Cities with green fingers

Increased interest in where our food is coming from has led to a boom in urban farming, from Dubai citizens growing tomatoes on their balconies to commercial produce being harvested on Cairo rooftops

Laura Allais-Maré has a small apartment in the Dubai Marina with “a tiny little garden”, she says, but the list of the food she grows at home is long: butternut squash, bananas, lemons, tomatoes, pumpkins, jasmine, Italian potatoes and lots of herbs. As the founder of the city’s Slow Food Convivium, and of the UAE’s Balcony and Urban Gardening Group (BUGGS), part of her mission is to lead by example.

A former chef with Italian parents, who grew up in South Africa but has been in Dubai for the past two years, she is passionate about food and farming and feels that the UAE’s arid climate is no excuse to rely on tired, pre-packaged food that’s been shipped halfway across the world. “Organic is the latest fad,” she says, “and I hope it will stay. That’s what food should be all the time.” The only way to truly trust that it’s been grown using sustainable, organic methods, she adds, is to grow it yourself, but among her preferred suppliers in Dubai is Greenheart Organic Farms, whose owners work tirelessly to ensure its heirloom crops are up to scratch.

Allais-Maré is part of a global backlash against environmentally unsustainable farms that have diminished biodiversity and favour gigantic, perfect-looking, chemically enhanced produce over the stuff that actually tastes good. This backlash has taken many forms. On the one hand, there are trendy restaurants and farmers’ markets in places such as Brooklyn catering to a fashion for locally grown food for people who don’t mind paying over the odds. On the other, there are rooftop gardens in cities such as Cairo and Mumbai that allow people with limited resources to eat nutritious food.

Sherif Hosny
Sherif Hosny’s Cairo-based start-up Schaduf turns empty urban spaces into micro-farms

Slow Food has a substantial role to play within this movement. Founded in 1986 to protest the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, the non-profit organisation promotes local traditions of food preparation and production and opposes fast food and factory farming. Made up of 1,500 self-organising cells, or “convivia”, all over the world, it organises an annual gathering in Rome each year, when submissions are received for the “Ark of Taste”, a compendium of regionally specific produce and dishes.

Last year, Allais-Maré submitted five items from the UAE to the Ark, including a type of honey collected from beehives nestled in rocks, dried yoghurt traditionally carried on journeys by Bedouins and a date variety unique to the region. She regularly takes members of her Convivium – the first on the Arabian Peninsula – out on visits to organic farms and, more recently, she organised a bring-and-share picnic at a turtle sanctuary. “We believe that food should be the most important thing that you spend your money on,” she says, “because it is so linked to your health and the health of your family.”

Allais-Maré isn’t the only person in Dubai trying to push things forward when it comes to looking carefully at what we eat and where it comes from. In 2013, the Ramada Hotel and Suites in Ajman, the UAE’s smallest emirate, launched an urban farming project to mark Earth Day, trans-forming part of a parking lot into a vegetable patch that could be used to stock the hotel’s kitchen.

Organic is the latest fad, and I hope it will stay. That’s what food should be all the time.

Laura Allais-Maré

Ripe is a UAE company that dispatches boxes of seasonal, organic and fresh produce straight to consumers. Since its launch in 2011, it has expanded and now runs farmers’ markets in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, and a farm shop in Dubai. Along with recipes on its website for healthy dishes such as date granola and kale slaw, there’s information about its founding principles, which include supporting farmers, creating a community and adopting sustainable habits.

Some might say that growing vegetables in the arid climate of the Arabian Peninsula is never going to be sustainable, but what’s important, says Allais-Maré, is that there is momentum in the right direction towards greater consciousness about where our meals are coming from. If the farms here “are using the resources they have as sustainably as possible”, she says, “I think that should be commended, and can be improved upon”.

At the moment, she is teaching members of her balcony gardening group simple skills, such as how to compost and natural alternatives to pesticides, but there is plenty of potential in the United Arab Emirates for serious growth in the field of eco-conscious urban farming.

Pasona Group
Japanese HR firm Pasona Group grows vegetables in its headquarters and serves the produce in its canteen

Meanwhile, other cities around the world are coming up with their own take on the practice of urban farming. There has been talk of a “rooftop revolution” in Cairo, where an urban farming start-up called Schaduf has launched an initiative to turn vacant space into micro-farms. It helps people with no previous experience in agriculture set up hydroponic systems that require no soil. “We’re taking [local] produce, selling it in upscale markets and bringing the money back to lower-income areas,” CEO and co-founder Sherif Hosny told Philanthropy Age. Hosny used to work in food packaging in Dubai, before becoming Managing Director for one of the world’s largest metals and minerals firms. Disillusioned with big business, he quit to travel the world and came up with the idea for Schaduf after working on a sustainable farm in Louisiana.

New York is a city full of thriving urban farms, many featuring educational programmes teaching children about nutrition and biology, but it’s also a place where the farming life has become an aspirational lifestyle choice. Modern Farmer is a stylish magazine launched in spring 2013 in the Hudson Valley just outside New York City. Each front cover is dominated by a close-up portrait of a different animal. It represents a novel phase of what it calls the “New Food Culture”, in which the food people eat affects not only their health and their environment but their perceived identity. Getting obsessive over food and farming, some argue, is the latest trend for those wishing to demonstrate membership in a cultural elite.

Laura Allais-Maré is more pragmatic. For her, caring about food goes hand in hand with being fully present in your local environment.