial meltdown, sourcing organic produce is yet another demand to add to the list of restaurant owners already striving to source the freshest, highest quality ingredients at a reasonable price.

Consultant chef to Dubai Grosvenor House’s restaurant Indego, Vineet Bhatia, says that it is not currently commercially viable to use wholly organic ingredients for a restaurant menu in the Middle East.

“We tried to source organic produce a while back but it was phenomenally expensive,” he says. “The price-point becomes very difficult to maintain and you have to pass it on to the guests, and they don’t really see the value then.”

Roy Soundranayagam, executive chef of Food Fund in the Middle East, which is responsible for restaurant brands The Meat Co., Tribes and Ribs and Rumps, agrees:
“Mostly the problem is that the organic products do not generally keep well when stored for long periods, or when they are sent over long distances with lots of handling and transportation involved,” he says.

“In countries like Australia, the organic products are readily available and priced very reasonably as many farmers have adopted the idea. They are also not subjected to the extreme climate changes when they are transported over shorter distances.”

Soundranayagam continues:“In my opinion, the perception of organic food in the Middle East is somewhat a novelty at this point, as there is not a large exposure in the supermarkets, and often the price and look of the sometimes imperfect produce may cause the shopper to choose something else.”

Bhatia agrees that it is the exacting standards of the consumer that is a challenge to organic food in the Middle East.

“I am from India and it is all organic produce there, nothing is genetically modified, so when you come here and you see that a cucumber has to be perfectly round and a banana has to be the right yellow and a certain shape you just wonder why?” he says.

“But this is the way that the West has become now, so when you try to source organic it is too expensive because nobody does it. Here ‘organic’ tends to mean ‘healthy’; it is termed organic but it’s not truly organic.

To try to source a limited amount of organic you have to ask who are you doing it for in the first place? Is there an audience for that? There isn’t. The audience here is happy with mass produced food, so that is what is catered for. Organic is very tricky right now, very tricky.”

Organic ignorance
Another problem facing organic food suppliers in the Middle East is one of awareness, says Nils El Accad, CEO of Organic Foods and Café, Dubai’s only supermarket to be wholly dedicated to organic, free range and cruelty-free produce.

“More than 95% of people don’t know what organic food actually is,” says El Accad. “Some people think it is hormone-free, some people think it’s GMO-free, or at the very best they think it’s pesticide-free.

But being pesticide-free is only about 20% of what being organic is about. This is the big misconception. Sure it’s pesticide free but it’s also larvaecide-free , fungicide-free, herbicide-free, insecticide-free.

And it’s not technically correct to say it’s pesticide-free – it’s free from chemical or artificial pesticides or fertilizers, but it is fertilized and natural pesticides are used.”

Feelings are so strong with regard to organic because of the looming question mark that hangs over artificially treated or modified food – with no long-term evidence of its effects, many people forebode dangerous consequences. It’s because of this that Baker & Spice’s Mejia says that many of the converts to the movement are new parents, freshly anxious for the future of their children.

Elena Kinane, who set up the first wholly organic farm in the UAE in April last year, prioritised supplying families with young children over anyone else for the same reason: “If people only knew what they were eating [when they have food that has been artificially treated] they would definitely go organic. You’re poisoning yourself,” she says.

Although Kinane says that the organic farm was inundated with more demand than it could supply, the investor pulled out just months into the project and the farm closed at the end of July 2010.

“The investor was expecting a higher return more quickly than it could possibly happen,” she says. “People want a quick and easy solution but you can’t industrialise nature.”

Organic future
Short-term thinking on a long-term topic seems to be the tension at the heart of the organic food debate.

El Accad argues that the harmful chemicals of conventional farming damages soil in a way that will backfire eventually: “Organic is a long-term approach. The conventional one is going to bring you money faster in the first few years, but in 10 years’ time you will have thin soil that brings low yields of food.

The organic option is going to cost a lot in the first few years because you have to build up the soil. One of them is investing for the future. It is like the difference between nuclear power and solar power. If we want to be sustainable and keep living on this planet and feed ourselves, organic is the only way to farm”.

Until consumer demand tips the balance, organic food will continue to be too inconsistent and too expensive to reap the returns the industry needs. Yet Chedi’s Girsch is optimistic:

“I still remember in Europe how long it took until organic food was recognised. The movement now in the Middle East is thanks to tourists and ex-pats who bring it over.

The only disadvantage is that the prices are still so expensive. This will change as increasing numbers of people want to have organic food, the growers will provide it more and more and the prices will come down. I think that the Middle East is on the right path for organic food.”

Organic check-up
Figures from YouGov Siraj suggest that there is slow but steady growth in demand for organic food in the Middle East.

38% of UAE residents say they are completely aware of the concept of ‘Organic Food’, as opposed to 20% who indicated they are not at all aware of it. The remaining 42% said they are somewhat aware of it.

When asked to describe their use of organic food, 1% indicated only using organic food, while 33% claimed they do not use organic food at all. 45% of the respondents use both organic and conventional food, and 21% have previously used it but do not do so currently.

61% of the respondents who do not use organic food explained that they think it’s very expensive, 45% said it’s not widely available, and 22% do not think that it is better than conventional food.

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