Growing food in the desert

Growing Food in the Desert

The theme of Expo 2020 is ‘Connecting Minds and Creating the Future’ through sustainability, mobility and opportunity, so my thoughts recently turned to sustainability – and that led me to consider food production in the UAE. 

We live in a nation richly supplied with abundant fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, and supermarkets heaving with international products. But a great deal of this abundant food supply is imported. 

It may shock you to learn that in Q1 2020 – the latest year I could find records for – the UAE imported food to the value of AED17.98 billion. 

Our nation has around 10 million people, so you can easily see the cost per capita of imported food. To hammer the point home, we currently import about 90% of our food. 

This unsustainable statistic was thrown into stark relief during the pandemic, but the UAE’s supermarket shelves remained full – thankfully. 

COVID-19 threw supply chains off-kilter globally. This caused supply disruptions and increased the price of food globally, factors that catalysed our forward-looking leaders to consider growing more food in our deserts. 

Speaking to Bloomberg in April 2021, Her Excellency Mariam Almheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, said: “Realistically, we’re looking at maybe increasing our domestic production going toward 30%-40% in the next ten years. We all know that being dependent on global food supplies is not a good thing.” 

HE Almheiri is charged with implementing a UAE National Food Security Strategy launched in November 2018, which lists 18 strategic food items and focuses on combining technology, innovation and alternative agriculture methods to bolster domestic food production. 

Plans include farming rice in the desert, vertical farming, aquaculture and even space research. 

Farming rice in the desert 

Think of rice cultivation, and most of us think of vast, water-logged fields across southeast Asia. Rice is a sensitive crop and doesn’t fare well in the dry, arid, extreme heat of the desert. 

Undeterred by these facts, a UAE team of scientists has been successfully growing special rice crops developed by South Korean scientists in the deserts of Sharjah for the last two years. 

The South Korean Asemi rice strain is known for its ability to tolerate heat, salinity and poor soil conditions. Flooding the growth sites between furrows has proved to be the most successful growing method. In 2020, the 1,000 square metres Al Dhaid test site successfully yielded 1,700 kilograms (two tons) of rice. 

Vertical Farming 

Advances in technology and innovation have seen global interest in vertical farming – using minimal water, grow lights and maximising space. 

Vertical farming lends itself to the UAE’s climate, as vertical farms can be in temperature-controlled indoor environments. 

Last year, Abu Dhabi-based RainMakers Capital Investment and Netherland’s based GrowGroup IFSannounced the largest indoor farm in the world in the UAE at a cost of AED650 million (US$177million). 

As a result of the partnership, GreenFactory Emirates will produce 10,000 tonnes of fresh produce every year – produced in a way that saves 95% of water consumption compared to standard cultivation methods, as well as reducing its Co2 footprint by up to 40%. 

Greenhouses are go 

One company, Abu Dhabi-based agriculture technology start-up Pure Harvest Smart Farms, is leading the charge after securing US$60 million in funding to expand its operations in providing climate-controlled greenhouse growing environments. 

Pure Harvest’s proprietary solution has made it a pioneer in high-yielding, year-round, local production of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

The company’s breakthrough growing system is specifically designed for addressing the challenging summertime climates of the Arabian Gulf region. 

Indoor temperature, carbon dioxide levels and humidity are carefully balanced and automated using an advanced climate management computer system. 

‘Magic’ Sand 

UAE-based Dake Group, an investment management company that focuses on finding farming solutions through innovative technologies, is offering Chinese-developed breathable sand, which retains water and allows crop growth. 

I’ve been impressed with this relatively simple concept – Rechsand Technology Group of Beijing takes common sand and coats it using proprietary technology to allow the passage of air through its particles and harness the water contained it in. 

Dake Group says this technology could be applied to desert sand to retain water and decrease farming water and fertiliser usage by 70% and 50%, respectively. 

Fishing in the desert 

Aquaculture has been described as a central component in the country’s food security strategy by the Minister of Climate Change and Environment, HE Almheiri. 

Aquaculture is less land-intensive and has a lower ecological footprint than traditional farming, with ponds or tanks used to grow certain fish species. 

These tanks are much smaller than the space required to produce the same amount of protein from cattle. 

The Minister told UAE news agency WAM that “we can expect the aquaculture sector in the country to grow substantially over the coming years.” 

This growth is expected to be government-backed, with initiatives to attract investors in this growth sector. 

Tripling the proportion of locally produced food within a decade will provide greater sustainability, food security and ensure (continuing) fair prices for all. 

It will, of course, also mean less carbon production, as the air miles/ transportation costs and ‘food miles’ will be greatly reduced. 

We have already made great progress in farming quinoa and salmon. There is more to be done, but I feel certain that the global companies attending Expo 2020 will be very keen and interested to help us achieve full domestic food security. 

A key part of growing food in our desert nation is a reliance on technology. I’m reminded of the rise in vertical farming, but we must offer incentives to agri-tech and food-tech companies to come to the UAE and help us provide domestically-produced food for all. 


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