Appetite for veganism has added bite among Saudi youth

Meatless burgers now available in most Saudi food stores. (Supplied photo)
Updated 28 July 2019

Appetite for veganism has added bite among Saudi youth

  • The number of shops and restaurants offering a wider range of vegan and vegetarian products is increasing

RIYADH: The Saudi appetite for veganism as a lifestyle choice is taking off among the Kingdom’s youth, fed by prominent advocates of the practice.

Concerns for health, animal rights and the environment are all proving to be key factors in motivating Saudis to change their diets and stop using animal products.

Among the most notable influencers is Khaled bin Al-Waleed, son of billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who in January last year pledged to open at least 10 vegan restaurants in the Middle East by 2020.

With increasing numbers of shops and restaurants in the Kingdom now offering a wider range of vegan and vegetarian products, the shift from meat is becoming all the more palatable for many young Saudis.

Health is the first of three main drivers, with publicity about the growing problem of obesity in the country encouraging many people to make better food choices.

Cutting out meat and animal products in protest over unethical practices in the livestock trade is another reason for the rise in veganism, along with fears about damage to the environment, with livestock farming seen as contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, water and land degradation.




Saudi shops and restaurants now offer a wider range of vegan products. (Shutterstock)

However, being vegan, or even vegetarian, can still be a difficult move to make for some.

Banan Al-Sultan, an optometrist and yoga enthusiast, has just got back into veganism after an aborted attempt to switch eight years ago.

“I was vegan for six months back in 2011, but I just couldn’t do it any longer than that. There were no options for me at any restaurant I went to except maybe for French fries or a side salad,” she told Arab News.

“Non-dairy milk was more like non-existent milk in any supermarket, and veggie burgers or vegan sausages were things I’d only heard about but never seen, like unicorns or mermaids.”

As the larger supermarket chains in Saudi started stocking vegan and vegetarian items, Al-Sultan began to muster up her old enthusiasm and has now successfully maintained a vegan diet for three months.

Loulwa Almarshad, a 28-year-old translator in Riyadh, told Arab News that being vegan was nowhere near as difficult as people might think.

“It might have been hard at first, but not so much now. There’s a lot more awareness these days, and the number of vegans worldwide is increasing, which creates more demand for vegan products both in restaurants and supermarkets.”

Most Saudi food stores now stock a wide variety of veggie options, including non-dairy milks such as almond, soy, and coconut, vegan butter and cheese, meatless burgers and sausages, and even treats like cookies, gummy candies, and ice cream.

Restaurants in the Kingdom are getting on board too, with burger outlets such as Johnny Rockets and Burgerfuel offering meatless patties, Jeddah superfood chain Boga introducing vegan salads and tofu sandwiches, and famous vegan-friendly places like Urth Caffe opening up branches throughout the Kingdom.

Yet Almarshad and Al-Sultan still believe that many Saudis remain skeptical about veganism.

“As a society, we Saudis love meat, which is understandable as meat has throughout history been a symbol of wealth and shows that someone can feed themselves and their family,” Al-Sultan said. “But times are changing, and if you can’t adopt our lifestyle, you can at least respect it.”

Almarshad said that the most difficult part of being vegan in Saudi Arabia was the attitude of society toward them. “I don’t mind answering people’s questions if they ask nicely, but at the end of the day, we’re just normal people. When the questions get invasive or offensive, it’s only natural that we won’t want to answer them.”


Two engineers help fight Lebanese farming foe

Updated 19 August 2019

Two engineers help fight Lebanese farming foe

  • Early-warning system lets farmers know when to protect their crops from fruit flies
  • Mobile app tells them the best time to spray pesticides to halt their advance

DUBAI: An award-winning startup led by two female Lebanese engineers has created an automated early-warning system that allows Middle East farmers to protect their crops against the Mediterranean fruit fly, one of the world’s most destructive pests.

Fruit flies can devastate entire harvests and have infested over 300 types of vegetables, fruits and nuts globally, causing financial ruin to countless farmers in the Arab world.

However, an ingenious system designed by Nisrine El Turky, a computer engineer and university professor, and Christina Chaccour, an electrical engineer, will tell farmers via text messages and mobile app of the best time to spray pesticides to halt the pests’ advance.

“Many Lebanese farmers weren’t able to export apples because the quality of their produce wasn’t good enough,” said El Turky, co-founder of IO Tree.

“So many I met were desperate to sell a crate of apples for $2 (SR7.50), which is nothing. I wanted to help the sector by better integrating technology.”

Farmers were found spraying too much pesticide to try to kill fruit flies. (Shutterstock)

She began by investigating the difficulties that farmers faced, attending workshops and seminars, and visiting farms. She found the main problem was that farmers were spraying too much pesticide to try to kill fruit flies.

“I found a way that could reduce the use of pesticides and increase production.”

El Turky began working on the IO Tree concept in February 2018 and swiftly built a working prototype, which she showed to Chaccour, who promptly joined the company as a co-founder.

IO Tree’s technology is being tested on farms in Lebanon and the Netherlands. There are two prototype machines — one for indoor use and another for outdoor. The machines can be placed in an orchard, field or greenhouse.

“We need to ensure that the prototype functions in all conditions. Outdoors, there is sun, dust, rain and other weather factors that could disrupt its operation,” said El Turky, who still works up to 10 hours a week as a lecturer at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University.

Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, the machine’s sensors monitor indicators such as temperature and moisture, as well as studying plant stress.

The system can detect and identify pests, providing data on the likely scale of an imminent pest invasion and the best action the farmer should take to combat it. Information is conveyed to the farmer via IO Tree’s app.

“If you’re using pesticides, our app will tell you the best pesticide to use to tackle that problem, the quantity you need and when to spray.”

IO Tree’s sensors use machine learning to measure plant stress. (Supplied photo)

EL Turky said her technology had shown over 90 percent accuracy in identifying medflies.

“Machine learning means that every day the system becomes more accurate,” she said.

“We’re also working on identifying other pests, but medfly is our main target. Once medflies arrive at a farm, they will eat everything.”

IO Tree will enable farmers to use fewer pesticides, reducing environmental damage, while produce will be in better condition and can command a higher sales price.

“By using fewer pesticides, farmers will be better able to preserve biodiversity: Spraying kills a lot more insects than just pests,” she said. IO Tree has initially targeted all types of fruit trees, plus tomatoes and cucumbers, and the product will be launched commercially in September.

“We’re aiming at farmers directly,” said El Turky.

IO Tree’s services will be sold via subscription. After a farmer signs up for one year initially, the company will install its machines at the farm. The number of machines required per acre depends on crop type, crop yield, land topography and other factors.

The company’s initial target market is the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, though it also plans to expand to Europe and eventually worldwide.

The product’s potential has helped IO Tree win a string of startup competitions. It was selected to represent Lebanon GSVC 2019 (Global Social Venture Competition) at the University of California, Berkeley.

IO Tree also joined Lebanon’s Agrytech accelerator, which provided $44,000 in funding, and schooled the fledgling entrepreneurs in how to create and manage a startup.

 

• The Middle East Exchange is one of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Global Initiatives that was launched to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai in the field of humanitarian and global development, to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region. The initiative offers the press a series of articles on issues affecting Arab societies.