x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fertile thoughts on UAE food farming

In a desert country like the UAE, growing food on sandy soils can be extremely challenging. But experts believe factors such as dryland farming and fertilisers can help grow more food in a sustainable manner.

DUBAI // Better use of fertilisers and dryland farming is needed to help the UAE produce food sustainably, experts say.

"We have an increasing demand for food and arable land has declined," said Dr Christof Walter, a sustainable agriculture consultant from the UK. "With soil erosion and soil degradation, fertiliser plays an important role in maintaining our resources."

Dr Walter was speaking at the third Gulf Petrochemical Annual Fertiliser Convention in Dubai this week.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says global agricultural production needs to increase by 60 per cent over the next four decades.

But only 0.77 per cent of the UAE's land is given to crops. And with that figure unlikely to rise, maintaining the land's condition with fertilisers will be crucial.

"The fertiliser industry must continue to focus on sustainability by adopting a clean production and a green economy," said Dr Rashid bin Fahad, Minister of Environment and Water.

Many Emirati farmers are not aware of the dangers of misusing fertiliser. Locally produced compost and animal manure can sometimes be poorly broken down and form an ideal breeding ground for pests.

Using too much fertiliser can also be a problem as the excess can leach into the ground and damage it.

"If it reaches the sea soil, it will deoxidise the water," said Ahmad Al Qahtani, the manager of ammonia and phosphates at Sabic, a Saudi Arabian producer of fertilisers.

"It will create more algae, which will consume the oxygen in the water and this can affect fish."

About 250,000 square kilometres of sea soil have been affected.

"Unless good practices are addressed to farmers about the right dosage of fertiliser, it will affect drinking water and create diseases," Mr Al Qahtani said.

But getting the point across to farmers is not simple.

"There are 1.35 million small-scale farmers globally in 200 different supply chains," said Dr Walter.

"You have to reach all of these farmers correctly and involve them in a proper programme for training and information. That's a massive challenge in the food industry and we can't tackle it alone."

One solution is to fertilise the land sustainably. "We can think about what sources of biomass there are," Dr Walter said.

"You can recycle it, compost it, you can use urban or sewage waste if you have purely residential areas and no processing industry.

"You can produce wonderful compost from sewage. It's highly hygienic because it's been composted in a heated process."

And dryland farming, using crops that grow with less than 500 millimetres of rainfall a year - including corn, tomatoes, small grains and watermelons - could help.

"That could help the sustainability of food supply and within the country, it can contribute to greater good because the UAE has the means and the leadership to do this," said Dr Walter.

"In the [sub-Saharan] countries, they have similar issues but I can't see anything happening there in the next five to 10 years."

The FAO says a quarter of the world's cereal production comes from dryland agriculture.

Dr Walter said the UAE should also focus on how to best use its water and other ways of generating it.

"You can use humidity from the air and crystallise that," he said.

"These are opportunities to connect various dots and come to greater solutions. The food industry must address sustainability as a matter of necessity."

cmalek@thenational.ae