Food security: 7 foods produced in the UAE

From spinach to salmon, is no longer a question of what farmers can grow in the UAE - but how they can do so sustainably

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Think it’s all dates and cucumbers? Think again. Gulf farmers in the late 20th century, such as Saudi Arabia’s commercial wheat farmers, proved it was possible to grow almost any crop with fresh water and cooling.

But many projects were abandoned because it is no longer a question of if things can grow, but how.

Not all crops are sustainable in a world with finite natural resources. In the last century, agricultural in the Emirates was water and energy intensive and only possible due to generous government subsidies.

The UAE has invested heavily in overseas land acquisition but the pandemic was a stark reminder of the importance of food production within our borders. A push for hydroponics and fish farms is the latest trend to balance the needs of a growing population with limited resources.

The future requires both consumers and producers to be flexible. Buying local helps UAE businesses, cuts your carbon footprint and gives you a fresher meal. Ready to ditch the Norwegian salmon, Spanish spinach and Californian blueberries? Then read on for some local options.

1. Salmon – Jebel Ali

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , March 27 – 2019 :- Bader Al Mabarak CEO of Dubai’s ‘Fish Farm’ holding the salmon fish at the Fish Farm in Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Business/Instagarm/Big Picture. Story by Sarah
Bader Bin Mubarak presents Fish Farm's desert-grown salmon. Pawan Singh / The National

The world has an insatiable appetite for salmon and it is the second most popular fish in the UAE after hammour.

But the cold water fish is imported from farms in Norway, or even Argentina, so it has travelled at least 7,000km before it hits your dinner plate. Enter Fish Farm.

The Jebel Ali company flew out 40,000 baby salmon from Scotland to start its onshore hatchery and plans to produce 10,000 to 15,000kg of salmon a month.

Its launch alongside a government push for locally farmed fish as a respite for depleted local stocks. Fish Farm salmon went on sale at Spinneys last year at Dh99 per kilogram.

2. Oysters – Dibba Fujairah

Chef Sean Connolly shucks an oyster from Dibba Bay, an oyster farm in Fujairah.
Chef Sean Connolly shucks an oyster from Dibba Bay, an oyster farm in Fujairah.

In the UAE, we consume 220,000 tonnes of seafood a year and three quarters of it is imported. Ramie Murray, a Scot raised in Dubai, saw this as an opportunity and opened Dibba Bay, a three-hectare farm producing between 25,000 and 30,000 oysters per month for local restaurants. The briny oysters are grow in multi-level nets three metres under the sea on the east coast.

3. Dairy – Al Ain and Digdagga

ABU DHABI - 09NOV2010 - Cows get bracing spray of clean and fresh recycled waste water at Al Ain Dairy. Ravindranath K / The National
Cows get a bracing spray of water at Al Ain Dairy. Ravindranath K / The National

The improbability of European dairy cows thriving in the scorching Arabian desert is not given a thought when shoppers pick up a bottle of milk at the local baqala. But the remarkable tale of how the Gulf got its first dairy cows in 1969, when a herd of heavily pregnant Friesians and a bull named Ironside arrived in Ras Al Khaimah, is emblematic of how 20th century farmers defied expectations to boost food production.

Border closures have caused GCC states to step up their milk production, even as dairy's heavy carbon and water footprint have caused consumers elsewhere to look at alternatives. Meanwhile, food experts still see untapped potential for camel milk, with is three times richer in Vitamin C than cow milk.

4. Leafy greens – Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 24, 2020.   
Sean Lee at the lettuce hydroponics farm at the Officers Club, Abu Dhabi.
Victor Besa /The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Anna Zacharias
Sean Lee inspects a new crop of lettuce at the Smart Acres hydroponics farm in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National

The country's first hydroponic farms produced leafy greens in the UAE as early as 1969, when American horticulturalist Merle Jensen filled greenhouses on Saadiyat Island at the Arid Lands Research Centre.

Fast-growing greens such as lettuce, spinach and rocket are popular at hydroponic farms, where crops grow in tubes of nutrient-rich water instead of soil.

Hydroponic farming is organic, and water and land-efficient, so it is little wonder farmers are turning to this technique, pioneered half a century ago, to grow great crops of cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage and green peppers.

Lettuce from Abu Dhabi vertical farm to go on sale in September

Lettuce from Abu Dhabi vertical farm to go on sale in September

5. Mangoes – Fujairah

A man holds up a large mango that is to be judged in the mango category during the Liwa Date Festival in Liwa, United Arab Emirates on July 13, 2011. This year is the first for judging Mangos and Lemons during the Liwa Date Festival. Pawel Dwulit / The National
Judges inspect lemons and mangoes during the Liwa Date Festival.

The national mango boom began after federation in 1970s and got an push in 2011 when the Liwa Date Festival offered Dh25,000 for the country’s best mango.

Mountainous Fujairah is home to about half of the country's mango trees, which numbered 109,000 in 2015. However, some farmers are turning away from mangoes and conventional farming as water tables turn saline and electricity expenses prove too high, showing long-term resource management is essential if food security is to be sustained over decades.

6. Sardines (uma) – East Coast

DE4R2E Fishermen drying sardines on the beach on Fujairah city.
Fishermen drying sardines on the beach of Fujairah city.

Looking for a local source of protein? Old-timers swear by dried sardines, eaten as snack on naan or ground and mixed into oil and poured over rice for a little umami flavouring.

It’s an acquired taste but a great source of omega-3s, calcium and vitamin D, and has low mercury levels compared with other fish.

7. Mountain herbs – Hajjar mountains

Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates - November 26, 2018: The remarkable plants of the Ru'us Al Jibbal and Hajjar Mountains are being recorded by botanist Marina Tsaliki for the RAK government before they are lost to quick paced development. Monday the 26th of November 2018 in Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
A stream flows through a wadi near Muna'i, Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National

From aloe to bishop’s weed seeds, the country’s mountains and deserts are full of powerful herbs that can heal broken bones, regulate blood sugar or ease menstrual cramps. But these fragile habitats are being lost to sprawling suburbs and roadways, and are at risk from climate change.

Botanists are still discovering the wonders of hardy plants perfectly adapted to our arid climate.

Pick up a field guide such as The Comprehensive Guide to the Wild Flowers of the United Arab Emirates by Dr Marijcke Jongbloed and you're ready to forage.

Honourable mention: Dibbs

Liwa, United Arab Emirates, July 20, 2017:    Ali Al Mehri at his nephews farm in the Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi on July 20, 2017. Al Mehri's nephew, Rashed Abdullah, won the heaviest branch competition at this year's Liwa Date festival whicgh runs from July 19th to 29th. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: Anna Zacharias
Section: News
Ali Al Mehri prepares for the Liwa Date Festival. Christopher Pike / The National

This list would not be complete without a tip of the hat to one of the world’s greatest natural sweeteners, and one we have in abundance.

Date syrup, or dibbs, is a perfect substitute for many imports: use it in baking instead of molasses, on ice cream instead of chocolate sauce, or on pancakes instead of maple syrup.

It is low calorie, unprocessed and loaded with the goodness of vitamin A and C, thiamine, folate, calcium, iron and magnesium. What’s more, it costs less than Dh15 for a 1kg bottle and never spoils. It is probably only a matter of time before it is hailed internationally as the superfood it is.