x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

UAE Portrait of a Nation: A champion of dry agriculture

An expert in food and water security, Dr Ismahane Elouafi has a crucial role to play at a time when farmers across the region are struggling to grow their own crops in tough climate conditions.

Dr Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the Dubai-based International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture, is a pioneer in dry agriculture, the practice of growing food with little water use. Victor Besa for The National
Dr Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the Dubai-based International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture, is a pioneer in dry agriculture, the practice of growing food with little water use. Victor Besa for The National

DUBAI // The Middle East needs more people like Dr Ismahane Elouafi. In fact, much of the world does.

An expert in food and water security, she has a crucial role to play at a time when farmers across the region are increasingly struggling to grow crops in what is clearly a harsh climate.

But the director general of the Dubai-based International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture relishes a challenge.

Growing crops in the Middle East, which faces major water shortages and uses complex industrial operations to desalinate water, requires sheer ingenuity.

To that end, Ms Elouafi is pioneering “dry agriculture”, which involves the cultivation of crops that need very little water, such as quinoa.

“Although the UAE is a food-secure country because of its capacity to buy on the international market, it should be able to produce a portion of its needs in the country using innovative technology,” says Ms Elouafi, a mother of two.

“The land is getting drier and more marginalised by climate change, so if it’s ahead of the curve with technologies, many places will follow and it’s one of my aims to make sure the resources in the UAE are used in a more sustainable way.”

During her time at the centre, she and her team reached a number of milestones, such as introducing agricultural systems that have cut water consumption by 75 per cent compared to greenhouses and lowered energy use by 95 per cent.

“The Khalifa Fund gave an upfront loan for farmers to install the system because they believed the results were very promising,” she says.

“We’ve also done very good work on very important crops, like quinoa. We were able to introduce it to at least 10 regions in the UAE and more than 10 countries. We are also genetically breeding salicornia, which is used with seawater, and this benefits all the region where you have a lot of salinity.”

She hopes to turn the UAE into a model for dry agriculture.

“I’m very proud of all this,” says Dr Elouafi, who has been the centre’s director general for four and a half years.

But her current career is a long way from what she first envisaged would be her vocation. She wanted to be a military pilot.

“There was a plan in Morocco to recruit female military pilots, but the project was aborted in the year I graduated,” she says.

“It was by chance that I got into agriculture because it’s all that was available by the time we were informed. But I’m so glad. This was my fate; it was written.”

She went on to manage the farm of a businessman in Marrakech for a year, putting in place a plan to improve farming standards.

She then took up studies in Spain, working on her doctorate on hard wheat for four years, with lab work in Mexico and field work in Syria.(Hard wheat can be any variety of wheat that has a hard kernel and which is high in protein and gluten.)

She later found herself in Canada.

“But after eight years in Canada, I really felt I was not contributing to what really mattered to me, which is agricultural research. That’s why I came to Dubai because the centre works with many countries on issues of food and water security, so I felt it was very close to what my passion is and what I care about.

“I wanted to do something which would eventually make the life of poor farmers better, especially in this region.”

cmalek@thenational.ae