x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Study to find ways to grow more food with less water

Overhaul project for country's agriculture will also include making farms more productive by reducing disease in crops and livestock.

DUBAI // The Ministry of Environment and Water has begun a Dh1.6 million research project to grow more food with less water.

The overhaul of the nation's agriculture could take 20 years and will also try to make farms more productive and sustainable by reducing disease in crops and livestock.

The research is a spin-off of a project that calculated how much fresh water was available in the UAE.

"Now that we know how much water there is, we can develop an agriculture that can be sustainable given the country's water resources," said Dr Faisal Taha, of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture, which is running the project.

High water use makes much of the UAE's agriculture environmentally unsound. The crops grown for animals to graze on use 61 per cent of the country's fresh water alone.

Date palms use another 20 per cent, and fruit and vegetables 9 per cent. Fruit in particular is energy-intensive, requiring a great deal of heavily treated water for a low yield.

"The whole thing is lopsided," said Dr Taha, the centre's the director of technical programmes. "The ones that produce the least use the most water."

Solving this imbalance is tricky in a hot, dry country with no rivers. Inappropriate water use, over-pumping and over-irrigation are making the land ever more inhospitable.

Dr Taha said many farmers were "illiterate" in water-saving technologies, so the scheme was looking for solutions they would follow.

The project will examine the extent of the damage caused by common farming practices.

"A lot of farmers tend to cover their fields of young vegetable seedlings with large plastic sheets," said Dr Taha. "This happens when the weather is cold or to protect them from birds and sand."

Once the seedlings have grown, the plastic is often burnt, releasing toxins. Many farms also use far too much fertiliser and pesticide, which leaks down to the aquifer system and into the groundwater.

Experts say the project cannot come soon enough.

"It's long overdue," said Nicholas Lodge, an agricultural expert at the Abu Dhabi consultancy Clarity. "Any initiative in that direction has to be a good thing for the country and the region."

He said the big challenge was the lack of water but agriculture needed to "marry these technologies with common sense" to work properly.

Animal disease is also a concern. One threat is brucellosis, which can cause miscarriages in goats, camels and sheep and spread to humans.

"We're going to look at how serious it is and how many occurrences there are," Dr Taha said. "Vet services need improvement and more staff."

He said he believed better containment of diseases could lift production by a third, and that meant more attention needed to be paid to the UAE's borders. Animal and plant quarantine facilities are scant, making it possible for diseases to enter the country unchecked.

This lack of unified disease control was one of the main factors cited by the European Commission last year when it rejected the UAE's application to export camel milk.

"The information is fragmented and scattered from all borders to airports and stations," said Dr Taha.

"We're going to make it all into one electronic database."

For the next 10 months, every municipality, environment agency and the Ministry of Economy and Commerce will give the centre their most recent data on farms.

It will then spend eight months drafting a proposal on which crops are best suited to local conditions and how much of the population can be sustainably fed with them.

"So far, we can feed on average 10 per cent of the population with locally grown food," said Dr Taha. "But that number must increase rapidly."

cmalek@thenational.ae