The Liwa Oasis is an important agricultural site in the UAE Image Credit: Getty

With the population of the UAE approaching 10 million, increasing local food production is proving to be quite challenging for the country’s development narrative, especially when agriculture accounts for only 3 per cent of the GDP. With less than 5 per cent of the total land area being arable and low rainfall, about 85 per cent of food is imported, according to the Ministry of Economy. Food imports stood at Dh52.3 billion last year.

Taking the lead in addressing the challenge, growth in agricultural productivity has been catalysed by government policies, including the recent launch of the privilege card Mawroothna that offers farmers discounts and other benefits to encourage them to continue working in the profession.

To enhance food safety and promote sustainable local production, the Ministry of Environment and Water (MEW), along with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, has been working on agricultural innovation such as protected farming, new generation greenhouses and climate-smart, water-efficient crops. In a major push to grow more food at home, Dr Rashid Bin Fahad, who heads the MEW, emphasised the need to adopt pioneering ways of growing crops on the roofs or in vertical stacks, while speaking at last year’s Gulf Forum to Enhance Food Security in Abu Dhabi. “We cannot keep up with the traditional way of farming. We have to look at other technologies that should be implemented by Arab farmers.”

In 2014, the MEW opened the Agricultural Innovation Centre in Sharjah to promote agricultural advancements and maintain sustainability through technological innovations. The centre also promotes exchange of expertise both locally and internationally.

In a time of rising population and climate change, not to mention the hostile desert environment, organic farming has been hailed as an answer to yield healthier produce. The MEW has been increasing acreage under organic farming by 5 per cent annually.  

Locally inspired initiatives such as Dubai Municipality’s Grow Your Food campaign in September are also propelling home-grown food to reduce imports. A prime example of the growing organic trend is the 50-hectare Al Rawafed Agriculture Organic Farm in Abu Dhabi, which supplies nearly ten tonnes of fresh produce to supermarkets and restaurants daily. It is one of the biggest local sources of organic products in the country, alongside Greenheart Organic Farms and Yas Farm. 

Several smart farming ventures have come up in recent years. Businessmen Sky Kurtz and Mahmoud Adi have been using Dutch hydroponics farming techniques, a process of growing plants in solutions rather than soil, at their Pure Harvest farm in Nahel, north of Al Ain. The agri-tech start-up, which raised $1.1 million (Dh4 million) from Abu Dhabi-based Shorooq Investments recently, aims to cultivate crops in glasshouses to deal with overcome the challenges of year-round production.

At the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority showcased its Protected Agriculture Project, which runs on recycled water treated with UV rays and has its own cooling system, which means that plants growing there are not affected by climate change.

Meanwhile, the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (Icba) a non-profit research facility at Dubai’s Zayed University, showcased a prototype greenhouse of the future in October. Called a New Generation Greenhouse, it could triple crop yields of fruits and vegetables in the UAE while using 90 per cent less water and 50 per cent less energy.

Since the UAE’s food imports are expected to rise to $400 billion in the next ten years, the government is investing abroad in the agro-food sector in countries including Namibia, South Africa and Sudan to secure food supplies. “Food security is not just an issue for Abu Dhabi or the UAE,” Mohammad Al Suwaidi, acting director-general of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, told Reuters. “Recently, it has become a hot issue everywhere.”