We all take the food on our plates and in our fridges for granted. The fact that we can just go to the supermarket and pick up a piece of fruit from the other side of the world, tuck into a steak cut from a cow born and raised on a different continent if we feel like it, or order our dinner online at the touch of a button highlights the incredible privilege we have all become so accustomed to. But imagine growing or nurturing absolutely everything you eat – not just for a day, but for an entire year? That’s exactly what Dubai’s Phil Dunn is doing as part of a fascinating experiment to highlight the ever-growing issues of food security in the region – a subject high on government agendas across the world in the continuing battle against climate change.
A Canadian landscape architect responsible for the design and construction of the urban landscape in The Sustainable City, Dubai – the Middle East’s first fully-operational sustainable community – as the city went into Covid-19-induced lockdown in 2020, and issues of food security were highlighted, Phil came up with the idea of sustaining himself fully on food sourced exclusively inside his home community of The Sustainable City for a full year.
Deciding to put the very landscape he created to the test, Phil’s mission was to ascertain what it takes to eat produce solely sourced from within his neighbourhood’s urban environment, with the support of other residents.
“The Sustainable Human Project was conceived as a mixture of a personal challenge and an outward commitment to explore, educate, and engage with the important concepts of food security in the time of a pandemic, and a social sustainability ideal of how growing food together might also ‘grow’ a community’, explained Phil. ‘The challenge of only eating food grown in The Sustainable City for 365 days was one that I thought was crazy enough to keep me wilfully striving, and just possible enough to perhaps, be completed.”
Far from a concept that came out of the blue, the project was something Phil had thought about doing for some time. “I’ve lived in The Sustainable City for five years, and I’d been thinking about doing something like this as I watched the landscape grow around me. When we were forced into lockdown, and food security both globally and locally became a focus as the pandemic unfolded, it felt like the right time to start’, says Phil, who moved to the UAE in 2015. “What we were seeing across the world in the disruption to the food chain highlighted just how vulnerable we were here in the UAE, since around 80 percent of what we buy in the supermarkets is imported produce. So it really was the perfect time for me to stop thinking about starting this project, and actually start the project.”
Now ten weeks into his 365 day experiment, Phil began The Sustainable Human Project on November 10, 2020.
“I started it the day after my birthday, which is November 9. That was part of the personal aspect of this project – I was looking for something revolutionary to do as I approached my 50th year”, says Phil. And how is he finding it so far? “Honestly, it’s been really challenging!’ he laughs. ‘I started it from scratch. I didn’t really have anything in place, even though I’d been thinking about it for a while. But I just said to myself ‘OK Phil, you’re going to do this now. Today’. So I did!”
Despite the challenges he faced by starting without any real planning, Phil is happy with how he kicked off the project.
“It was tough to get the ball rolling, but I wanted to do it that way. I wanted to do it how an average person would, just taking it on without any notice,’ he says. ‘I already had a few things that had survived the summer left in my garden– eggplants, some sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and a couple of other things, but it really wasn’t a lot. I’ve had to create a lot of infrastructure to support the project, and I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to do this all by myself. So I’ve had to rally a few people around to help me out, but people have been so happy help me, which has been great.”
The rules in place for The Sustainable Human Project are simple: Phil grows fruits and vegetables like onions, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs in community garden plots; free-range chickens provide him with eggs, and he can catch fish from a small fish farm inside one of the community bio-domes. The missing elements in the food basket come from a circular economic philosophy where Phil repurposes scrap wood from construction into urban farming tools to be used in bartering with other Sustainable City residents in exchange for items like grains, rice, proteins and oils. And socialising hasn’t been forgotten about. If Phil is invited for dinner, the caveat for accepting the invitation is that he will use the opportunity to spread the word about the amazing cultural diversity of over 80 different nationalities currently living in The Sustainable City.
With the support of a handful of residents at the start of the project, Phil quickly discovered that there were many more facets to what he was undertaking than he first envisaged. “These first few weeks have already been a huge learning process. At the beginning, I thought this project would be about urban farming and the environment, but I’ve realised how much of it is actually about the social element of sustainability’, reveals Phil. ‘It’s been really great when people find out about what I’m doing – they come and drop off little secret care packages, and I’ve had all sorts of neat stuff being delivered to me, like banana cake or cookies that my neighbours have baked. But people have been really receptive to one of the rules I put in place, which is that if I can’t find what I need in The Sustainable City, then I’ll barter or trade something for it. People are really up for it, so I take scraps of wood that I find around the city, and build things for community gardening or urban farming like little planter boxes and that kind of stuff. And then I’d say to a neighbour ‘I need rice and olive oil – would you trade with me for this wooden planter box I built? People have loved that concept, and been really receptive. I call it filling in the holes of my food basket.”
Now getting used to the intricacies of the project, Phil is constantly having to think how – and where – his next meal is coming from. “It does actually feel like I’ve gone back in time. I want to say a much simpler time, but the rules of the project do add another layer of complexity to modern day living because you have to plan so far in advance – like I have to plan what I’m going to eat next week today, at the very least’, he says. ‘In some of my planning, I’ve had to figure out what I’m going to eat in the summertime, how I’m going to deal with it when the weather gets hot, and where I’m going to get my food from.”
As a part of that planning, Phil is relying upon the support of his neighbours. “One of the things I’ve realised is that years ago, in those simpler times, your word was your bond. So if you promised something to someone, that was an agreement, and if one of those people broke the agreement, it was a big deal. It’s sort of like that now when I’m bartering with someone. If I make a plan that I’m going to trade with that person for a certain thing, I go ahead and make my end of the deal and plan that what I’m getting from them is what I’m going to have for dinner next week. If that falls through, its not a life and death thing like it was in the olden days, but it’s a significant hit to my planning.”
Describing himself as “a carnivore of note” before the project began, Phil’s current diet is vastly different from what it was. “I had a terrible diet before I started this, so it’s really been a big change’, he explains. ‘Honestly, my average day food-wise right now is pretty boring. Lately it’s consisted of eggplant, sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes, mustard greens and chives for dinner, I have salad for lunch, and for breakfast I have a mix of lime and moringa juice. The Moringa is a tree that grows here, and the leaves and pods are super-nutritious, its like a superfood – the stats are that it has more vitamin C than 20 oranges or something. It took a while to figure out what to do with it, but we discovered that you soak the leaves overnight in water, you get this juice. You have to get used to it, because it tastes very earthy, but I’ll have a litre of that for breakfast. People have also been very kind, and I’ve had more than a few meals dropped off to me from some of the residents here. I think they feel sorry for me!”
Such a dramatic change in Phil’s eating habits have had an obvious effect on his body. “I have lost some weight – that’s a happy byproduct of this whole project,’ laughs Phil. But his health and wellbeing are a priority, so the entire process is being monitored by The Sustainable City’s Chiron Clinic, who completed baseline medical tests before the challenge and are tracking Phil’s health at regular intervals to ensure any nutritional issues are identified and addressed.
“I did suffer, energy-wise, at the beginning’, admits Phil. ‘There was definitely something of a transition, from what my wife – who is a naturopathic physician – would say was an unhealthy lifestyle, to something more like her diet, that was almost entirely vegetable-based. The first couple of weeks had a really big impact – I felt like I was on a detox, with headaches and some nausea, so there was definitely a physical transformation going on. But that was absolutely for the better, because it’s the way I want to eat in the future, and after the first five days or so, I felt great. I do feel healthier, and at the same time I’ve been concerned about Covid-19 and all of those things, I feel that I have taken control of my health in a preventative way as well, which is a pretty good feeling.”
Aside from feeling healthier by increasing his intake of fruit and vegetables, Phil’s carnivorous past may not be a part of his more considered future. “I really do understand the impact – especially now – of what eating meat has on the planet’, says Phil. ‘There’s an aquaponic system here in The Sustainable City which has fish and plants that have a synergistic relationship together. We went to get the fish tested to see if they were OK to eat, and they were fine, so I was able to get fish from the tank if I wanted it. But over the last 2 months, I’ve only been able to eat five fish from there because I just feel so guilty. When you have to go and catch and process them yourself, it’s much different to when you go to a grocery store and just pick it off of the shelf as this nameless, faceless slab of meat. But when you have to go through the whole system of making it into your dinner, it really makes you realise you want to become a vegetarian much faster.”
With the heart of the 365 day project centred around locally-produced food, Phil hopes to reduce his carbon footprint by eating local and supporting and discovering the different avenues of local produce available to us. “The goal is to raise awareness about community gardening from a social aspect, to grow a community by growing together, as well as teaching people about food security and how growing food locally is such an important thing to do for our nation and the environment’ explains Phil. ‘We’re actually so luckily here in the UAE that there are so many organic and local farms that are starting to pop up, offering locally-produced food to the community because that simply wasn’t the case previously. It seems that new businesses like these are appearing all the time, which is fantastic, and we must support them to help nourish and develop the local produce market as much as we can.”
As Phil heads towards his third month as a sustainable human, despite starting the project as something of a personal goal, he would like to encourage others to join him, and start thinking about food in a more sustainably-minded way. “People certainly don’t think about urban farming and growing their own food when they think of Dubai’, laughs Phil. ’I’d love to get the momentum built around this project – I now have all the infrastructure in place and ticking along nicely, and I think it would be a great thing to share that knowledge and the lessons I’ve learned.”
With the hope of encouraging others to think local with their food choices, Phil’s mission is to educate the region about the benefits of eating sustainably, not only for their health, but for the sake of the environment and local economy too. “I’d really love other people to join me on this journey’, says Phil. ‘Aside from the health and environmental benefits, I think a big part of it is that people can create something they need, trading with another grower without any money changing hands – that’s a really neat concept in itself. But the idea of a circular economy, where something that would be waste is turned into something useful, is even more exciting. And urban dwellers are surrounded by those sorts of objects, so it’s really a great opportunity for people to experiment with the concepts of sustainability on so many levels.”
Follow Phil on his journey @thesustainablehumanproject.