The Source

When I first came to Dubai for a little look-see with my husband, a weekend break to decide if we could ever live here, we were taken around by a French Relocation Expert. This was in 2007, when Dubai was heaving in every imaginable direction – up, out, down, in. The hopes and dreams were even higher than the skyscrapers they were designing, and every man and his dog wanted their piece of the Dubai pie. The population was greater than it is now, and everyone was living in half the number of dwellings. Laborers were working 14 hours a day in 47ºC heat, then being shipped home to the labour camps in cattle trucks. House maids were being paid 500AED a month to work 16 hours, 7 days a week. Beautiful women were flying in from all over the globe to try and land themselves a Sheikh, prostituting themselves, knowing that just a small hand-out could set them up for life. Corruption was rife – the options to recieve an invitation to buy land were being sold for millions, because Cityscape product was sold out in a matter of minutes. Everyone was flipping and tripping, morals slipping, taking their turn on the harem-scarem magic carpet ride.

Nadira had told us we must “swallow our snake” to live in Dubai. I think it must be a French saying that does not translate well, but I will always remember it. She said that this was a land of golden opportunity for the ones who were already blessed with opportunity, but it was a den of iniquity for those who were not. We would love it here, but only if we walked around with our eyes closed. (She was shortly thereafter sacked, probably to blissfully return to the land of the banned burqa and 7-hour work days)

She was right. People like me would die in this environment if we did not have the luxuries we receive to prop us up. We are simply not meant to live in the desert. And so, if we decide to stay here, we must wear the guilt. First, we must accept that our environmental impact is unforgivable, but unavoidable. Halas – it is done. Second, we merge our values with the local ones – we take a maid, we stop double-taking when we see workers in the sun in mid-summer from our air-conditioned SUVs. Things will improve Insha’Allah, and it becomes something that has nothing to do with us.

I’ve already touched on this in my ‘Despicable Me‘ post. Don’t think for a moment that because I am a Jumeira Jane, I am walking around oblivious to the greater problems of this world, just because I blog about free range eggs and organic farmers markets. It’s far from the truth. I think about my greater transgressions daily, but the more I think, the more helpless I feel, the worse I feel for doing nothing. Then my own life interrupts me. I have to pick up the kids, do the shopping, help with homework, give a swimming lesson, cook the dinner, put the kids to bed, call my mum. By the time I think about the world again, it is time for a glass of wine, and that helps me forget all about it. Snake swallowed.

A place where I can make decisions on my impact, whether it be global or local, is what food I provide my family with. And so when I was given the opportunity to visit the Abu Dhabi Organic Farm (the retail outlet is named Al Mazaraa), I excitedly packed Lion into the car for the journey. I had read this article recently, as well as having a comment from an anti-local reader on my Farmers Market post, and I wanted to see what the deal was, ask the questions, do the math, and make my own decisions. Not only that, I wanted my son to see the impact and method of farming in the desert.

The visit did not disappoint. The farm is about 45 minutes inland of Abu Dhabi city, and just over an hour from Dubai. The entire farm is about 60ha, and consists of 15 Shade houses of 1500m², 12 Cool houses of 1300m², and two nurseries of 480m² – the rest of the land is cultivated in fields or set aside for livestock and poultry.

To do my experiment, I chose tomatoes, because they lose vitamins quickly when transported over large distances and time, and besides, the ones from the UAE smell and taste amazing. They are also the Al Mazara’a farm’s biggest seller. This is what I discovered:

  • 1m² of land in a cool-house contains 2.5 plants and provides 33kg of tomatoes at fruition
  • They require 3.75L (1.5L per plant) of water per day for 7 months = 787.5L (tomatoes are an annual stock – the plant dies, and seeds are collected and reserved for the following season)
  • The water is entirely desalinated stock – not ground water 
  • It takes on average 0.2 MJ per Litre to desalinate water in this region, so the total energy required to produce the water is 156MJ 
  • The sheds are cooled to a constant of 24 degrees – the cooling is not needed for the entire growing season. 
  • The cooling would have a usage of approximately 1000MJ/m2/year. Therefore, let’s say 700MJ for the tomatoes to produce their seasonal harvest of 33kg.

So let’s add that to the 156ML I came up with before, and we have about 850MJ to water and cool plants that would usually grow with rain, ground water and fresh air in a more suitable environment. That’s pretty horrible – that’s like leaving a light (60W bulb) on for 400 hours…. But the alternative is to get our tomatoes from Holland:

  • The petrol required for 33kg of freight is a minimum of about 1.3L/100km
  • It is 5158km from Amsterdam to Dubai and so 67L of petrol is required.
  • Each L of petrol produces 36MJ of energy, and so therefore, the petrol required to transport the tomatoes would produce 2412MJ of energy
Shaheer, our guide

Hai Carumba! That’s leaving the light on for over 46 days. Just for enough tomatoes for one person to eat for about 4-6 months. And this is not taking into consideration the extra time the produce sits in transport or in-store, refrigerated and/or under lights before we get it in our shopping trolleys. (Yes, tomatoes are practically green when they come off the vine when destined for long-scale shipping) There is a great article here on the pitfalls of transporting fresh fruit and vegetables over long distances.

The article I mentioned previously that de-bunks the local-is-good theory suggests we bring our food from Egypt, which is about 2400 Km away, so you could halve that cost of transport, but it’s still considerably more than the figures I came up with for desalination* – however, the main agricultural area is the Nile Delta and despite being the wettest area in Egypt, the entire area is irrigated (it borders the Sahara desert) with – you guessed it, a large amount of desalinated water.

In the end, I have decided that there is nothing I can ingest here that is environmentally sound, except maybe camel milk and lobster (even date palms are irrigated). So, like the eggs, I must make a decision that is not based on the environment – what is good for my family. And you can’t get much better than local and organic – for taste AND for health.

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The Abu Dhabi Organic Farm is located off the Sweihan Road, about 1/2 an hour from Abu Dhabi city. The Al Mazaara store is open in the Mushrif area of Abu Dhabi. Some of the produce can be found on the shelves of Lulu Hypermarkets, Spinneys and Choithrams Supermarkets, and at the Farmers Market in Souk al Bahar on Fridays in Dubai.

The retail arm delivers to Jumeirah Lake Towers on Mondays between 12- 3pm. Orders must be received before 4pm on Saturdays. Contact mazaraa.organic@gmail.com

Jar Jar Binks

The Abu Dhabi Organic Farm produce tomatoes, capsicum and chillies, lettuce and herbs, cucumber, mulberries, strawberries, cauliflower (in the chilled houses) and spring onions, okra, zucchini, squash, potato, beans, eggplant, watermelon, dates, passionfruit and more (under shade or in open field). There is also over an acre dedicated to free-range poultry – Chickens, Turkeys, Quail, Ducks and Guinea Fowl. Both meat and eggs are available in the Al Mazaraa store. Other livestock includes cattle, goats, camels and sheep, for the production of milk, laban, and mutton. We met a lovely goat that we called ‘Jar Jar Binks’, that we really hope is a milk goat, not one destined for the pot. They also have bees for the production of their award winning honey – which is expensive (I bought the middle of the range for 75aed from the market), but amazing stuff that is completely worth the money.

* I did google searches on energy usage for flight, desalination and air-conditioning, and averaged all similar results from the first two pages. If this was a newspaper, I would have kept the links, but it’s not, and I’m completely over documenting it. If you don’t believe me, do the research yourself. If you have a source of more exact information, I would be thrilled to see it, as the information available on the WWW is broad and vague, I am not educated in this field, and I am not able to completely trust the numbers. Please leave a comment below and if your information proves beyond doubt to be correct and different to what I have found, I will change my post.

16 Comments

  1. Very thought-provoking, thanks. I too endeavour to buy local/unprocessed/seasonal produce whenever possible, both for flavour, and out of a simple desire to keep the economic benefits as local as possible too. Far rather enrich a local farmer for his tomatoes than a foreign airline!Jonathan

  2. Your 4th paragraph covers how I feel every day here in Dubai. Although I don't always buy organic, I do try to buy local. I find the organic prices a difficult hurdle to manage.

  3. Thanks for doing the maths…figures are not my forte but it all makes sense to me. Such a thoughtful and well written piece.

  4. Thanks Sarah. As always, your post is interesting, thought-provoking and right to the point. Also well documented. I buy local because it's the most economic and you have to live in your environment. If I want French cheese I'll go live in the land of the banned Burqa and if I want cheddar, I'll go back to the UK. I think that is the mistake of a lot of expats, who continue living in the mindset of their home countries. Great post! 🙂

  5. Wow the math seems a little complicated for me. All I can say is the place was great, the produce fresh and tasty and I'd buy this stuff over flown fruit and veggie any day. I care more about my family's health then the enivronment I guess!

  6. A rare post from Dubai. Most of the blog posts I've read lean more towards the "I'm not putting those blue helmets in those jobs so what guilt do I have?" vein. Rather it's a big tarball and everybody is connected in some way. Same thing in any country. All have their failings and often, too often, there's little we can do to redress the situation. That said, all of us still do too little.

  7. Any idea what happened to the organic farm in Dubai?

  8. Do you mean the outlet in Al Manara? It closed down – just couldn't make the ends meet – apparently the overheads were a little high. Go and visit my friend Sally on My Custard Pie: http://mycustardpie.com/2010/07/31/nazwa-organic-farm-shop-closes-down/ sad. But AD Organic Farm is getting bigger, so hopefully they will open an outlet in Dubai soon, or at least sell more onto the shelves in the big supermarkets here

  9. Sarah, you have nailed it yet again!

  10. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I guess I am the commenter on your previous post that you have characterised as "anti-local", whatever that means. My intent with that comment was to challenge the assumption that "local" is better for the environment. You have embraced that challenge admirably. The attempt to precisely model the environmental impact on anything we consume is hazardous but yours seems as valid as any and far better than most. The only observation I would offer is whether Holland was the only alternative source you might have considered: though you did mention Egypt, also India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon (not to mention that unmentionable place) are much closer potentially viable sources. But that's nitpicking. More importantly, I hope you have encouraged others to think this through more thoroughly also.Frankly, if the stuff tastes better, then that is good enough reason for me to consume it. That just hasn't been my experience most times with food claiming to be either local or organic. As a food lover, in fact, I think "organic" is a huge marketing con. It may feel better but it rarely tastes any different (and a huge plurality of blind taste-tests of multiple types of organic food backs me up on this). Equally, simply being "local" is not an intrinsic virtue in my view. I am not, in this context (or any other that I can think of), at all "anti-local". I just believe that there has got to be some specific benefit from local-ness (if I may), not just feeling better about buying it.You have identified "fresher" as this benefit, which would seem logical. Having some experience in the retail supply chain (though not in this region), I know that the "last 30 metres" is considered to be the most perilous part of the chain. I wonder if flown-in vegetables really do get to our supermarket shelves more slowly than those trucked in from Abu Dhabi Organic Farm? I think that's another assumption worth testing if anyone were up to the challenge…..As an aside, how is the claim of "organic" maintained given the use of desalinated water?

  11. Thanks rootless, yes it was your comment that inspired me. Perhaps the term "anti-local" is a bit harsh – I will change it when back in front of a computer. The whole debate over organic v non and taste is an interesting one, and I agree that often there is little difference. Sometimes the non-organic taste better! The thing that I like is "Local". Back home I would buy from the market, where because nothing was refrigerated, it HAD to be fresh, and therefore from fairly nearby. Here, there is often little local choice. And yes, I always try and buy regional food too (Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia etc). The reason I mentioned Holland is because that is where most of the tomatoes on the shelves come from. And besides looking good, they rarely have any taste (but I love the black tomatoes- kumato- from Kenya). Another example is white zucchini – whenever I buy any that is not from the UAE it is woody and bitter. I must also say, that the berries from the organic farm are much better than anything else I have bought off a supermarket shelf recently.So "organic" is secondary to "local" for me, and when I say local, I also mean "fresh", and I've never had anything that doesn't taste fresh from this bunch. On the "Organic" label, again, it's something that needs to be looked into, as in this region, a label is often a whim, and sometimes does not need to be certified or legally true. However, I think that because the water does not contain non-organic chemicals (although it may have been treated with them), it still passes the code. This is from wikipedia: "Organic foods are those that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives."Thanks for your thoughtful comment

  12. Hi Sarah, What a lovely read that was and a wonderful insight to Dubai. Glad to have found my way to your blog.I am a Farmers Market girl at heart. I will be moving to Dubai in the next month from Australia and was wondering if there are any Fresh Flower markets in or around Dubai or if there are any farms that actually grow cut flowers for sale ??cheers,Adla

  13. Oooh! Adla, you must keep in touch – admin@thehedonista.com – always happy to meet more Aussies! No fresh cut flowers I'm afraid. There is an enormous flower market near the airport, but everything is imported. The good thing is that we all have bouganvillea and frangipani in our gardens – who needs anything else!

  14. thank you for that , hahaha yes bouganvilleas I could grow to love, frangipanis remind me a little too much of Bali and the Australian hype of the island.it's wonderful to know that they have a flower market , might just head there straight from the airport. I work with flowers to create pretty 'nothings'so it's good for me to get aquainted with the place:)Will definitely be in touch, so much to learn about Dubai and am looking forward to it considering I am coming from Perth W.A better known as the isolated state :)I am so looking forward to magnolia bakery and its red velvet cake that I have read about on so many blogs for so many years. I just hope it is fashionably as tasty as so many have made it to sound. cheers, Adla

  15. I am so impressed with the level of thought and research you've put into this, especially the calculations. I really need to learn to be more thoughtful about life here in Dubai…having grown up here, I think I've succumbed to the disease of walking around with blinders on most of the time. And a post like this is a great wake up call. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Sarah.Oh, the pictures are phenomenal…love the clean, crisp layout of the site and photos.

  16. This one is a little scary for me ! because being in the restaurant business ! i am thinking of all the vegetables and other imports the restaurants do, their carbon footprint must be humongous !! the least they can and should do is get locally sourced stuff !

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