While we give little thought to where our meals come from, a ‘farm-to-table’ movement aims to bring fresh, organic Omani produce to our tables at prices we can afford. Alvin Thomas reports on why our diet depends on growing our own food.
Hunger is the greatest equaliser. You could be the most successful businessman to have walked the face of the earth or just a newborn baby but filling your stomach is essential to your very existence.
Life revolves around food, which is why we’re taught to respect what’s put on our tables.
“Bismillahi wa ‘ala baraka-tillah,” chants Ahmad al Kharusi, an eight-year-old Omani, before tucking into his supper – a plate of rice, grilled chicken and vegetable curry.
Saying grace before a meal isn’t a trait that’s synonymous with Omani culture: giving thanks to God is just one way people of various societies from around the world pay their respects to those who have toiled to produce food.
But just as Ahmad begins his meal, he asks his father a question – one that most curious children ask their parents at some point: “Abba, where does our food come from and who makes all the meals?”
The youth’s father Moosa knows well enough to answer that it is his wife – Ahmad’s mother – that prepares all the dishes at home. He is also aware that his only contribution is when he grabs hold of “fresh” fruit and vegetables written down on a list for him to pick up from the local supermarket every week.
“Where the ingredients come from doesn’t matter if they are fresh,” Moosa says, before telling us of his ignorance of where the veggies and fruit are grown.
“Nowadays people have no time to learn where their food comes from. It could be from the UAE, India, Pakistan, or wherever… we just need it to be on the plates.”
But then he asks us: “Do you know where all this food comes from?”
The answer to the father-son duo’s question is a bit more complicated though. Food, as it turns out, is one of the leading industries – a US$130 billion (RO50bn) sector – in Oman.
But tracing your food’s origins isn’t that tedious a task – in fact every ingredient has a story to it… it’s just up to you to listen to it.
A quick stroll down a vegetable aisle in one of Oman’s supermarkets will display a wide variety of products – all from different countries ranging from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Brazil, USA and the UK.
Pakistani mangoes, and Indian potatoes and onions; for instance, are the three items that Oman imports in great quantities. Still, what most people don’t realise is that a great portion of what you find on the shelves in supermarkets here are grown in the Sultanate.
It’s then up to the consumer to pick up the right kind of fruit or vegetable.
As per statistics revealed by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI), Oman yielded roughly 1.87 million tonnes of produce last year, of which 25,600 tonnes were vegetables, and a further 972,800 tonnes of fodder crops, as well as 457,660 tonnes of fruit.
Mahmood Khan, an expat farmer based out of a large-scale farm in Barka, says that Oman’s arid climate and soil isn’t obstructive to farming – a point he proves by plucking out a handful of lemons and okras, before offering them to us.
“We just need to grow the right crops in the right season. Unfortunately, because we’re still in the peak of summer, most of the crops we usually grow won’t survive but some types of fruits, such as cucumber, okra, and eggplant, will thrive during this season.
“In a 45-day period, we can harvest – if there’s no loss of crops – at least 100kgs of okra and cucumber,” he adds.
“These yields are then cleaned, quality inspected, and packed. We do not spray pesticides on our fruits and vegetables so they must be transported quickly. Our pickup trucks are always on standby, should a request come through.
“Most of our vendors are souks and small shops – and they like to stock up on our okras,” he says.
Oman is currently ranked 27th and 70th in world for the export of okra and cucumbers, respectively. Though, a greater portion of the produce is processed and sold in markets within the country.
But just how much of what we buy from the stores is locally grown and processed? And if so, what are the types of fruit and vegetables that are grown extensively in the Sultanate?
It’s an answer we were hoping to find – and our search led us to one of the largest producers of organic produces and the first certified organic farm land in the Sultanate: The Pairidaeza Organic Farm.
Organic farms to the rescue
The 11-acre stretch of land is used to grow everything from cucumber, beetroot, kale, dates, potato, radish, tomato, lettuce, capsicum, lemon, zucchini, banana, spinach, rosemary, mango, and 60 other types of fruit and vegetables!
But, Narges Mohammed Mirza, the founder of the Pairidaeza Organic Farm, says that this is just the start – and that the four-year-old farm is planning on expanding to bring more varieties of fruit and vegetables into Oman.
“Most people, when they think of Oman, say that it isn’t suitable grounds for growing most foods. However, we’ve been proving them wrong. Over a year, we can grow anywhere between 60 – 65 types of crops.
“You’d be surprised to see what’ll grow here. We didn’t even know that some of these crops can grow in such arid lands but Oman continues to surprise us.
“Most of our efforts have been based on trial and error, and we’ve now got the pattern of which crop grows in which season.
“Normally, the months of July and early August are when we usually close the farm lands but this time around, we’re still going strong. Our lands are lush with fresh lemons, and more fruit and veg such as cucumbers are on the way.
“It did take us a while for us to master it, as we’re an organic farm. So, we don’t make use of any kinds of chemicals, and must make use of only natural fertilisers to grow the crops. Also, special care must be taken to protect these crops from any diseases and pathogens.”
During our trip to the farm in Barka, we’re even made to park our car far from the grounds to fend off any unwelcome germs that may have stuck to the tyres of the car.
A product is termed ‘organic’ if it is grown and processed in a well-balanced soil that’s free of chemical-infused pesticides, petroleum-based fertilisers or bioengineered genes.
Similarly, the term also applies to animals raised in open spaces, fed with grain and grass, and without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.
But organic produce is an easy target for pathogens such as bacteria and fungi, says one of the farmers working in the fields.
“And because we mix to produce our own fertilisers or import them from the UAE, we sometimes face the loss of crops. But we know we’ve done a great job when the final produce is harvested. The smiles on the customers’ faces are enough testament to our work,” he adds.
While there’s no fixed target as to how much produce is harvested per season from the Pairidaeza Organic Farm, Narges says that they currently have a capacity to serve retail outlets such as Mars Hypermarket, LuLu Hypermarket, and select Carrefour and Spar outlets.
At full capacity – which is achieved in the period after September and until June every year – the farm’s 12 pathogen-free greenhouses, combined with the farmlands, can successfully grow up to 30 different kinds of crops; all organic, all fresh.
Her farm is also certified by organic certification boards, OneCert and USDA.
“This is not just an achievement for us, but rather for the whole country. We need to see more farms such as ours taking up hygienic and healthy practices to serve the nation,” she tells Y.
In reality, it’s farm owners such as Narges and farmers such as Mahmood – among several others that are now adopting organic farming techniques – to help raise the standards of produce in the Sultanate.
This has also given rise to what is now called the farm-to-table movement.
At its heart, the farm-to-table movement is one that promotes serving local foods in homes, schools cafeterias, and even in restaurants. This can only be accomplished by maintaining direct relationships with local farmers and distributors by restaurants, retail markets and other local vendors.
But it’s still only gaining strength in Oman.
A recently concluded farmers’ market – Souq es Sabt – which was held at the Al Mouj grounds, garnered a positive response from residents in the country. It is also known that almost 178 vendors participated in the 15-week event.
Several residents and even restaurants are now asking for the organisers to bring back the farmers’ market.
Is it too soon to rely on organic food in Oman?
However, local vendors in the Seeb Souk collectively say that Oman may require a few more years before it can rely on organic foods.
Abdul Manaf, an expat salesman in charge of a vegetable stall in the souk, explains: “Organic foods are expensive and are very hard to come by.
“Some of these farms that grow the produce are authentically organic so it takes more than two months for them to grow the crops. This is a long waiting period, as we require vegetables – mostly potatoes, onions, and lettuce – daily.
“One of the farmers who supplies us with organic fruits, for instance, is only able to do so four times in a year. This is not feasible – so we end up going to our vendors in the UAE and India, who provide us with the foodstuffs.
“Most Omanis, when they walk into the souk expect to buy these organic vegetables and fruits. It’s a trend I’ve been observing of late.
“And while keeping your health first by watching what you eat is important, you must also make sure that the food you’re eating from outside is also organic. I see double standards in some of the people that come here.
“You [consumers] come here asking to buy fresh and untainted foods but then eat from restaurants that serve you food that is of low standards,” he says.
This is a concern expressed to us by local eateries too.
Predictably, no restaurant wanted to speak to us on the record, but the marketing manager of an Asian chain in Oman – in exchange for complete anonymity – said: “Organic food is expensive to buy. And contrary to what people think, organic food doesn’t begin and end with fruits and vegetables; it also includes meats and dairy products.
“The cost of a kilo of cucumbers in the market is 750 baisas. But it rises to RO3 when it is grown organically and imported from countries such as Australia. We require 18kg of cucumbers daily for our salads, so switching to organic foods isn’t something we can do right now.”
The official line
This farm-to-table movement is also supported by the Oman government, says an official (who declined to be named), from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
“Oman passed a law in 2017 that prohibited easy entry of fruits and vegetables from the neighbouring countries such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, and so on. The vendors must now produce a certificate issued from local labs indicating the goods’ pesticide content, at the Oman border.
“This did create a problem early on when there was a decline in goods entering the markets in the Sultanate, thereby causing a flux in the price of vegetables early last year. But it has since stabilised as more vendors are now taking these laws seriously, and are preparing their deliveries without any loss of goods.
“We cannot completely cut down on imports, though,” the official says, before adding, “the perfect answer would be strike a harmony between what can be grown here and what can’t.
“For example, we’d like to see more residents purchasing locally-grown vegetables and fruits. To do that, we’ll need to build a level of trust that the local farmers aren’t using harmful pesticides and fertilisers on their crops.
“Our labs constantly test the local produce, and last year, we were proud to announce that 98 per cent of all tested foods came back within the permitted limits of sprayed pesticides.
“So, while you can now trust the local produce, we’re now looking to get more Omanis to start farms or encourage farming. Also, we’ve made the law clear: a person cannot simply make use of land allotted for agriculture for non-agricultural use.
“If any discrepancies are found, the lessee could face strict charges,” he says.
Surprisingly, during our trip to one of the farms in Sohar, the farmers complained about how their landlord was planning on converting the farmland to residential apartments. The lives of the six farmers employed by the landlord hang in the balance.
Despite the grey skies hovering over the nation’s farming sector, however, this year, Oman was ranked as the most food-secure country in the GCC – and this can be attributed to the country’s move towards sustainable food development, long-term planning, and stringent policies that ensure higher food standards than those of many of our neighbours.
Currently, 12 per cent of Oman’s overall imports are fresh foods – which is a drop from the 15.92 per cent that were imported in 2016, as per figures released by the World Bank.
But as the country’s food consumption grows, we’ll need to move to towards a more sustainable goal to reduce our dependence on food items from other nations.
To find a solution – at least on a small scale – Pairidaeza Organic Farm has begun marketing their products as affordable organic products.
Talking on behalf of the farm, Yasir Iqbal, the marketing manager says: “We’re not here looking for profits. Our aim is to provide the consumers with the best possible product – and one that is grown locally in Oman.
“We have realised that two products – our cucumbers and tomatoes – were very famous so we decided to sell them at a lower cost. So, a cucumber costs only 800 baisas per kg (which is on a par with what other non-organic farms are offering).
“Similarly our zucchini costs RO1 per kg and our eggplant RO2 per kg. Top that off with the fact that our foods don’t have any pesticides or chemicals sprayed on them, and you’ll realise the great deals we’re offering.
“We have more plans in the pipeline to increase our output but we’re still working on them. The responses we’ve got from our customers so far are what keep us going further. After displaying our products at retail outlets, we realised how big a gap there was in the organic foods department.
“Today, to serve our customers well, our output is six to eight times more than what we were pulling when we started. And that’s a testimony to how the people are accepting us – and more so – organic products, here in the Sultanate.
“Health, after all, is wealth.”