Taverns/bodegas/eateries, historically usually used to serve travellers, were medieval forms of farm-to-table — or farm-to-fork — establishments that faded away in the modern world. Some 50 years ago, in California, there was the first “recorded” attempt at a farm-to-fork concept, which created a movement advocating restaurants to serve “cooked” food that had been sourced from local markets.
In modern times, it’s become beneficial for health (eating wholesome food that’s been prepared from fresh, local ingredients usually cannot go wrong) — and the economy. When restaurants and retailers source their food locally, they help support small-scale farmers who may not have the resources to compete with larger agribusinesses. This, in turn, helps to promote local economies, as money spent on locally produced food stays in the community.
Due to its geographical/environmental conditions, the UAE has historically relied on imported food to meet its needs. The importers have excelled in sourcing a gamut of options from all over the world, making the shift/transition to local produces a gargantuan task. But there is a certain determination that’s developed in a bunch of people in both the agro and food industries: the local farmers are getting creative in providing eateries with more varieties, and restaurants are accepting the challenges and getting creative in serving recipes that are based on local produces and accepting their seasonality.
During Covid-19, the UAE took mega strides in its agro-industry, and any observer can notice that food security has become a national priority. Not only that, consumers who embraced and supported the local movement have now solidified the farm-to-table method, and it’s no longer ‘unheard’ of anymore.
In 2023, restaurants who genuinely believe in the healing power of food (let us not forget that the word restaurant is from Latin, restaurare, to renew) can now source high-quality local produces, that is not limited to lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers!
Despite the obvious benefits of the farm-to-table movement to everyone involved (farmers, restaurateurs, consumers and the economy as a whole), there are also some major challenges that need to be addressed in the UAE. One of the main challenges is the cost of locally sourced organic and sustainably produced food. Small-scale farmers may not have the economies of scale to compete with larger agribusinesses, which can lead to higher prices for consumers. However, as the farm-to-table movement continues to grow, it is expected that prices will become more competitive as more farmers adopt sustainable farming practices.
Another major hurdle is the seasonality of the produces. For example, nowadays is the peak of the farming season, and we at my company, Spill the Bean, are getting our local organic eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, beetroots, chards, iceberg lettuce, herbs from November till April. Soon enough, we have to adapt and tweak the menu… however, we are fully aware of the limitations of growing anything in this part of the world during the notoriously hot summers.
What is still “missing” in the UAE’s own farm-to-table movement is the traceability, something which has become easier to achieve with the advance of blockchain technology and its associated apps. A couple of years back, the concept of farm-to-table itself didn’t exist in the UAE, and seeing all the tech startups mushrooming around us in the UAE, we are certain that it is only a matter of time before we see such applications being used by local eateries to trace the food grown worldwide and locally to provide the transparency that many ethical consumers demand.
The farm-to-table movement has already started in the UAE for the benefit of all parties. What will propel it to greater heights is the continued patronage of consumers: it is the consumer who will demand restaurants to provide traceability to the food being consumed; it is the consumer who will agree to pay a premium for more egalitarian, ‘ethically traded’ and nutritionally superior food. And then, I can state with certainty chefs and restaurants will respond with more creativity.
(Hannad Abi Haydar is co-founder of Spill The Bean, a Dubai-based sustainable ‘specialty’ coffee shop. He’s also an expert in food security, an engineer, and a home gardening buff.)
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