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Abu Dhabi 2016 | INDUSTRY & AGRICULTURE | FOCUS: SUSTAINABILITY

Although agriculture contributes less than 1% to the UAE's economy, the country has turned into a hub for its research for innovative methods to make the best use of its resources.

Governmental institutions have been encouraging farmers to adopt “smart farming" sustainable practices as well as techniques to ensure crops are economically viable and ecologically sound. Arable sustainability has been increased by maximizing water productivity through selecting crops that do well with limited water through more efficient methods such as greenhouses, hydroponics and smart irrigation. The ultimate aim is to minimize the impact of import reliance and enhance food security for the country.

In line with Abu Dhabi's Agenda 2030, maximizing water productivity by using alternative and nonconventional methods has become a priority. The agriculture sector accounts for up to 75% of the UAE's annual water consumption. Therefore, proper management is essential to meet the increasing demands of the growing population. Reducing the overall amount of water consumption is one of the main concerns of the sector, and latest innovations offer great potential for improving the efficiency of water use.

A newly developed technology for the industry is hydroponics, a technique that involves growing crops without soil, the plants instead securing the nutrients they need from liquid solutions. It also matures the plants quicker and producers can retrieve more profit from the same extension of land. In typical hydroponics systems, up to 90% of the water can be reused. Alternatively, farmers are introducing smart irrigation technology with soil moisture sensors to reduce unnecessary irrigation. This measure not only helps make their activities more profitable but also to increase the sustainability of agriculture within the UAE. A pilot study conducted by Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) found that these methods increase irrigation efficiency by more than a 10%, which in turn saves millions of cubic meters of water in Abu Dhabi. ADFCA is also testing a new type of greenhouse that consumes 80% less energy than conventional greenhouses.

Simultaneously, the country is looking for alternative sources of water. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released a technical report ensuring the quality of treated sewage water to be used unrestrictedly for agricultural purpose. The country is experimenting with certain crops, mainly animal feed and date palms, to reduce the pressure on groundwater and create a new source of irrigation water. Furthermore, Masdar Institute is developing aquaculture halophytes using saline water as another example of the schemes addressing food and water security challenges in a burgeoning population.

The 24,000 farms across the emirate are used to selling their produce at low prices, which hampers their chances of making profit. There are currently more than 45 crops being grown in Abu Dhabi that supply an estimated 31,050 tons of production per annum. Cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers remain the top vegetables for Abu Dhabi farmers, while the UAE remains one of the largest exporters of dates. In fact, ten crops represent approximately 77% of the total expected production. Demand is growing for fresh, locally grown, chemical-free produce. A report issued by the Ministry of Environment and Water showed there are over 40 organic farms in the UAE spanning a total area of about 3,890ha. Scientists have identified quinoa as an option for cultivation considering the climatic conditions of the country.

The productive season has been extended to 6-8 months per year. The strategy is to calculate market demand and spread annual production among farmers, who through service centers can arrange contracts with major distributors, such as Abu Dhabi CO-OPs, Carrefour, Lulu, and Spinneys, which guarantee a minimum price – ensuring sustainability within the industry.