Upgrading farming: Introducing new techniques and technologies

In the past half-decade Abu Dhabi’s government has had considerable success in upgrading the emirate’s farming segment. Until the mid-2000s most farms in were operated on a part-time, semi-commercial basis, and a majority of local farmers were either unaware of or lacked access to agricultural innovations, technologies and techniques that were common elsewhere. In 2005 the government created the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), which was charged with implementing and enforcing new food safety standards in line with international best practice. In an effort to boost yields, reduce water consumption, and improve waste and by-product management, the government, on advice from the ADFCA, established the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Service Centre (ADFSC) in 2009. The ADFSC has a mandate to provide technical expertise, marketing and supply chain support to farmers.

Every Drop Counts

 Agricultural activities – and particularly farming – are a major drain on Abu Dhabi’s limited water resources. According to data from ADFCA, as of 2012 around 70% of the emirate’s annual water budget was consumed by agriculture, and the authority has introduced policies with the goal of conserving water. ADFCA and the ADFSC recently launched a raft of new initiatives to this end, with the aim of reducing water consumption in Abu Dhabi by 40% by the end of 2013. One major component of the plan involved phasing out water-intensive crops, particularly Rhodes grass, a popular traditional fodder crop that, according to ADFCA, consumed an estimated 93m gallons of water annually in Abu Dhabi until recently. The authority has had considerable success reducing the amount of Rhodes grass grown in the emirate. “Historically, nearly every farm grew Rhodes grass for animal feed,” said Christopher Hirst, the ADFSC’s CEO, told OBG. “Now this has been replaced by fodder imports.” Improving the efficiency of irrigation networks is also considered to be a key goal. According to ADFCA, the farming segment uses around 1.5bn cu metres of water for irrigation on an annual basis, which represents around 50% of water consumption in the emirate. Reducing this has been a key objective for the ADFSC over the past four years. With Dh134m ($36.47m) in financing from the government, it has worked to modernise irrigation systems throughout Al Gharbia, installing pressure-compensating irrigation systems and trialling the use of “smart” sensors that track the amount of water in the soil to optimise irrigation efficiency. As of late 2012 the project had reached more than 2000 farms, in some cases reducing water usage by as much as 50%. “Traditionally, many of the farm workers have relied on flood irrigation in their home countries and expect to see large volumes of water being applied to the plants, which is inefficient in this climate and highly wasteful,” said Hirst. “We have educated and encouraged farmers and farm workers to switch to other technologies and techniques, which has had a positive impact on water consumption rates in recent years.” Indeed, the use of treated wastewater has been adopted on a wide scale, primarily in landscaping, but also on a small number of farms as a trial.

Cutting Edge

 In addition to upgrading irrigation, ADFCA and the ADFSC have worked to introduce advanced technologies – including greenhouse agriculture and related soil-less growing techniques – in an effort to boost production and conserve water. In particular, the authority is looking into hydroponics technology, where plants are grown in nutrient-rich water, and aeroponics technology, where plants are grown with their roots exposed, usually in a misty environment. In conjunction with the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, ADFCA launched a greenhouse agriculture centre in Al Ain to test and compare these and other types of protected, closed-system techniques. Greenhouses are widely considered to be one of the most efficient ways to farm in the emirate’s harsh climate, though high initial set-up costs have been an issue. As of early 2013 the ADFSC was working to develop a low-cost greenhouse and hydroponics kit, which was expected to encourage more farmers to invest in the technology in the future.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2014

Agriculture chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2014

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