Agriculture is an old activity in the United Arab Emirates practised mainly in Al Ain and in some oasis such as Liwa, in the emirates of Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. The agriculture activities have been developing rapidly since 1971, despite problems related to the scarcity of arable land and water resources, soil salinity, high production costs, difficult environmental conditions, agricultural pests and post-harvest losses.
The sector has undergone many changes with the challenge to run it with minimum water. Modern irrigation systems and hydroponics are being increasingly engaged. Farmers are also switching to organic farming.
The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan played a significant role in the evolution and development of the agriculture sector in the country.
Therefore, agriculture has become an economic activity that relies on the use of the latest technologies. Huge efforts were made to preserve water resources, with emphasis on promoting the adoption and installation of modern irrigation systems to replace flood irrigation method, which wastes large amounts of water. The use of modern irrigation systems such as fountain irrigation systems, sprinkler, drip rose to 91 per cent in 2011 from 32 per cent in 1999.
Between 1971 and 2011, the number of farms increased from 4,000 to 35,704 with an area of 105,257 hectares. As a result of the UAE’s efforts, there are now 54 organic vegetation farms, three animal production farms and one manufacturing facility. The organic production area in the UAE increased to 3920 hectares by the end of 2013.
The UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment has put a priority on increasing the use of hydroponic technology among farmers, which relies on nutrient-rich water to grow plants with the use of little or no soil and organic farming as part of the 2017-2021 food security strategy.
The Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (Esma) certified 17 UAE organic farms in 2012 and others are under process. According to officials, only in the emirate of Abu Dhabi 25 traditional farms are expected to be converted into organic by the end of 2019. The organic farm initiative is part of sustainable agricultural practices that help preserve natural resources and provide markets with healthy, safe and high quality products.
Hydroponics saves up to 70 per cent of water, while allowing for a longer growing season and avoiding harmful chemicals. To date, there are 87 commercial farms using this technology. The technique was first introduced in the country in 2009, when there were 50 such greenhouses, compared to 1,000 at the end of 2016.
The technology helps a lot in water conservation, which is a challenge in the UAE and the region. Most farmers rely on groundwater to irrigate their crops but the amount and quality of the country’s reserves have been decreasing gradually after years of exploitation. With this technology, to produce one kilogram of lettuce, it requires nearly 20 litres of water, while traditional methods are said to use almost 400 litres.
Moreover, if farmers grow crops in open fields, they will require a large land area, while with hydroponics, they would require a smaller footprint area to produce more crops.