Dubai scientists grow super crops that thrive in salty deserts

28th February 2019 By: Bloomberg

Scientists in Dubai are developing crops like quinoa that can thrive in the salty soils intruding into the world’s croplands. Winning over enough people to eat them is proving a greater challenge.

At an experimental farm within sight of the world’s tallest skyscraper, researchers at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture are trying to help farmers in the Middle East and beyond earn a living from unlikely plants known as halophytes. These plants, from trendy quinoa to obscure salicornia, flourish in salty and arid environments where staple crops like wheat or rice would wither.

Concerns about climate change, population growth, and the degradation of fertile farmlands add urgency to the work of ICBA, which runs on a shoestring budget of $15-million a year. The United Nations estimates that food production must increase 60 percent in thirty years to meet demand, while gains in crop yields are slowing.

“You can see the disaster coming. I can’t understand why more people aren’t acting to prevent it,” says Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA’s director general. Governments are reluctant to invest in new foods and remain tethered to staple crops that “are just too demanding on water.”

Through selective breeding, the non-profit research institute developed five varieties of quinoa – a protein-rich, gluten-free grain that tastes like nutty rice – that grow especially well in salty soil. The center is introducing them in Egypt and Morocco.

Agronomists at ICBA cultivate a patchwork of sandy plots on the fringe of Dubai’s desert interior. A vault where the temperature is kept at 2 °C safeguards the fruits of their efforts: 14 000 types of seeds from more than 250 plant species.

These seeds are enough for trial use, but a breakthrough to large-scale halophyte production requires government or business support. Planting a new crop is only the first step for ICBA, which operates projects in 28 countries from Senegal to Bangladesh and counts the US, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates among its top donors. The center has to transform laboratory wins into commercial successes.

“The marketing aspect is vital,” said Dionyssia Lyra, a halophyte agronomist at ICBA. “We need advertising. We need chefs.”

Quinoa is often more expensive than wheat, and many people are unfamiliar with products made from it. To make headway in rural Egypt, ICBA organized cooking workshops for 120 women to train them to prepare food from salt-tolerant crops. Changing palates has proven difficult in other markets.

Wajih Syed, co-founder of Kinwa Foods, spent more than two years persuading farmers in Pakistan to plant ICBA-supplied quinoa seeds in salty soils. The grain can earn these farmers up to 20% more profit than wheat, and some growers have started to cultivate it on land no longer fertile enough for traditional crops, he said. Yet the grain remains a niche product.

“Changing the eating habits of a thousand years is not an easy job,” Syed said. “I don’t see quinoa becoming a staple food in Pakistan for at least the next decade.”

ICBA also breeds salt-tolerant sorghum and pearl millet, as well as salicornia, known as sea asparagus or glasswort. Salicornia can be used in salads, animal fodder and even biofuel. Etihad Airways PJSC, the Abu Dhabi carrier, recently used jet fuel blended with locally produced oil from salicornia in a commercial flight.

The research center’s modest profile and resources belie its importance in the quest for food security in nations like the UAE, which has little arable land and imports as much as 90 percent of its food. Like other oil-rich countries in the region, the UAE is scouring the planet for farmland to help ensure supplies.

Many farms in the Middle East rely on underground water reserves for irrigation. Aquifers are rarely replenished in the arid climate, and as groundwater levels decline, the reserves become dense with salts that can kill traditional crops. In coastal areas, seawater often intrudes into diminishing aquifers, making salinity worse.

And still, this international organization is struggling to drum up cash to develop crops the world needs.

“It’s so hard to fund-raise for research when you are in the UAE because the donor thinks you are swimming in oil money,” Elouafi said. “When they see these high skyscrapers and luxury and what have you – the images of Dubai that are portrayed everywhere – it’s super-hard.”