Organic producers around the world should take note of the demand for organic food and health products in the Middle East, writes Michael Wale.

That was the message from the Middle East Organic and Natural Expo event, held   in Dubai last month. Shinu Pillai, the trade show’s director, told me : “ If you look at the last four years there has been a 60%  increase in shelf space for organic food and health products”. And, by value,  92% of that was imported, opening up a huge market for organic producers across the world.

Exhibitors came from around the world as geographically apart as Afghanistan, New Zealand and India.

But there was also a strong representation from local UAE producer and suppliers, providing full organic farm to fork production. Shinu Pillai reminded me how the Government of the UAE’s capital ABU Dhabi is progressing a national policy of assisting conventional farmers convert to organic.

He said : “ The Government is really focussed on encouraging organic producers, but also on using new technology. Interestingly bee keeping is gaining ground. Looking towards food security in the future the Government has a mandate to provide pesticide free food”.

For me the most interesting organic company at the show was Ariana Saffron from Herat Province in Western Afghanistan. Faced with tempestuous times of war and provincial war lords,  the company producing the most valuable spice in the world has not only survived, but is now enlarging, and hoping that it can persuade farmers to invest in saffron rather than poisoning the world by producing the opium poppy that produces a world supply of heroin, and provides farmers with a good living during all the troubles.

Ariana now has a network of 400 organic farmers, adhering to Fair Trade and responsible business practises in all its transactions. It is the first enterprise in Afghanistan to operate a barcode system, making sure that the saffron company markets his fully traceable traceable all the way down to district level.

Until now the market has been dominated by Iran with 90% of world sales. The price per kilo can reach 1,800 dollars.  The harvest begins in October and lasts a mere three weeks, as the huge squad of women hand harvest the delicate purple flower. They pick ten kilos of flowers a day. Once picked the tiny stigmas at the centre of the flower, which we would regard as a crocus, are separated for drying. About 450,000 stigmas are needed to produce just one kilo. There are now as many as 6,000 farmers producing saffron in Herat.

Honeyman UK may be based in Portsmouth, where it trades from, but its honey comes from Romania. Its highly upmarket produce comes in distinctively shaped jars with wooden closures. It is priced at £5.70 for quarter of a kilo. The company was started last year.

A spokesman for the firm told me: “ It took a year to design the packaging alone. We have the EU organic symbol and we know exactly where the honey comes from, unlike many other firms selling organic honey. We go down to the detail of  who actually harvested it.  We have a co-operative of bee keepers supplying us from  the wild forests in Romania. It is not for the mass market. But it is selling very well”.

But it was the countless stands prompting the advantages of the multiplicity of organic farms that really drew the eye at this innovative show. Tariq Salem Al Jallaf owns a farm in Sharjah, the Emirates state adjoining the state of Dubai.

He told me that previously he had had a long career in the military. “I retired ten years ago and got into growing food for the family. Then I became friends with an Australian and he explained how I could increase what I grew to become commercial. He was the one to persuade me not to use chemicals, which I had been using, and so I became an organic grower. At first I had just supplied my surplus vegetables and salads to a few friends. Then that became so popular that I extended the growing and supply system to a larger local area, and it continued to succeed. When I became totally organic it became a firm success.  People now want to enjoy food they can eat”.

Ahmed Osman is operations and sales manager of Eat Organic based, on what is now a series of farms around Abu Dhabi but which started as a mission by a local producer to change consumers appetite for taste chemically produced food to organic. Osman explains that at first when they started with just one farm they opened it to schools, so they could learn about how food should really be produced. To this day their farms are opened on a Saturday to schools. Now their produce is boxed up, and sold loose to a huge market including three of the UAE’s leading supermarkets.

In contrast, Fawzi Abdullah started his farm 100 kilometres from Dubai and grew courgettes on a small area of land. From the outset water quality was his problem, as the supply came from a well whose water was high in salt. But now the Government has supplied him with high quality water, as they do, with anyone who wants to plant commercially.

The  successful organic show in Dubai is one further piece of evidence of rising demand for organic food and health products in the Middle East. A market wide that international exporters will be taking close interest.