Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 June 2019

Heritage crops that feed on sea water could feed the UAE's growing population

Scientists are looking to genetically modify crops that were grown here in ancient times to help solve the region's food security issues

Modern farming techniques coupled with the genetic engineering of crops that once proliferated in the Middle easy could be the key to tackling the UAE's food insecurity. Getty Images
Modern farming techniques coupled with the genetic engineering of crops that once proliferated in the Middle easy could be the key to tackling the UAE's food insecurity. Getty Images

Scientists are hoping to tackle the region’s food insecurity by reintroducing heritage crops that have been genetically modified to grow using saltwater straight from the sea.

Poor soil coupled with a scarcity of fresh water has led the UAE, and much of the region, to rely on importing food to feed its populations.

Euro-centric methods of agriculture are ill-suited for the hot and dry land, and some vegetables require 30 or more times the water in the UAE than is needed to grow the same plant in cooler environments.

Importing sufficed for decades as little consideration was given to environmental impact. But today, with the threat of global warming and the food industry being one of the biggest culprits, the way we eat has become one the most important frontiers for sustainability.

Dr Ismahane Elouafi, director-general of the International Centre of Biosaline Agriculture, does not agree with the idea that deserts are barren environments. Instead, she believes that although regional appetites have veered away from what the land naturally provides, they must be brought back.

“Sixty per cent of our food comes from only four crops. There are only 150 crops available on the market out of the 7,000 our ancestors used to grow,” Dr Elouafi said.

Wheat, maize, rice and potatoes feed the majority of the world’s population. But all four of those crops, which were genetically engineered to sustain people during the European industrial revolution, are unsuitable for growth outside the Northern Hemisphere.

Instead, she says that crops such as millet, which some historians believe was among the first seeds grown in the Fertile Crescent – an area of the Middle East where agriculture and some of the earliest civilisations began – can fulfil food demand.

Pearl millet is among the crops the ICBA are hoping to reintroduce to the UAE. Photo by Showkat Nabi
Pearl millet is among the crops the ICBA are hoping to reintroduce to the UAE. Photo by Showkat Nabi

Dr Elouafi is now seeking other plants that can grow in the UAE, adding thousands of species of ancient crop seeds to ICBA’s gene bank. Her scientists are digging through time to find some of the 7,000 crops our ancestors used and, from those, identifying species that are saline-resistant, nutrient-rich and, of course, tasty.

“We’re only focusing on a few for now because breeding is extremely expensive. That’s why most of the countries to the south [of the Northern Hemisphere] still use crops from the north – they are put on the market by multinationals,” she said.

But now, breakthroughs in genetic coding technology can tremendously reduce the cost of breeding, meaning that it may be possible to engineer endemic crops to become easier to grow and better suited to mass cultivation in the region.

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The shortage of water, she said, is one of the main constraints to UAE food production. Water scarcity has been offset in the country by some of the world’s most substantial desalination plants – an energy-intensive practice.

But instead of desalinating seawater for crops, Dr Elouafi wants to engineer crops so they can be irrigated with water straight from the sea.

“It is possible – there are crops that have salinity tolerance already. We’re looking at these crops and into using either gene editing or hybrids to get crops on to the market that take more saline water and are more nutritious,” she said.

Omar Al Jundi is the founder and chief executive of Badia Farms, the region’s first vertical farm, in Al Quoz, Dubai. Reem Mohammed/The National
Omar Al Jundi is the founder and chief executive of Badia Farms, the region’s first vertical farm, in Al Quoz, Dubai. Reem Mohammed/The National

These innovations could be used in conjunction with developments such as Omar Al Jundi’s vertical farm, the first commercial one to launch in Dubai. It could be used to grow ICBA’s regionally-suitable crops to disrupt current energy-intensive agriculture in the Arab world.

“Our water bill for August was Dh1,500. That is lower than my home water bill. We’re able to harvest the majority of the water we use, recycle it and use the humidity to nourish plants,” said Mr Al Jundi, the founder and chief executive of Badia vertical farm, which produces 1,000 heads of lettuce at a time.

Vertical farming uses hydroponic systems to yield crops. Being indoors, vertical farms seldom need pesticides and the technology is progressing at a rate that could allow it to grow anything, including ancient or heritage crops.

He said using his technology to grow sustainable plants, such as the ones ICBA is rediscovering, is completely achievable and part of his vision for the future of urban agriculture.

“You can grow as high as you want, but going up 10 to 20 storeys produces a lot – it could feed thousands, if not more. This is the future.”

Updated: January 16, 2019 08:35 AM

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