Dubai's Expo City Farm shows how to grow fresh and sustainable food in the desert

The farm, which debuted at Cop28, remains open and entrance is free

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More than 30,000 people explored a leafy green farm in the middle of Expo City Dubai during the Cop28 climate summit.

Crowds were drawn to the rows of cucumbers, lettuces and carrots growing on patches of land surrounded by glass and steel buildings in the summit's Green Zone site, which was open to the public.

There is a lot of interest in understanding what it takes to grow food in the desert
Mai Shalaby, Expo City Farm's sustainability manager

Cop28 ministerial delegations, non-government groups and delegates walked around the small farm along with UAE families and children visiting the site.

The Expo City Farm made its debut at Cop28 and will remain as a legacy of the climate summit.

“We just got the numbers and are so happy to find out that we had over 30,000 visitors to the farm,” Mai Shalaby, the farm’s sustainability manager, told The National on Friday.

“These are very exciting numbers and show there is great interest in this space.”

A look inside Cop28's bustling farm, growing fresh produce

A look inside Cop28's bustling farm, growing fresh produce

Free entry

The farm is close to the giant Saudi Expo pavilion that resembles an open book.

It will be open daily during winter festivities at Expo City that will run until January, from 10am to 7pm on Monday to Thursday and until 8pm from Friday to Sunday, with plans to stay open longer. Entry is free.

Guides take visitors on short tours to explain how to grow fresh produce using little water and energising the soil with organic compost.

It is the latest among several farms in the UAE demonstrating how easy it is to grow produce sustainably in the desert, and one of the first in an urban setting.

“Having a farm in the middle of the city is special to people,” Ms Shalaby said.

“They see aubergine and lettuce and understand that growing this is feasible, that an organic farm is not just in theory.

“When we talk about food security and sustainability, the farm shows something that is here, that is physically present.

“People get a sense of a real-life example of what it means to grow food locally.”

Learning to go green

Across the central section, tomatoes climb a wooden frame, while millet, corn, quinoa and beans sprout in another corner.

Under the shade of trees, a space is set aside for species native to the UAE, such as shih, an ancient medicinal herb used in tea that is known to soothe stomach cramps.

There is an indoor hydroponics section that produces edible flowers and herbs, and the farm also has a climate-controlled kiosk in which mushroom varieties can be grown all year round.

“There is a lot of interest in understanding what it takes to grow food in the desert,” Ms Shalaby said.

“We explained how we manage the soil, use compost and innovations like biochar that help us grow food outdoors.

“This adds nutrients so we don’t need to use so much water for irrigation.”

For many young visitors, there was a lot of learning.

David Ahouty, 13, from Germany, says he wants to add biochar, a charcoal-like substance made from farm and wood waste, to his garden at home.

“I knew about organic compost as fertiliser but now I want to try biochar,” he said.

“I learnt that biochar locks up carbon, is made from agriculture waste that would otherwise be burnt and releases harmful carbon dioxide, so I will be helping the environment.”

The compact farm site, run in partnership with Emirates Bio Farm, has interactive information about greenhouse gas emissions, the crucial need for regenerative agriculture and soil health.

“The intent is for people to search for local solutions,” Ms Shalaby said.

“Our choices make a difference to the climate debate because as individuals we can do something if we choose to eat local.

“We want to show that we can grow food hyperlocal – not just local within the UAE – but within Expo City itself so there are zero transportation emissions.”

Updated: December 16, 2023, 4:18 AM