x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Dh100,000 farming subsidy good news for food security

While the bounty at the supermarket is unlikely to run bare at any time soon, there are many reasons to keep the local agricultural sector alive.

Gorged on smoked salmon from Scotland, fresh produce from Kenya and prime cuts of beef from Argentina, it's a bit of a stretch to ask UAE residents to empathise with farmers who scraped the desert for subsistence crops a couple of generations ago. 

But it should give pause for thought that the day the ships don't come home to port, the shelves of the larder will go dry. There is a certain oddity that a country rich in oil still needs to tend to its inhospitable farmland. The truth is, without artificial supports, most of the nation's farmers would be looking for another job.

The latest subsidies scheme to bite the dust in Abu Dhabi was for the cultivation of Rhodes grass, an animal-feed crop that drank more water than it was worth. The substitute, reported in The National today, is a Dh100,000 grant for farmers who follow irrigation and maintenance guidelines set by the Farmers Service Centre. Wheat and barley are meant to become the main staples for animal feed. It's a step in the right direction. Wheat and barley have been cultivated in the Middle East since the dawn of agriculture, and staples in the Gulf even after they were supplanted by rice imports. But large-scale cereal agriculture will continue to stress the water supply, either from precious well sources or expensive desalination.

The animals still need to be fed, however, and livestock is a crucial leg of the food supply. Another step forward is to encourage husbandry of more hardy species of goats and sheep, as well as the ever-dependable camel. Crops and livestock are being bred in the field and in the laboratory that should be considered in the national food strategy. 

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rajendra Pachauri has advocated a broad role for technology in the agricultural sector here. "There are vast areas of land in the UAE that could be revived," said Dr Pachauri. "I want to see how we can improve the quality of soil, to use science and technology, by which soil becomes productive, and then at least you can start growing vegetables and fruit on a larger scale."

The bounty at the supermarket is unlikely to run bare anytime soon. But, in addition to the agricultural tradition, there are reasons to keep these farms alive. In part, food security will depend on the crops that thrive there.