ABU DHABI // An Indian fungus that helps turn arid soil into farmland could help the UAE grow more of its own fruit and vegetables. The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) will launch a pilot programme this autumn in partnership with the Higher Colleges of Technology to fertilise arid land with the fungus, called mycorrhiza. It attaches itself to the roots of plants, helping them absorb water and minerals much more efficiently.
The New Delhi-based institute hopes to set up demonstration sites at many locations with a variety of soil conditions throughout the UAE. "We have huge labs in India that we've been working in for the last 20 years," said Meena Janardhan, a fellow at the Teri Gulf Centre in Dubai. "We've come up with technology suitable for plants which can withstand temperatures from 0 to 60 degrees Celsius. "So whether in a cold area or a hot area, that's not the criteria."
Teri has recently expanded a similar project in Qatar, which began in 2007 and within 18 months had transformed 4,000 square metres of sandy - and very salty - soil into plantations of decorative plants, animal forage and vegetables. The UAE project will be significantly larger, says Ms Janardhan. The fungus feeds on sugar, which it takes from the plants' roots. In return, it acts as a more extensive rooting system for the plants, helping them survive heat and drought. It also helps protect the roots from disease.
The fungus's ability to absorb more nutrients from less water should allow crops to grow with 60 per cent less water than they currently require, said Ms Janardhan. While mycorrhizae occur naturally, they are not prevalent in desert soil. The high level of alkalis in sandy soil and water makes it difficult for plants to absorb fertilisers, said Najieb Khoory, the managing director of Mirak Agricultural Services, one of the country's biggest agricultural companies. "The soil gets damaged and you have to spend a lot of money to sterilise it and get rid of the salt that accumulates," he added. The fungus might be the first step in preserving the health of the soil, while reducing dependence on fertilisers. "You watch the plants, however much [of nutrients] they suck in, they then reproduce so that it can give back to the land and to the soil," said Ms Janardhan. Projects like this may one day help the UAE to reclaim desert land. Last month, partial findings from the Abu Dhabi Soil Survey, a year-long soil assessment, showed that more than 200,000 hectares out of the emirate's 5.7 million could support some form of agriculture. Currently, 77,000 hectares in the emirate are used in farming.
However, some farms cannot wait for research results and have developed their own growing systems. Mirak Agricultural Services, which has more than 200 hectares of farmland, has one of the largest open-field hydroponic growing systems in the world. The sophisticated irrigation system wastes very little water, recycling most of what it uses. Called the bench pot growing system, the fields contain rows of pots held about a metre off the ground. The pots contain a "mixed media" composed of gravel, coconut husks and a minimal amount of fertiliser instead of soil. Thirty years ago, the farm used "basic, normal agriculture practices that are being done [at farms currently]" but has since tried many different growing systems. The bench pot system has been adapted from a vertical growing system, in which rows of plants were stacked above each other. Water fed in at the top trickled down through the various layers. Like vertical growing, the bench pot system uses very little pesticide and fertiliser, and is less labour-intensive. It allows a longer growing system, with up to four crops a year - twice as many as previously. "We've learned from the environment itself," said Mr Khoory. "You end up with something that has to be different from all systems but is suitable for your own region. "The yields and quality of produce are very high and for our conditions it's basically the answer to many of the country's problems of agriculture." The Government is already looking at ways to improve the sector. In August, it will stop providing subsidies for farmers to grow water-hungry Rhodes grass as animal feed, instead encouraging farmers to shift to more salt-tolerant plants such as barley, pearl millet, and sorghum. firstname.lastname@example.org