By Amena Bakr

ABU DHABI – Gulf nations hope science will turn desert areas into arable land to boost food security and avoid the risks inherent in buying farmland abroad, industry insiders said on Monday.

Farming in the Gulf battles against little water supply, high soil salinity and extreme heat. But many of the countries in the region have the cash to adopt expensive solutions that others could not.

Abu Dhabi has conducted a soil survey to identify areas with underground water supplies and soil quality that could be enhanced, said Faisal Taha, who headed the project by the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency.

The survey found over 200,000 hectares of land that could be used for agriculture given the right investment, Taha told Reuters on the sidelines of an industry conference in Abu Dhabi.

“We are talking about tens of millions of dirhams in investments… but it’s worth it because with this land vegetable and fodder production could be increased by up to 70 per cent,” said Taha.

The areas were in the western regions of Madinat Zayed, Ghayathi and the Eastern region of Al Ain, according to the study.

Abu Dhabi aims to fund a 130 million dirham study that would take two years to indentify other potential agricultural areas in the UAE’s northern emirates.

“This land will not be able to guarantee 100 per cent food security for the UAE, but the strategy comes at a right time when many of the international agencies are criticising rich countries for buying land in nations that cant feed themselves and exporting their crops,” said Taha.

Over the past year Gulf states mainly reliant on food imports have intensified efforts to buy and lease farmland in developing nations to secure food supplies.

Foreign land acquisitions, labelled landgrabs by critics, have provoked opposition from many farmers in developing nations.

The United Nations has expressed concern that farmers’ rights in developing nations could be compromised as rich countries buy their land.

Converting oil wealth to soil health

Qatar and Kuwait have also been trying to increase their domestic agricultural supply through the use of selected types of fungus that enhance the growth of plant roots in arid areas, said Rajendra Pachauri, director general of the New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute.

“By mixing the soil with these microbes, or what we call mycorrhiza, the roots of a plant can absorb nutrients from the soil that otherwise it would not be able to do given the climate and soil conditions in the Gulf,” said Pachauri.

In a matter of 18 months, the institute managed to convert 4,000 square metres in what Pachauri described as “hyper-saline waste-land” in Qatar’s southern Dukhan area into a productive habitat where vegetables and grains could now grow, he said.

“We have similar projects going on in Kuwait, India, Oman and the UAE,” he added. “I believe that there is nothing better than using one’s own land to secure food supplies, its just much more secure.”