With more people switching to organic foods, experts urge people to make it a habit to read the product labels and their certification as there are varying standards. Image Credit: Abdel-Krim Kallouche/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi/Dubai: The organic food industry continues to grow in the UAE as more and more people become aware of the benefits of eating organic. Over the last four years, 103 local organic farms have been certified by the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (Esma) in the UAE, yielding a total of 2,701 organic products grown here, a top official told Gulf News.

The availability of imported organic produce is also growing in the UAE and what is important to note here is that international accreditation practices vary, a phenomenon that not many consumers are aware of. Gulf News spoke to experts for a glimpse into the different certifying bodies for organic products, the health benefits this industry can trigger and what consumers should pay attention to before purchasing any organic product.

Nils Al Accad, founder of Organic Foods and Café, one of the major distributors of organic food in the country, said that when the organic movement began, legislations in the US and Europe were slow to react to consumers’ demands, which led to many countries or states to set up their own standards of certification.

As a result, a profusion of standards was generated which, in turn, led to another instant requirement to further regulate the standards.

“For example, there is a big difference between biodynamic standard (Demeter) and the EU standard or the California standard and the USDA,” he explains. “A minimum standard [of certification for organic produce] will say you only need to be 95 per cent organic while some standards even accept one per cent of GMOs,” he added, stating that these practices would not be accepted by premium standards.

Al Accad added that there has been a substantial growth in commercial organisations requesting organic food due to customers’ increasing demands for organic food.

“When we started a decade and a half ago, there was no organic [food] in the UAE. It was limited to a couple of items in pharmacies but not [available] in supermarkets.”

Another founder of organic foods in the UAE, Elena Kinane, a German expatriate, started her organic farm in Sharjah about four years ago. A year later, she opened her shop, Greenheart Organic Farms, in Al Barsha, Dubai. Over the last two years, her business has grown by about 30 per cent.

Kinane acknowledges that it is hard to measure this industry’s growth and provide precise numbers but recalls that when she first moved to the UAE over 20 years ago, choices of organic food were limited. “We used to pack organic food in suitcases and [bring it back] from our travels abroad.”

Kinane said that while it is certainly pleasing to see more people switch to organic food, she urged people to make it a habit to read the product labels on organic food and their certification as there are varying standards.

“When you see an organic certification [on an imported product], look it up on the internet to know more about it because there are some highly conscientious certification bodies and there are some very general ones who allow a lot of chemicals in the system.”

The other concern about organic products is that they are expensive and UAE residents are in unanimity on this.

Explaining the reason behind the price points, Kinane said that the process of organic farming is intensive and requires meticulous valuations and scrupulous considerations.

“A lot of labour goes into organic farming,” said Kinane. “You start by preparing the soil. Everything is done by hand, every plant is individually planted and crafted and all the seeds are collected individually from each plant. So, on an average, our tomatoes take almost three months to grow. [In comparison}, a lot of the hybrid tomatoes can grow in eight weeks or often less.”

And when organic farmers encounter obstacles such as disease or blight, the only recourse is to use natural remedies. Spraying chemicals as a quick fix is not an option.

Despite the huge amount of work that goes into her farm, Kinane asserted that Greenheart Organic Farms’ prices are still considered affordable, especially as her products are 100 per cent free from chemicals and GMO.

When asked about the certification, she said that her Greenheart Organic Farms has an Esma certification, which is the UAE certifying authority for organic products grown in the UAE.

In 2011, Becky Balderstone launched an organic market, Ripe, that now operates in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah when she realised that she could not source seasonal organic, local fresh produce in the UAE. Ripe now operates in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

“People’s attitudes to eating organic are changing; overall, there is a greater awareness in the community here about healthy eating,” she says.

“Organic food is not only better for you, it’s better for the environment and a more sustainable way of eating. People are seeing the benefits of utilising the produce that is available locally, it is just as important; supporting the local agricultural and reducing food miles is really important and buying local means everything is fresher,” she said.

The Ripe founder said the difference between organic and normal produce is clear to see and taste. “One bite of an organic cherry tomato and you will be hooked. The quality of the produce is better, it’s more flavourful. Quality of produce and taste aside, organic produce is free from chemicals and GMO and has no nasty additives. All round, it is a much healthier option.”

Many supermarkets in the UAE today have organic produce, local as well as imported.

Colette Shannon, marketing manager for Spinneys, reported that they have seen a 40 per cent rise in their volume of sales over the last two years. According to Shannon, their sales increase is due to two reasons — availability of products and greater health awareness. “People want to know what goes into their products. A stamp of organic certification conveys to them everything that has gone into growing or making that product is indeed so.”

Maisoon Mubarak is a trainee at Gulf News