Desert farming puts UAE’s localised food output into fresh perspective


Top officials at the Food for Future event in Dubai.

Inayat-ur-Rahman, Business Editor

Since time immemorial, the UAE, along with the larger Middle East, has walked a tightrope between food and water scarcity. The systemic challenges — geographic and climatic ones such as limited groundwater resources, high soil salinity, and arid/semi-arid climate — have minimized the chances of addressing the scarcity organically. As a result, in recent decades, the nation has largely met its food and water requirements through imports and desalination plants, respectively. In itself, such an “arrangement” was tenable. In fact, the UAE ranks 23rd in the Global Food Security Index 2022, in what can be considered an achievement given the systemic challenges.

In recent years, and especially following the pandemic, the food-security equation has changed, with the dependence on “import-heavy” food systems and desalination plants increasingly deemed unsustainable. The changed perspective is owed to the supply-chain lessons from the pandemic and the nation’s new-found focus on net-zero emissions. So, the prudent leaders have ramped up the food security initiatives keeping localized production and self-sufficiency as the cornerstones. Recently, these developments culminated in a special session.

 Attended by Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Presidential Court, and Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, the high-level session echoed the need for innovative technologies and impactful initiatives to realize UAE’s food security vision. As water and food security are deeply intertwined, leaders’ emphasis on technologies is admirable, as per Marwan Al Sarkal, Strategic Advisor at Dake Rechsand, the Dubai-based company specializing in sustainability solutions for desert farming and water conservation.

“The specialized meeting on food security is commendable for two foremost reasons: Getting the priorities straight and timing. The UAE is emphasizing sustainable food security at the right time when the supply-chain lessons from the pandemic needed to be acted upon. Additionally, the intent to harness technologies to drive the food security vision is as pragmatic as it is promising,” opined Marwan Al Sarkal. The broad consensus is that food and water security efforts could be on a collision course if the solutions are without interdisciplinary considerations. That is because localized food production is resource and water-intensive under UAE’s predominantly desert conditions. So, brazen attempts to produce food locally could increase the load on carbon-intensive desalination plants, aggravate water scarcity and run counterproductive to net-zero emission targets.

 “The UAE is 80% desert, where agriculture is traditionally deemed unsuitable. If those expansive areas can be made ‘arable’, we can turn the tables on food scarcity. We need such a paradigm shift — something with macroeconomic implications for the country. At the same time, the solutions must also reconcile with other national priorities such as water security, sustainability, and net-zero emissions,” explained Chandra Dake, CEO of Dake Rechsand.

 In recent years, Dake Rechsand has emerged at the forefront of regional sustainability efforts through demonstrated impact in terms of desert farming, water conservation, and stormwater management. Its proprietary, the UN-applauded solution Breathable Sand — a water-retentive and air-permeable medium that leads to optimal crop yield with 80% less water input — has found application in turning deserts into arable lands. So, in the UAE, where deserts constitute nearly 80% of the total land and water scarcity is a pressing issue, Breathable Sand makes a compelling case within the food-security framework. Additionally, the environmentally responsible production process, the affordability and the “ease of use” of Breathable Sand make it appealing in the “holistic” sustainability context — the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainability.

Most importantly, Breathable Sand is uniquely positioned at the intersection of water and food scarcity, capable of reconciling both priorities. “We cannot afford to drive efforts that are on a collision course with each other. Interdisciplinary solutions, on the other hand, are designed to avoid a ‘carbon tunnel vision’ — the phenomenon of only pursuing net-zero emissions while ignoring other sustainable development goals such as food and water security. By virtue of its ability to turn deserts into arable lands through water retention and air permeability properties, Breathable Sand is fit-for-purpose for the UAE,” explained Chandra Dake.

In the recently held meeting, policymakers announced the goal to make local farms account for 50% of the government’s food purchases by 2023 — which calls for solutions that can increase “arable” lands. However, as per the latest World Bank data(2), only 0.7% of the total land area in the UAE can be considered “arable”. Modern techniques such as vertical farming and aquaponics are feasible but not at scale. To that end, Breathable Sand’s value proposition carries merit. It represents a classic case of turning challenges into opportunities — something the founding fathers of the UAE achieved by building vibrant cities on deserts.


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