Inside Dubai facility that grows fruits, vegetables using salt water

Crops grown include date palms, heat-resistant quinoa


Nasreen Abdulla

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Published: Tue 26 Jul 2022, 2:25 PM

Last updated: Wed 27 Jul 2022, 11:50 AM

It was a hot day with temperatures touching 43ºC, but the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture farm on Dubai-Al Ain road was functioning with gusto. The non-profit agricultural research centre established in 1999 has made some groundbreaking research in cultivating local varieties of crops that are heat resistant and can grow in salty water. So impactful is the work they are doing that earlier they had a surprise visit from the President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan himself!

“Food security is a very important topic,” said Dr. Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle, Chief Scientist at ICBA. “That is why we look at crop diversification and genetics. During our work, we hunt for the crops that are tolerant to salinity, high heat and drought. We develop new opportunities to diversify the food basket.”


One of the most significant work ICBA has been doing involves growing the seed quinoa. The centre has invested over 15 years of research in what is often called a superfood due to it being one of the rare plant that contains all amino acids.

“The ability to grow quinoa is one of the center’s biggest achievements,” said Dr. Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle, Chief Scientist at ICBA. “Quinoa is a crop from the Andes that is usually grown at about 1000m above sea level. Now we are growing it at sea level with much more heat.”


In addition to growing a heat resistant variety of quinoa, ICBA is going the extra mile to make the crop profitable to farmers. “We are experimenting with improving quinoa to remove its outer covering called saponins- a naturally occurring phyto chemical that protects the plant from insects but also gives unwashed quinoa a bitter taste,” said Dr. Augusto. “Less saponin will reduce the amount of processing needed before quinoa can be consumed. This will make the product more affordable to buy and could be a key factor in ensuring food security for the region.

Date Palm Cultivation

The longest running research on the ICBA farms is done on date palms. For over 20 years, 18 varieties of date palms, including Farad and Lulu, have been grown on varying levels of salinity, starting from starting from 0.4dS/m to 15 dS/m.

The rows and columns of date palm trees are arranged in a matrix system and closely monitored and cared for.

During their research ICBA has been able to identify two varieties of dates that despite high salinity give good yield. “Moreover, through gene sequencing and genetic mapping, we have been able to isolate varieties of date palms that are resistant to the attack of the brutal Reed Palm Weevil,” said Dr. Augusto. “These findings could revolutionize farming in the country. Even farmers who have highly saline soil can now successfully grow dates without fear that his yield will be bad.”

“When we first set up this centre, these kinds of conditions were prevalent mostly in the Gulf and North Africa region,” said Dr. Augusto. “However, over the years due to climate change, such conditions are becoming more common. This has increased the relevance of ICBA. This is the time to tackle how we are going to be resilient”

Ghaf Trees

The UAE’s national Ghaf tree is a drought-resistant plant that holds a lot of importance for the region. According to Dr. Augusto, the role the tree plays in the agricultural ecosystem is huge.

“It is important to understand what it has to offer,” he said. “The Ghaf produces proteins and essential oils. In addition to this, the tree also produces legume seeds that farmers can feed to animals. This is how we add value to food security. We ensure that the limited natural resources are used effectively. We also try to understand how the crops here operate and how their produce can be used to create new value chains.”

Earlier this year when the President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited ICBA, he planted a Ghaf tree.

NA100622-RG-Dubai FarmPhoto: Rahul Gajjar
NA100622-RG-Dubai FarmPhoto: Rahul Gajjar


For arid countries like the UAE, glasshouses are indispensable. ICBA has experimented with various kinds of glasshouses. “We have the traditional glasshouses,” said Dr. Augusto. “However, these take a huge amount of electricity to cool. That is why we started experimenting with various materials and different ways of cooling the glasshouses.”

The latest glasshouse at ICBA, where cucumbers are grown, doesn’t use electricity. Instead, it uses the air from outside and channels it into the enclosure under the row of plants. When the temperature gets too high, mist is released to keep the plants cool.

Salicornia & forages

The plant Salicornia (sea asparagus) plays a significant role in the agriculture ecosystem of the country.

“We have opened an opportunity for a new value chain with Salicornia,” said Dr. Augusto. “It is a plant adapted to the coastal line of many countries as it grows in sea water. It captures salt out of the water, thereby reducing the salinity of the soil. As it grows in salt water, the plant has a natural saltiness to it. This means it can be used an additive to different foods. There are burgers in the market that uses Salicornia instead of salt. The positive part of this is that the food doesn’t just having sodium and chlorine but also potassium, calcium and other nutrients. It gives a better and a more natural quality of salt. It is a great way to use up the saline water that remains after desalination. It is another great way to ensure that natural resources are used efficiently.”

In addition to Salicornia, ICBA has also experimented growing forages on saline water. These were given to local farmers to feed their livestock. “It increases the capacity of farmers in a marginal environment to feed their animals and decreases the dependency on forages from elsewhere.”

Community support

One of ICBA's central roles is to support local farmers. "We give training courses about the science that we do," said Dr Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle.

"We show them what can be potentially done with what they have. We sensitize them to how best to use natural resources. But we also collect and analyze their local knowledge about good practices in farming.'

In addition to this, the center hosts a program called the Halophytic Kitchen Lab which brings a scientist, a nutritionist, and a chef to show the general public how to use Salicornia and other halophytic, or salt-loving, crops in everyday cooking. However, there is always a need for continuous research and innovation. "Our aim is to improve the region's food security," said Dr. Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle.

"We want to be a powerhouse in innovative agricultural technologies. We have come a long way in doing so but there is still more work to be done."


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