Salicornia farm UAE
Salicornia is grown in the UAE using reject brine from inland desalination units Image Credit: International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA)

When the newest plant-forward burgers go on sale across the UAE this winter, they’ll also be demonstrating just how far the country’s agricultural sector has come. The new range of burgers are made from salicornia, a genus of succulents that thrives on salty ground and one of several plants collectively known as samphire. Salicornia is grown in the UAE using reject brine from inland desalination units. Often described as the poor man’s asparagus, it is rich in antioxidants and is an accepted substitute for table salt.

“[The launch] is a step forward to achieving our goal of boosting local UAE agriculture and promoting farming innovation. The UAE’s groundwater is 90 per cent saline which makes it an ideal environment to yield the best salicornia produce,” Dr Dionysia Angeliki Lyra, Halophyte Agronomist, Directorate of Programmes, ICBA, said. “We are optimistic that the launch of the new burger has the potential to transform the UAE’s burgeoning home-grown crops sector.”

The new burgers are available under the brand name Al Areesh at Union Coop, Aswaaq and Emirates Coop.

GFI Burger
Developed in collaboration with the ICBA, Global Food Industries' Quinoa-Kale Chicken Burger with salicornia is a healthier and tastier alternative to traditional meat burgers that's produced in the UAE Image Credit: Global Food Industries

Strengthening food security

With a growing population and rising consumption needs, the UAE has focused on building a sustainable agricultural and animal wealth industry in order to strengthen its food security while improving economic diversification.

“Our national food security strategy will make the UAE a world-leading hub of innovation-driven food security in the next 30 years,” Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, said at an Expo 2020 seminar to coincide with World Food Day in October. The strategy was launched in 2018 to diversify import sources, develop sustainable local agriculture enabled by technology across the value chain, reducing food loss and waste, and increasing resilience.

The country currently imports about 90 per cent of its food. Surging food prices and supply chain disruptions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have prompted the country to accelerate schemes to produce more crops and livestock.

“Realistically, we’re looking at maybe increasing our domestic production going toward 30 per cent – 40 per cent in the next 10 years,” Almheiri told Bloomberg TV. 

Initial developments have simply been a matter of finding local solutions to capitalise on the country’s strengths. About 90 per cent of the dairy demand is met domestically, and as of 2010, Italian Dairy Products has made burrata and mozzarella cheeses in Sharjah. Likewise, oysters from Dibba Bay in Fujairah have been available in supermarkets and at brunch tables across the country for several years now; the animals take up to four years to grow to market size in Northern European cold water farms but mature within a year’s time along the Indian Ocean. Sales of vegetables and fruit produced on hydroponic farms totalled Dh29 million at Union Coop supermarkets alone, Hortidaily reported.

Dibba Bay Oysters
Oysters from Dibba Bay in Fujairah have been available in supermarkets and at brunch tables across the country for several years now Image Credit: GN Archives

Now policy action has coalesced around innovative approaches and emerging technologies that limit the impact of factors such as a lack of natural resources, water scarcity and the early effects of climate change. Developing salt-resistant crops such as salicornia is one approach. A similar experiment in Sharjah last year by a team of UAE and Korean scientists showed how two rice varieties, Asemi (japonica) and FL478 (indica), can tolerate heat, salinity and poor soil conditions. As in other sectors, technological solutions play a significant role in UAE agriculture: aquaculture, vertical and hydroponic farms, remote-controlled drones to map farms, plant seeds and spray crops, and artificial intelligence-based sensors to track crop health and humidity, are all being used around the country.

Now, the first space-style high-tech greenhouse could open in Abu Dhabi as early as next year. StarLab Oasis, a research centre set up by satellite services company Nanoracks, hopes to show how space technology can improve food security on earth. Among other initiatives, the centre’s scientists will send seeds to space to induce mutations that could produce new, more resilient, and productive crop varieties. The technique, referred to as space mutagenesis, has been successfully used in China for over three decades.

Allen Herbert, General Manager at StarLab Oasis, said, “A great amount of the world’s sustainable and economically efficient food production will one day come from deserts, harsh environments and off earth. All this is beginning now, in Abu Dhabi.”

The project is part of a Dh252 million investment into seven agricultural technology (AgTech) companies. These include Pure Harvest Smart Farms, which will use smart farming and infrastructure technologies to grow fresh fruits and vegetables in a climate-controlled environment; AeroFarms, which has begun building the largest vertical farming research centre in Abu Dhabi; and FreshToHome, an e-grocery platform for fresh, chemical-free produce procured at source through an AI-powered auction process.

AgTech innovations from Adio’s partners are already propelling the growth of Abu Dhabi’s 24,000 farms as the emirate presses ahead with its mission to turn the desert green, Dr Tariq Bin Hendi, director general of ADIO, said. “We are driving innovation across the entire agriculture value chain, and this is producing a compounding effect that is benefiting farmers, innovators and companies in our region and beyond.”