The #UAE has built a worldwide reputation for effecting seemingly miraculous transformations in just about every field imaginable. Former fishing villages have been turned into stunning avant-garde cities that literally reach for the sky; the sea gives us the water that flows from our taps and irrigates our gardens - and thanks to desalination technology great swathes of the once arid desert has been turned green or converted into fertile arable land.
It took determination and foresight on the part of our rulers to combat summer’s unforgiving temperatures, the scarcity of rainfall and a sandy soil to grow the kind of produce my generation had never seen, let alone tasted, and which is taken for granted in other parts of the world. I still remember the time when families would hoard rare imported tinned peaches to be opened for special occasions like weddings; young boys would swim far out to sea to ask cruise ship passengers to throw down juicy oranges.
Credit for phenomenal advances we have witnessed in the agricultural sector must go to one of our Founding Fathers, #Sheikh_Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan whose upbringing in the oasis town of #Al_Ain inspired his lifelong love of nature’s gifts.
#Sheikh_Zayed laid the groundwork by constructing dams, planting mangrove trees, levelling sand dunes, revitalising traditional systems of irrigation and embracing desalination when it was still considered revolutionary. He was the driving force behind a massive experimental fruit farm on Sir Bani Yas Island that bore various experimental farming research stations.
Incredibly, the #UAE today exports fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products as well as vegetables and fruit – guavas, bananas, grapes, citrus and mangos, not to mention our famous sweet strawberries produced in the emirates of #Sharjah, #Al_Ain and the mountainous emirate of #Ras_Al_Khaimah, which was found to have the country’s best soil and microclimate for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables.
One of the most exciting and innovative developments is the commercial use of hydroponics, whereby plants, vegetables, varieties of fruit and even rice, can be grown solely in water infused with minerals and nutrients, without soil. Not only does this method conserve precious water, which can be reused, plants grow at a faster rate and because they can be stacked, they don’t need as much land.
Crops are also extensively grown in climate controlled greenhouses and in fibre-matted tunnels. Until recently, wheat was seen as a step too far but a research station in #Al_Ain is studying 100 types of wheat, most grown from seeds imported from Mexico, to discover which varieties are the most adaptable to the climate. Foreign consultants generally take a negative view of the feasibility of growing wheat in commercial quantities, but never say never to an Emirati! The #UAE’s agriculturists are not about to give up.
A mainstay of the population’s diet during the first half of the 20th century were energy giving dates packed with vitamins also used to feed camels and goats. Date palms have been cultivated throughout the region for thousands of years; without those life givers it is doubtful whether our ancestors would have survived.
The leaves and fronds were used to make barasti or arish homes, small fishing boats, baskets and mats; the tree’s outer layer was turned into rope and sacks while the wood itself was crafted to produce furniture items, storage chests and tent supports. Whether fresh, dried or conserved in the form of jam, the fruit provided sustenance throughout the year. Hence the reason why dates are held in high respect by Emiratis and are offered to guests as a symbol of hospitality.
Some 95 percent of the world’s dates are grown in the Middle East and, nowadays, the #UAE is high on the list of date exporters, along with #Saudi_Arabia and #Egypt, with over 44 million date palms producing almost 200 different varieties of fruit.
The largest date processing company in the country Al Foah has announced plans to launch a “chain of date concept stores worldwide to promote the consumption of branded dates and increase awareness of #UAE dates” as well as such derivatives as juices, date bars, date chocolates, jams, cakes and ice-creams. A highlight on the date farmers’ calendar is the annual Liwa Dates Festival where they can win awards for the healthiest and tastiest fruit.
Fish also loom large in the #UAE in terms of domestic consumption as well as exports and besides indigenous species, the country now boasts salmon farms and utilises state of the art methods to grow caviar producing sturgeons. To increase dwindling populations of some of our favourites due to over-fishing, some 50,000 are being nurtured by the #Dubai Fishermen Co-op Association. For its part, #Abu_Dhabi is encouraging the introduction of aquaculture farms to ensure the availability of the five species – Hammour, Cobia, Qabit, Yellow Fin Tuna and Abalone – in greatest demand.
In my youth, if someone had suggested that the day would come that the #UAE would one day become an exporter of flowers to Holland no less, I might have advised him to see a doctor. In the early 2000s, horticultural farms were indeed exporting roses and chrysanthemums to The Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, although exports slowed due to increased domestic demand. #Dubai has emerged as a hub for the import and export of flowers and with a floor area of 100,000 square metres and a cold storage facility covering 34,000 square metres, the #Dubai Flower Centre is capable of handling 150,000 tons of flowers at any given time.
There is also a growing demand for organic food, as highlighted by The National in June based on the results of a survey conducted by a #UAE university, which read, “Consumers are willing to pay higher prices for certified organic food and that increases with age as they become more health conscious…” Organic farms are expanding in sync with burgeoning consumer demand. This is an area calling out for greater investment.
#Sheikh_Zayed famously said, “Give me agriculture, and I will give you civilisation.” If he were with us today, I think he would be proud of the great strides his country has made in that direction. Food self-sufficiency may always be unreachable, but after all, this is the #UAE. You never know!