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
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
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
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
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.
5. Mangoes – Fujairah
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
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
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
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.