UAE oil power farms the desert in quest for food security

The Mleiha farm’s contribution is expected to be some 1,600 tonnes per year, a step towards the Gulf oil producer’s greater ambitions to increase farming

By Reuters

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A worker harvests cherry tomato grown in desert soil inside a greenhouse at Veggietech, a start-up farm, that produces all year-round crops using smart and sustainable farming technologies in the middle of Sharjah desert. — Photos by Reuters
A worker harvests cherry tomato grown in desert soil inside a greenhouse at Veggietech, a start-up farm, that produces all year-round crops using smart and sustainable farming technologies in the middle of Sharjah desert. — Photos by Reuters

Published: Wed 15 Feb 2023, 6:10 PM

Against the desert sands of Sharjah, eight green circles stand out as the UAE cultivates wheat to improve food security in an arid country that imports some 90 per cent of its food.

The government launched the 400-hectare farm in Mleiha in 2022, using desalinated water for irrigation, as the disruption of war and pandemic heightened concern over the UAE’s lack of arable land.

Workers harvest baby kale grown at the vertical nutrient film technique system at Veggietech.
Workers harvest baby kale grown at the vertical nutrient film technique system at Veggietech.

“What pushed wheat farming were the problems with the supply chains in the last couple of years due to the Covid pandemic and the Ukraine-Russia war,” Khalifa Alteneiji, chairman of Sharjah’s Department of Agriculture and Livestock, told Reuters.

The UAE, a federation of seven emirates, imported 1.7 million metric tonnes of wheat in 2022 with Sharjah accounting for 330,000 tonnes, government figures show.

People work at a wheat farm, where a newly launched 400-hectares farm in Sharjah's Mleiha, which has turned a UAE desert into a green land, aims to further expand and reduce imports, in Mleiha area, Sharjah.
People work at a wheat farm, where a newly launched 400-hectares farm in Sharjah's Mleiha, which has turned a UAE desert into a green land, aims to further expand and reduce imports, in Mleiha area, Sharjah.

The Mleiha farm’s contribution is expected to be some 1,600 tonnes per year, a step towards the Gulf oil producer’s greater ambitions to increase farming.

Officials say the energy costs of producing the 18,000 cubic metres of desalinated water needed per day for irrigation will be proportionately less as the project scales up.

A worker harvests cherry tomato grown in desert soil inside a greenhouse at Veggietech.
A worker harvests cherry tomato grown in desert soil inside a greenhouse at Veggietech.

“The cost of this (desalinated) water and of the final product, will hopefully be similar to the market,” Alteneiji said.

Eventually, the UAE, which will host the COP28 climate conference this year, has plans for food production that recycles water and minimises waste.

A cherry tomato cluster, growing in desert soil inside a greenhouse is pictured at Veggietech.
A cherry tomato cluster, growing in desert soil inside a greenhouse is pictured at Veggietech.

The plan for the Mleiha farm, which is free of pesticides, chemicals and genetically modified seeds, is to expand it to 1,400 hectares by 2025 and eventually to 1,900 hectares.

The farm uses artificial intelligence and thermal imaging to gather weather and soil data to regulate irrigation rates and monitor growth.

Baby kale grown at the vertical nutrient film technique system are pictured at Veggietech.
Baby kale grown at the vertical nutrient film technique system are pictured at Veggietech.

“This a special agricultural platform, which can help identify the irrigation quantity that was completed, and to plan the irrigation quantity for coming days,” Agriculture Director Ibrahim Ramadan said.

The project includes experimental fields of 35 different types of wheat from around the world spread across two hectares to explore compatibility with Emirati soil and weather. — Reuters


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