UAE food security: scientists grow rice in remote Sharjah desert

On the eve of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, 'The National' investigates how the UAE is working with South Korea to bolster food security

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Emirati and South Korean scientists are preparing to welcome a second harvest of rice grown in a Sharjah desert.

The crop's production is an agricultural milestone for the UAE, as the nation works on bolstering food security amid rising concerns over climate change.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also pushed countries across the world to focus on becoming food self-sufficient.

A 1,000-square-metre plot in Al Dhaid is being used to grow the rice. It is a part of a research project by the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, in partnership with the Rural Development Administration of the Republic of Korea.

The harvest is scheduled to take place in February, followed by processing to make the rice edible.

Amal Al Ahmadi, head of agricultural research section at the ministry, told The National the crop is "a very strategic one" for the UAE's food security.

“One of the most important things we take into consideration as we move forward with our research is that we want to be able to grow our own food, make it economically feasible and environmentally sustainable,” she said.

Ms Al Ahmadi said the Emirates’ food supply during the Covid-19 pandemic was not affected, but “we still need to be prepared”.

The UAE is one of the largest importers of rice. It also re-exports the grain.

In 2019, the country imported milled rice mainly from India, followed by Thailand and then Brazil, according to US-based marketing intelligence firm S&P Global.

Varieties of rice

Out of the two main varieties of rice that are being tested in Al Dhaid, the Asemi one has been very successful. Thirty-three other types are also being tested in small patches.

Asemi was developed by South Korea's Rural Development Association in 2014.

"They crossbred two varieties, and the Asemi was the one that could tolerate heat, drought and salinity,” Ms Al Ahmadi said.

Several types of rice were first tested in South Korea, in a set-up that mimicked the UAE’s climate.

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Sarwat Nasir. News. Food. People transplant rice plants at a rice farm, as part of research by the ministry to enhance UAEÕs food security. Sharjah. Monday, January 11th, 2021. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Farming techniques for desert environments

The seeds are sown in September, after the summer season, when temperatures drop.

There is an underground irrigation system to water the crops. Four different methods are used to reduce water wastage and bring down costs.

These include drip and furrows (canals with drips), normal drip system, flooding with a protective layer and flooding in furrows.

“We're testing which irrigation method works best for our environment, suits rice cultivation here, gives us the highest yield, but uses less water consumption,” Ms Al Ahmadi said.

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Sarwat Nasir. News. Food. Rice plants are planted in a flooded cannel at a rice farm, as part of research by the ministry to enhance UAEÕs food security. Sharjah. Monday, January 11th, 2021. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Different technologies are used to monitor crop health, keeping in mind the country's hot and humid climate.

Sensors spread across the fields help detect movement. Cameras installed at various points keep an eye on seed-eating birds and a nearby weather station helps keep researchers informed.

Harvest season

Scientists are in the fields nearly every day to ensure the crops remain healthy.

The main challenge so far has been the unwanted birds that try to pick rice grains.

After a growing cycle of 180 days, parts of the field will be harvested in February. This is followed by the processing stage, which takes several weeks to complete. It involves cleaning the rice, hulling, milling and polishing.

Will the rice be available on the market?

Ms Al Ahmadi said the research is meant to help the country’s farmers grow rice sustainably in the future.

The produce from the ongoing project will not be available for sale.

“We're trying to think about a holistic approach of the entire cycle for the farmers,” she said. “We want them to grow sustainably, have a high yield and earn a higher income from this industry.”

The efforts are part of a larger plan to enhance the UAE’s food security.

During the height of the pandemic in Asia last year, Vietnam banned rice exports to ensure the country had enough grain for its citizens.