Dubai scientists look at growing food in UAE salt marshes

The International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture has expressed interest in the salicornia plants being used in a Masdar project.

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DUBAI // The International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai has also expressed interest in the salicornia plants.

“We started another trial with 12 different genotypes from the US and other sources,” said Dr Shoaib Ismail, a saline crop expert at the centre and the principal scientist on the project.

“We irrigated them with sea and ground water.”

The trials are to find out which can be used as a food.

“Salicornia is not just used for its seed but also as a vegetable in the European market,” Dr Ismail said. “This makes it all interesting because if some genotypes extend their life cycle, they can be used as vegetables instead of seed production.”

Scientists believe the plant is a promising crop. A plant similar to it, samphire, is very popular with gourmets in Europe.

“Salicornia has very high oil content but it was never bred,” said Dr Ismahane Elouafi, the centre’s director general. “We’re starting a new collection of salicornia and we’re setting up a much larger trial in Umm Al Quwain with the Ministry of Environment and Water next year as we will be closer to the coast.”

Research has been ongoing for two years but the trial will help to discover the potential of the plant.

“When you do it in a research plot, you are very limited,” Dr Elouafi said. “So most of the time, your production is very high but we wanted much more realistic data.”

Growing the plants by the sea will allow optimal irrigation.

“Growing inland is not the right way of doing it because the plants are used to flood irrigation,” Dr Ismail said. “Water scarcity is an issue so alternate water resources must be used.

“People are fascinated by seawater – it’s a source that’s still abundant that can still be used.”

He said the system’s economics and environmental components had to be taken into consideration. The water has to be taken back to the sea to avoid it flowing inland, which would cause evaporation and salinisation.

“We don’t want to pollute the soil with seawater to bring another problem in the next few years,” he said. “That’s why I emphasise that there are certain locations where these kinds of systems can be practiced.”

But Dr Ismail said that the plant had to be used in different ways to make it more economically viable.

“If anybody is going to look at salicornia from one perspective, I don’t foresee that it’ll have a big future because we’ll become market specific,” he said.

“This has to be an integrated system, even if you take a crop that produces seeds, at least you have more than one product from the crop so it’ll make it more economical.”