Many people in the UAE have opted to grow their own vegetables. Image Credit: Gulf News readers

Buying locally grown produce is a great way to minimise your environmental impact. But, growing your own food will take you one step further.

According to the US-based non-profit organisation Livestrong Foundation, homegrown vegetables and fruits require less energy to produce, package and transport than those grown in commercial locations. It is thus a sustainable alternative to supermarket varieties. Additionally, most people who grow their own food do not use pesticides and make compost at home, too.

Gayathiri Madheswaran, a quality control manager based in Ajman, is amongst those in the UAE who has been growing vegetables in her apartment’s balcony. Hailing from a village in India, her childhood was spent watching her grandfather on their farm. When she moved to the UAE four years ago, she felt “away from Nature” and decided to start her own little garden.

She said: “It started with two pots in the balcony, but now my husband and I get two new pots almost every month. Our home has a large balcony, so we grow the plants there.”

Due to the heat, Madheswaran has only managed to grow certain vegetables. Currently, you would find tomatoes, mint, rosemary and some other green vegetables in her balcony. They appreciate being able to grow and eat organic. Additionally, she doesn’t use any pesticide because of its ill effects.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), pesticides are potentially toxic to humans. They may induce adverse health effects including cancer and negative effects on female reproductive organs, immune or nervous systems.

Madheswaran said: “We also make the compost by saving vegetable scraps. Sometimes I don’t even buy the seeds. We once planted some capsicum scraps and got fresh produce. The same with potato peels.”

Every morning, the first thing Madheswaran does after waking up is pay her plants a visit and water them. To her, they are like family that need love and taking care of. Her aim in life now is to retire early and set up her own farm. “More people should grow their own vegetables as it will not just help them, but help the planet,” she added.

In September 2016, Dubai Municipality launched the ‘Grow Your Food’ campaign, which garnered enough interest from residents in the emirate to cultivate 300kg of over 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables within six months.

A report published in UK-based newspaper The Telegraph states that the “growing, transportation, packaging, retailing and cooking of food, together with the clearing of land to grow food, accounts for as much as 30 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint”. The same report shows that growing fruit and vegetables is 10 times better than just planting trees on the same land. It soaks up the carbon dioxide in the air, thus providing cleaner air for humans to breathe.

Tomatoes are mostly imported or grown in greenhouses, which require a lot of energy. So, growing them at home would help the planet greatly.

Rajan Jirel, a security guard based in Umm Al Quwain, has been working on his garden for two years, with tomatoes being his biggest success. He hasn’t bought tomatoes from a supermarket in three months.

He said: “I was also growing potatoes, beans, chillis and eggplants. But, due to the change in weather, those are not available anymore.”

Before coming to the UAE, he was a farmer in his home country, Nepal. So, he picked up all the tricks of the trade growing up. Apart from reducing his carbon footprint, his grocery bills are much lower now, too.

“I used to buy a lot of vegetables and would spend around Dh250 a month. Now, I manage with just Dh100,” he said.

Many might say that isn’t a lot. Or ask, what about the money spent on growing the plants? But, according to US-based non-profit organisation Feed the World, $50 (Dh184) spent on seeds and compost can produce $1,250 (Dh4,600) worth of organic produce, which means savings of $1,200 (Dh4,416).

A study conducted by US-based Michigan State University shows that people can easily save money if they used rainwater for irrigation and start with high quality seeds, which are relatively inexpensive and can be stored for at least two years. People could also reuse containers instead of buying fancy pots. Most important, grow vegetables that you consume most often.

Jessie Olayan, a Filipino national based in Dubai, started growing tomatoes, chilli, bell peppers and eggplants in his balcony 10 months ago. He first got some seeds, planted them in small pots and once the plants started to grow, he transferred the stems to big bottles.

He said: “I had no training or experience, but learnt along the way. I spent Dh11 on a sack of soil, which was enough for all my plants. And I spent money on the seeds initially. Now, when we eat a vegetable, we take the seeds from that and transfer them to the sand.”

Those of us who are not in the habit of growing our own foods throw away the seeds and scraps. According to the US-based Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food scraps currently make 30 per cent of what we throw away at home. But, making compost from this waste keeps it out of landfills, where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Zeenath Muneer, a homemaker based in Dubai, learnt the art of making compost at home. Any time she cooks, she keeps the vegetable scraps aside, puts them in a bucket along with sand and stores them for at least a year. When the bucket fills up, she uses this as fertilizer for her plants. Using this method, she has managed to grow tomatoes, bitter gourds, spinach, mint and other herbs.

She said: “I learnt this trick from my mum. Now, my seven-year-old son is learning from me. He helps me pot the plants and water them. More people should be doing the same and passing on this knowledge to the next generation.”

Megna Rajagopal, a student based in Dubai, agrees and started her journey early on by growing cherry tomatoes in her home’s balcony. Despite it being a small space, she has used pots and pesticide-free soil for her project, which she began three months ago.

“I would grow more plants if I had a bigger space,” she said.

Growing your own food allows people to be independent of supermarkets and grocery bills and in turn save the environment and their pockets.