The desert climate of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) poses significant challenges for farming, including a lack of nutrients and water for crops. However, the country has developed innovative techniques that have been successful in producing a range of crops, including dates, mangoes, cucumbers and tomatoes. Traditional techniques such as falaj, agroforestry and modern hydroponics, aeroponics and controlled environment agriculture, which maximise space, nutrients and water in a controlled environment have all been developed. While the UAE’s agriculture sector represents less than 1% of the country’s land area, farming can have both positive and negative impacts on the environment. Stressing sustainable practices could help mitigate the negative effects.
UAE’s Innovative Techniques for Farming in the Desert
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) may be known for its skyscrapers, shopping malls, and oil reserves, but it also has a long history of agriculture and horticulture. Despite its arid and hot climate, which limits the availability of water and nutrients for plants, the UAE has developed several innovative techniques for farming in the desert. These techniques range from traditional methods that rely on local resources and knowledge to advanced technologies that use automation, hydroponics, and renewable energy. This article explores some of the most interesting and promising examples of UAE’s farming innovations and their potential benefits and challenges.
One of the oldest and most popular forms of desert farming in the UAE is falaj, a Persian term for a system of underground aqueducts and channels that distribute water from springs or wells to crops and orchards. Falaj systems were built by the ancient Persians more than 2,500 years ago and spread to other parts of the Middle East, including the UAE, where they are still in use today. Falaj systems can be simple or complex, depending on the topography, geology, and water sources of the area. Some falaj systems in the UAE can irrigate up to 10,000 hectares and provide water for dozens of crops, such as dates, citrus, mangoes, and cucumbers. The efficiency of falaj systems depends on the maintenance and cleaning of the channels, which can also help recharge the groundwater and improve the soil quality.
Another traditional technique that is used in the UAE and other desert regions is agroforestry, which combines trees and crops to enhance soil fertility, conserve water, and create a microclimate that is more suitable for agriculture. Agroforestry can involve intercropping, alley cropping, or silvopasture, depending on the spacing and management of the trees and crops. In the UAE, agroforestry is mainly used for dates, which are one of the main exports of the country. Date palms can also provide shade, food, and shelter for other crops and animals, such as goats, chickens, and bees. Furthermore, date palm fronds and trunks can be reused for construction, fuel, or craft, adding value to the farming system.
While traditional techniques of desert farming in the UAE have proven their resilience and adaptability over centuries, modern techniques have also emerged in response to the growing demand for food, water, and energy security, as well as the need to reduce the carbon footprint and the dependence on fossil fuels. Some examples of modern techniques of desert farming in the UAE are:
– Hydroponics: Hydroponics is a method of growing crops without soil, using water, nutrients, and sometimes substrates, such as gravel or coconut coir. Hydroponics can save water and fertilizers, reduce pests and diseases, and increase yields and quality of the crops. In the UAE, several hydroponic farms have been established, such as Pure Harvest, which grows tomatoes and other crops using greenhouses, LED lights, and cooling systems that can withstand temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius. Pure Harvest claims to use 90% less water than traditional farming, 50% less fertilizers, and 75% less energy than other hydroponic systems. Other hydroponic farms in the UAE include Badia Farms, Greenheart Organic Farms, and Vertical Oasis Farms, which use different scales and technologies of hydroponics and supply their products to local and international markets.
– Aeroponics: Aeroponics is a method of growing crops in a mist or fog of nutrient-rich water, which allows the roots to absorb more oxygen and nutrients than in soil or water. Aeroponics can save water and space, reduce pests and diseases, and increase yields and quality of the crops. In the UAE, a startup called Vatari has developed an aeroponic system that can grow leafy greens, herbs, and fruits vertically in a tower, using recycled water and renewable energy from solar panels. Vatari claims to use 95% less water than traditional farming, 50% less space, and no pesticides or herbicides. Vatari also plans to expand its system to other regions and provide fresh and healthy food to urban consumers.
– Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA): CEA is a concept of growing crops in a controlled environment, such as a greenhouse, a growth chamber, or a vertical farm, using artificial light, temperature, humidity, and CO2. CEA can provide year-round production, reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides, and improve the quality and consistency of the crops. In the UAE, several CEA projects have been launched, such as Emirates Hydroponics Farms, which grows a variety of crops using greenhouses and hydroponics; Badia Farms, which combines aquaponics and vertical farming to grow leafy greens and herbs; and Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre, which supports local farmers in adopting modern techniques of farming and marketing their products.
Q: How much land is used for farming in the UAE?
A: According to the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, the total area of agricultural land in the UAE is about 97,000 hectares, which represents less than 1% of the total land area of the country.
Q: Can crops grow naturally in the desert?
A: Some plants and trees can survive and even thrive in the desert, such as acacia, tamarind, and ghaf. However, most crops require irrigation, fertilization, and protection from pests and diseases.
Q: What are the main challenges of farming in the desert?
A: The main challenges of farming in the desert are the scarcity of water, the salinity and alkalinity of the soil, the high temperatures and humidity, the sandstorms and dust, and the pests and diseases that can affect crops.
Q: How does farming in the desert affect the environment?
A: Farming in the desert can have both positive and negative effects on the environment. Positive effects include increasing the vegetation cover, enhancing the biodiversity, reducing the desertification, and sequestering the carbon. Negative effects include depleting the groundwater, polluting the soil and water with chemicals and wastes, reducing the wildlife habitat, and contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions.
Q: Can farming in the desert be sustainable?
A: Yes, farming in the desert can be sustainable if it adopts practices that minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive benefits of agriculture, such as using water-efficient technologies, organic and agroecological methods, renewable energy and efficient cooling systems, and green infrastructure that enhances the ecosystem services.