Increasing food security with desert crops is no novelty project

Farmers in Sharjah are preparing to harvest wheat grown with cutting-edge technology that will help the UAE supply local markets

Workers check the wheat at the pioneering farm project in Mleiha, Sharjah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Almost every culture celebrates harvest time in some form. From the Ewe people of Ghana welcoming the year’s first appearance of yams to the Moon Festival in East Asia, people across the world like to give thanks for a moment of plenty and enjoy the feeling of security that a reliable supply of food brings.

That sense of security underpinned this week’s news of a special harvest in rural Sharjah, where The National visited farmers and engineers getting ready to welcome the first fruits of a pioneering and high-tech wheat-growing project.

Next month, harvesting machines will roll out across a 400-hectare farm complex in Mleiha. In just four months, this desert land at the base of rocky mountains has been transformed into a green oasis, ready to yield up to 1,700 tonnes of wheat.

The crop has been grown without pesticides, chemicals or genetically modified seeds and the produce is destined for local markets in Sharjah and across the country. The project’s state-of-the-art technology includes satellites that can take thermal images of the site as well as soil sensors that measure the amount of water in the ground to avoid waste.

Wheat farm in Sharjah desert ready to welcome first harvest

Wheat farm in Sharjah desert ready to welcome first harvest

For a country that currently imports 1.7 million tonnes of this essential foodstuff, growing wheat in the desert is no novelty project. Rather, it is an important step on the UAE’s ambitious journey to increasing food security for its people.

The need to strive for self-sufficiency was starkly illustrated last year when the conflict in Ukraine – often referred to as a “bread basket”, given the enormous amount of wheat it grows and exports – threatened global supply chains.

Countries such as Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, were faced with the prospect of running out of supplies from Ukraine and Russia as tonnes of grain sat idle in silos and transport ships were unable to sail through the Black Sea to deliver supplies.

Although globalisation presents many opportunities, this interconnectedness can also result in vulnerabilities when one part of the chain breaks. That the Sharjah farm focuses on wheat makes sense. One official involved in the project pointed out how the crop is a “strategic commodity with high nutritional value that can be stored for a long time”.

The dream of growing food in the desert is not a new one. From the Emirates’ modern beginnings, the UAE’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, welcomed experts and technology from across the world to establish mass agriculture.

Since then, food security has been high on the country’s agenda. Last year Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, issued a directive on biosecurity requirements for farms and livestock holdings in Abu Dhabi to contribute to sustainable agriculture.

Last March, President Sheikh Mohamed attended the launch of a food loss and waste initiative, called Ne'ma — Arabic for blessing — that encourages the public and private sectors to cut waste and improve responsible consumption.

The UAE also takes a long-term approach to protecting and maximising its food supply. The country’s National Food Security Strategy 2051, launched five years ago by then Minister of State for Food Security Mariam Al Mheiri, now Minister of Climate Change and Environment, has 38 short and long-term key initiatives as well as five strategic goals to boost local production, identify alternative supply chains and reduce waste.

What the Sharjah wheat project offers is a realistic, practical and innovative way to grow more organic, nutritious and plentiful food in the UAE – and that’s something everyone can celebrate.

Published: February 16, 2023, 3:00 AM