With the UAE almost wholly reliant on food imports, food security is a national priority.
In recent months, the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened domestic concerns as global supply chains of imports were disrupted.
The crisis also prompted renewed debate about how best to boost local agriculture and foster farming innovation.
Searing summer temperatures, little rainfall and a landscape dominated by arid desert, has meant that the UAE’s agricultural activities have been relatively restricted to small areas.
That could soon change, however, say academics at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University, who are developing ‘artificial soil’, made up of almost 90% desert sand.
Their goal is for the product to be used by local, and eventually regional farmers, to grow plants & vegetation.
The soil created in the laboratory resembles the texture, porosity & fertility of soils found in Thailand & Ukraine.
If patent approved, scientists in the capital are optimistic that it has the potential to transform the UAE’s burgeoning home-grown crops sector.
To dig deeper into the topic, Inspire Middle East’s Rebecca McLaughlin-Eastham caught up with Associate Professor, Dr. Saeed Alkhazraji, a passionate innovator who helped co-create the earth.
Dr. Saeed Alkhazraji speaks to Inspire Middle East
He began by explaining the soil’s unique qualities, which should be given extra consideration in light of the UAE’s extreme weather conditions.
“Farmers have to be aware that any crop they're trying to grow [here] needs to be dealt with in a specific way, to allow them to maximize their yield,” he said. “For example, if they want to grow a plant that is difficult to grow in the UAE, perhaps you need to use a greenhouse along with the soil that we are making.”
The soil’s potential to contribute to the local food supply chain, is significant, the Professor went on to tell Euronews.
“There are many different crops that are challenging to grow in the UAE, crops that sustain human lives, like rice and wheat - because of their excessive need for water.” said Dr. Saeed Alkhazraji. “The soil that we developed can allow us to have better water management, because it allows us to have a higher water retention than typical soils around the UAE.”
With rice a food staple of the UAE, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment recently announced a joint research programme with the Republic of Korea, aimed at cultivating rice in the desert.
The seeds were sowed back in 2019, cultivated using a water-saving drip irrigation system, and the rice was recently harvested.
Preliminary results for the first project of its kind in the region, indicated a yield of 763kg of rice per 1,000 square metres.
This prompted the Ministry to say that, if successful on a large scale, the project had the potential to shape the future of agriculture and be replicated in other arid regions.
Sharjah’s organic growth
The location of the rice initiative was the emirate of Sharjah, which according to scientists, is an emerging hotbed of agricultural innovation in the UAE.
It is also home to the Sharjah Research Technology & Innovation Park, a place which supports famers & harnesses new technology to produce sustainable local food all year round.
The Park notably contains a 150-square metre farm, and an eco-friendly Merlin Agrotunnel, capable of producing a ton of organic fruits & vegetables each month.
In keeping with the country’s environmental and sustainable farming goals, all produce is irrigated with seawater desalinated via solar energy.
SRTI’s CEO, Hussain Al Mahmoudi, predicts that in the next 5 years at least 30 percent of the UAE’s food will be domestically produced.
Hussain Al Mahmoudi monitors the crops at SRTI
He told Inspire that continuous research and development into new farming innovations & agricultural technology will accelerate the sector’s growth in the years ahead.
“Since the inception of the Park, we've started to promote things like hydroponics technology, aquaponics technology & tunnel farming. And they've all taken off,” he said. “At the moment, we are [also] using Artificial Intelligence to study how aquaponics works, with relation to fish. How the fish really move and how much food they eat.”
When asked about the economic feasibility of large-scale farming projects in the UAE, and how production and harvesting costs could be kept down, Al Mahmoudi had this to say:
“I think the feasibility is there, because the UAE has an abundant amount of land. A lot of farmers in the UAE, especially the national ones, get free land. If you couple this with the cost of doing business here, it is also relatively low compared to other parts of the world. There’s also the fantastic infrastructure - in terms of ports and airports and storage and other things.”
On the subject of the UAE being one of the world’s top rice importers, SRTI’s CEO is convinced that producing home-grown rice would be game-changing for the domestic market.
“I think we can play a strategic role in growing rice,” he said. “We have the infrastructure, both soft infrastructure and public sector, to really become a regional player in producing rice and ensuring food security.”
SEEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA: FAMILY GATHERING
Australian Ellie took this photo of her family picking radishes in Al Ain.
With contributions from Nancy Sarkis and Arthur de Oliveira.