Salicornia field at ICBA headquarters in Dubai Image Credit: Courtesy ICBA

In a first-of-its-kind research project, the UAE has recently cultivated rice at a farm in Sharjah. Initiated by the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MoCCAE) in partnership with the Rural Development Administration (RDA) of the Republic of Korea and the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), the pilot phase of the project showed positive results, producing a yield of 763kg of rice per 1,000 square metres.

According to MoCCAE, this groundbreaking project has the potential to shape the future of agriculture, as it can be replicated in other arid regions. The second stage of the rice project is currently under way, while the country is also exploring ways to cultivate other crops, including coffee and wheat.

From increasing local food production to exploring ways to diversify food import sources, the UAE has implemented a two-pronged approach to advance food security and meet its internal demand during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, the UAE jumped 10 places in the Global Food Security Index, moving from 31 in the rankings in 2018 to 21 in 2019. This achievement reflects the efforts of the UAE government to establish the country as a world-leading hub in innovation-driven food security.

Agri-tech innovation

While it’s not easy to grow food sustainably in deserts, the agricultural sector in the UAE has seen rapid developments in recent years driven by innovation in science and technology.

His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has stressed upon the importance of using the latest technology in the agricultural sector according to the criteria of sustainability, quality and competitiveness. He has also called for developing innovative solutions capable of overcoming challenges facing the agricultural sector, especially food production and management.

“The UAE has made positive strides in the space of food and water security. As a nation, we have a sound strategy and plan to move towards food security in the long term,” says Ravindra Shrotriya, Founder and CEO, VeggiTech, an agri-tech company based in Sharjah. “Visionary leaders like Dr Abdullah Bel Haif Al Nuaimi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, and Mariam Bint Mohammad Al Muhairi, Minister of State for Food and Water Security, are working hard with all the key stakeholders to ensure there is focus and tangible actions in this space.”

Attracting the right talent and technology that can create sustainable and environmentally-friendly farms is key to reducing the UAE’s dependence on imports. “An increased awareness on the nutritional value of locally-grown food is paramount in driving the local farming industry,” Shrotriya adds.

As part of its research and development efforts, International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), a non-profit agricultural research center based in Dubai Academic City, has taken several initiatives to help the UAE improve food security and nutrition, water security and environmental sustainability.

“Some of our recent initiatives include a project funded through the Expo 2020 Dubai’s Expo Live Innovation Impact Grant Programme. Under this project, ICBA is helping farmers in Abu Dhabi grow Salicornia, a halophytic or salt-loving plant, and fish, using reject brine from inland desalination units,” says Dr Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of ICBA.

Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented an opportunity for ICBA to help local communities in these unprecedented times. “In May this year, we launched a unique community initiative to grow, harvest, and share agricultural produce and raise awareness about the importance of food,” she says.

While commenting on the critical challenges of agricultural production in the harsh and extreme environment in the region, Dr Elouafi says, “Temperature is higher than the optimal level for most of the year; freshwater is scarce, and on top of that, its uncontrolled use is depleting the freshwater resources further. The crop production is low and not enough to cover local demand. As a result, the region imports a significant portion of its food requirement.”

However, there are several ways to overcome these challenges and boost local food production.

“In addition to technologies like vertical farming, we also need to focus on crop diversification, which I think holds the key to sustainable food production and healthy diets, not just for the UAE but also for other countries,” explains Dr Elouafi.

Crop diversification

ICBA has been at the forefront of promoting agrobiodiversity and crop diversification for the past two decades. The center has introduced climate-smart and resource-efficient crops such as quinoa, pearl millet, sorghum, and Salicornia, among others.

“These crops are nutritious and resilient to heat, drought, and salinity, therefore fit for the UAE’s environments. We have also introduced several salt-loving forages that produce higher yields than some traditional grasses to save freshwater resources in the UAE and ensure feed security as well.” she adds.

While aquaponics, hydroponics and vertical farming are gaining traction in UAE farms, the sector also needs to explore other innovative cultivation methods and techniques to increase production and support future growth.

UAE-based Desert Control has been using its patented Liquid Nano Clay (LNC) mixture — sprayed directly on to dry, sandy land — to create a water-retaining network in the soil profile and improve crop yields.

“This is designed to have a large impact on the use of precious water resources. Currently 75 per cent of the world’s freshwater reserves are absorbed by the global agriculture industry, which is not sustainable,” says Atle Idland, GM and Managing Director, Desert Control Middle East. “LNC can reduce this by up to 50 per cent and at the same time give higher crop yields.”

He also adds that the early adoption of new, sustainable technologies, along with education and knowledge sharing, is key to addressing the challenges in the food production segment in the UAE.