Wheat and chaff: Arabian Gulf's previous attempts of cultivating crop

Concerns about food security have prompted trials of wheat cultivation. But previous attempts to grow the crop in the region have not fared well.

Having determined that the farmers of the UAE can grow wheat, the authority will assess whether they should. Pawan Singh / The National
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Shimmering fields of golden wheat are not an image traditionally associated with Abu Dhabi, but that was the scene on display on agricultural land outside Al Ain.

About 100 varieties of wheat were grown at Al Salamat research station last November to find the one best suited to the country's unique climate of sunny and temperate winters and hot, humid summers.

But while the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) compares the results for disease-resistance and yields as part of the goal of bolstering the nation's food security, the experiment also raises once again the question over the best way to balance limited water resources and grow crops.

Tyler Cowen, an American economist, cites the example of Saudi Arabia, which also tried to foster its own food security by subsidising wheat production in the Kingdom in the 1970s, but is now in the process of winding down production.

Between 1980 and 1992, Saudi wheat production grew 29-fold, says Mr Cowen.

"Saudi Arabia became the sixth largest wheat exporter in the world. They were even exporting wheat to the Soviet Union," he says.

"They did it by massive subsidies. So in Saudi Arabia, wheat production would cost about US$500 [Dh1,836] a tonne when the market price at the same time was about $120 a tonne."

At one point, 20 per cent of Saudi Arabia's oil revenues were going to provide uneconomically cheap water for the agricultural sector.

Analysis of the economic benefits and costs is part of the process being undertaken by the ADFCA. First the authority determined whether farmland in the Emirates was capable of growing wheat.

When they discovered it was, they imported 100 varieties of the crop suitable for bread production from research organisations such as Mexico's International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.

Now that the test crops have been harvested, the assessment will move on to the next stage. Having determined that the farmers of the UAE can grow wheat, the authority will assess whether they should.

That decision will involve a balance between two competing goals: ensuring food security of staple products in Abu Dhabi and using the emirate's natural and financial resources wisely.

Mohamed Jalal Al Rayssi, director of communication and community service at the ADFCA, says the wheat varieties that perform best will be passed on to farmers for cultivation.

"The research and development division of ADFCA is working on introducing improved and suitable varieties of crops to the farming sector in the UAE," he says.

"Our efforts are aimed at raising the bar on farming in the emirate, with a view to achieve better food security through sustainable farming practices."

The UAE, as with most Arabian Gulf states, has been particularly aware of the need to ensure food and water security. Part of its strategy has been to buy farmland in south Asia and Africa to help ensure the supply of food.

It was why the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi selected water and food security as the topic for its annual conference a year ago.

One of the speakers there, Hussein Amery, a Middle East water-management expert at the Colorado School of Mines, told how the Saudi experiment demonstrated some of the challenges of growing wheat.

"When the UN released global water assessments, it listed the world's greatest groundwater abstractors and Saudi Arabia was eighth," he said. "In the late 1970s to early 1980s, Saudi went on a really wild experiment, trying to be self sufficient. They were essentially giving farmers free water. They were growing wheat, one of the cheapest things to grow. In 2008, Saudi stopped the programme.

"Now Saudi authorities have been trying to increase the price of water they supply to their citizens."

Dr Amery suggested a multi-pronged approach, involving raising the price of water to a more accurate level, instead of being overwhelmingly subsidised by the government and using the scarce water supplies for crops that, unlike wheat, were not cheap to buy elsewhere.

"In the Gulf states, agriculture consumes 35 to 85 per cent of the fresh water used," he said.

"Agriculture contributes about 3 per cent to the national GDP and employs about 3 per cent of the labour force, so it contributes next to nothing to the economy and employs next to no one. Those who are employed tend to be immigrant labour."

This part of Arabia has already experienced the kind of economics that damaged Saudi Arabia's attempts at wheat production.

In the pre-oil era, wheat was a traditional crop for the tribes of the Hajar mountains, in what are now the Northern Emirates, but the arrival of cheap Australian wheat after the second world war rendered local cultivation unviable.

That dynamic still existed when Saudi Arabia began promoting wheat cultivation.

Prof Cowen says their example is a cautionary tale of those "who reject the ideas about comparative advantage and benefits from international trade".

Saudi Arabia's aridity made it unsuitable to low-cost food production unless there were massive subsidies in place.

"Saudi Arabia essentially has no lakes or rivers to speak of and only a small part of the country gets enough natural rainfall to grow food," he says. "So for the most part a decision to grow more food in Saudi Arabia meant a decision to subsidise water irrigation.

"The Saudis also wasted a lot of water to grow all this wheat, which required 300 billion cubic metres of water, most of it non-renewable. To put that into perspective, that's about six years' flow of the Nile River to Egypt.

"Over time, however, the Saudis decided they simply couldn't afford all these expenses. In 2008 they essentially decided to give up on their wheat-growing programme with the idea that wheat production in Saudi Arabia would effectively be gone by 2016.

"There are plenty of wheat farms out there where the equipment is unused, simply gathering rust.

"In this case, it would have been much cheaper for the Saudis to rely on international trade from the very beginning."

In the UAE, more than 90 per cent of the groundwater is saline and is being extracted at unsustainable levels.

One prediction made last year by the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture is that the UAE's groundwater will effectively be gone within 20 years.

The Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative was commissioned by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (Ead) to provide a baseline of the environmental situation in general.

Ead's Mohamed Dawoud notes that Abu Dhabi's rapid development in the last 30 years has been mirrored by a growth in its agriculture - to the cost of the groundwater reserves. Three quarters of the emirate's water consumption is for agriculture and forestry.

This prompted a 2006 law regulating all groundwater extraction, with management by Ead, and the agency is currently contemplating strengthening the law.

One option is to give the agency authority over how much water users are allowed to take from each well, and to deal with the illegal sale of groundwater by well-owners.