Dubai company producing basmati rice that is far cheaper than imports

Impressive yields on Sharjah farm could signal a way out of agricultural water shortages

To grow rice in the barren desert landscape is an achievement in itself, but to turn seedlings into large quantities of the daily staple using minimal water is a breakthrough that could change the face of farming altogether.

That is the progress made by the team at Terraplus Solutions, a UAE-Belgian partnership of entrepreneurs and economists seeking to solve the riddle of water shortages and food security.

The issue threatens to become a crisis in the years ahead as climate change strips the land of groundwater reserves in arid parts of the world.

By using an innovative underground irrigation system delivering water direct to the roots, Sharjah farmers produced rice seedlings using just 0.9 litres for every kilogram of basmati rice.

Rice can be produced easily with unlimited water, but that is not a sustainable solution here in the UAE - the challenge was how to make it profitable for market distribution
Nicolas Bruylants, agritech entrepeneur

It is a huge saving compared with the usual 200 litres of clean water required to produce the same amount under traditional paddy field methods, where ploughed fields are fertilised and flooded.

Patrick Stevens, managing director and co-founder of Terraplus Solutions, is an economist who entered the area of water conservation after working on a mineral plant in Turkey.

“This solution is the most economic way of farming that can save water and money,” he said. “Feasibility in terms of water was the big question, so we completely changed the system of cultivation.”

$550 per tonne versus $800-plus for imports

The average subsidised price for an imported tonne of rice in the UAE is approximately $817 and the country has imported more than 900,000 tonnes of rice over the past 12 months.

Terraplus says it can produce rice locally for $550 per tonne.

“We keep the soil moist around the roots, in the morning and evening,” said Mr Stevens. “That way we reduce the typical use of water from 6,000 litres per kilo down to 1,200 litres.

“I believe we can do it with less than 600 litres per kg; that makes it absolutely viable to grow over here.”

Similar techniques have already been used across the UAE to relieve the strain on groundwater supplies in the farming of date palms alongside Al Nakhli, a government agricultural agency.

Trials took place at a 450-square-metre patch of land in a farm at Dhaid in Sharjah in 2020.

A second crop planted in June yielded a healthy harvest of rice in October using substantially less water than a traditional paddy field.

After the farmers factored in costs of labour, seeds, fertiliser and water, the project turned out slightly cheaper and more sustainable than importing rice.

Nicolas Bruylants, a food and beverage entrepreneur, said it shows there are better ways of irrigating crops to support food security.

“For most farms in the UAE water is still accessible from the ground for free, but how those resources are being used is not really monitored,” he said.

“Terraplus is there to find solutions to reduce the amount of water used in agriculture to preserve this resource in the UAE.

“Rice can produced easily with unlimited water, but that is not a sustainable solution here in the UAE.

“The challenge was how to make it profitable for market distribution.”

The team at Terraplus are preparing more trials to see if the same techniques and T+ irrigation system could be used to grow quinoa and other seed crops.

Testing has also taken place in Jordan and Iraq, and Egypt is also likely to be a destination in the future.

A similar joint project between UAE University scientists and South Korean experts took place in 2020, where 763kg of rice was grown in a 1,000-square-metre plot of the Sharjah desert.

Food demand to place huge pressure on farming

The global population is expected to reach around 10 billion by 2050, with food demand predicted to rise by 60 per cent as a result.

Alternative and sustainable farming methods are vital if that is to be maintained — particularly in regions of water scarcity.

Vertical farming in huge warehouses without sunlight and soil is one solution, producing highly consumed vegetables and leafy greens with 40 per cent less power, and 95 per cent less water.

Agritech firm AeroFarms is behind a vast 8,200-square-metre research and development centre in Abu Dhabi — the largest in the world — which aims to advance sustainable agriculture in arid climates.

In the UAE, the food and beverage trade has increased steadily to reach more than $20 billion in the first nine months of 2021, with almost 90 per cent of food products imported.

Hassan Al Hashemi, vice president of international relations at Dubai Chambers, home to 300,000 private sector members, told a recent food security forum at Dubai Expo 2020 the country must shift towards more self-sufficiency.

“Our government has underlined the importance of food security as a key element of comprehensive development,” he said.

“It has formulated policies aimed at facilitating sustainable food production by utilising the latest in technology and innovative approaches.

“As global food suppliers become increasingly stretched by rising demand, the focus has shifted from capacity to achieving greater efficiency and self-sufficiency in order to increase local production and reduce environmental impact.”

Updated: February 26, 2022, 4:26 AM