Defying all odds, UAE grows rice in desert 

UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment Dr. Thani Bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, right, is seen with Kwon Yongwoo, Ambassador of the Republic to Korea to the UAE. — WA photo

ABU DHABI — Rice is mostly grown under rain-fed climatic conditions but it did not deter the United Arab Emirates to explore the possibility of cultivating rice in the desert.

With cooperation from the South Korean government, the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment has successfully carried out the pilot phase of a joint research project in challenging local conditions, the UAE’s state news agency WAM reported on Tuesday.

The project is being run by the ministry in partnership with the Rural Development Administration, RDA, of the Republic of Korea and the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU).

The announcement of a breakthrough was made by Dr. Thani Bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the minister of climate change, during his interview with the Bloomberg news agency.

According to the minister, preliminary results indicated a yield of 763kg of rice per 1,000 square meters.

Commenting further on the development, Dr. Al Zeyoudi said, "The innovative venture is the first endeavor of its kind in the Middle East. If successful on a large scale, this groundbreaking project has the potential to shape the future of agriculture, as it can be replicated in other arid regions. Rice is one of the most important foods that is consumed daily in this region. We are focusing on driving innovation and exploring agritech in growing the crops that are in high demand locally. We seek to make the most of our resources and find the crops and methods that are suitable for our desert climate. In this process, we are exploring and adopting more innovative solutions in every phase."

He added, "We thank the RDA and the UAEU for this productive collaboration. The program aligns with the ministry’s efforts to involve local universities in addressing pressing challenges in the agricultural sector. It will provide a baseline for other research programs and undertakings related to food and agriculture, as well as a reference for researchers and students in the UAE."

Dr. Al Zeyoudi noted that the project aims to support the country’s drive to secure local alternatives to imported produce to ensure an uninterrupted food supply chain, given the fluctuations in international trade caused by the current pandemic.

Kwon Yongwoo, Ambassador of the Republic to Korea to the UAE, said: "The Korean government and embassy are delighted that the cooperation of the two countries in the agricultural area has seen the first tangible success, especially during this difficult situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

He added, "Korea has long experience and cutting-edge technologies in the field of agriculture and food security, which it is ready to share with the UAE, Korea’s only Special Strategic Partner in the Middle East and Africa."

Yongwoo expressed the intention of his government to continue to work closely with MoCCAE on the second phase of the program, which will focus more intensively on water-saving technologies that are essential to ensure economic feasibility. Besides, the Korean government will cooperate with the UAE in other important areas of agriculture, such as smart greenhouse projects and control of date palm pests.

After extensive testing, the project experts selected Asemi (Japonica) and FL478 (Indica) rice varieties to grow because of their ability to tolerate heat, salinity, and poor soil conditions.

The project was conducted at the ministry’s research center in Al Dhaid in the emirate of Sharjah, where seeds were sowed in November 2019, and harvested in three stages in May 2020 with a growing cycle of 180 days. To reduce the cost and the amount of water used for the crops, the project team installed an underground drip irrigation system.

The plot was divided into three blocks to facilitate monitoring and recording of results. The first block was harvested on May 5, the second on 10th May, and the third on May 30.

However, the harvested rice will only be put to commercial use after the completion of testing to ensure its compliance with standard specifications.