“You can see the disaster coming. I can’t understand why more people aren’t acting to prevent it,” says Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA’s director general. Governments are reluctant to invest in new foods and remain tethered to staple crops that “are just too demanding on water.”
Quinoa is growing faster each year than staple crops but from a much lower base
Through selective breeding, the non-profit research institute developed five varieties of quinoa -- a protein-rich, gluten-free grain that tastes like nutty rice -- that grow especially well in salty soil. The center is introducing them in Egypt and Morocco.
Agronomists at ICBA cultivate a patchwork of sandy plots on the fringe of Dubai’s desert interior. A vault where the temperature is kept at 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) safeguards the fruits of their efforts: 14,000 types of seeds from more than 250 plant species.
These seeds are enough for trial use, but a breakthrough to large-scale halophyte production requires government or business support. Planting a new crop is only the first step for ICBA, which operates projects in 28 countries from Senegal to Bangladesh and counts the U.S., Sweden and the United Arab Emirates among its top donors. The center has to transform laboratory wins into commercial successes.
“The marketing aspect is vital,” said Dionyssia Lyra, a halophyte agronomist at ICBA. “We need advertising. We need chefs.”
Quinoa is often more expensive than wheat, and many people are unfamiliar with products made from it. To make headway in rural Egypt, ICBA organized cooking workshops for 120 women to train them to prepare food from salt-tolerant crops. Changing palates has proven difficult in other markets.
Middle Eastern countries will be the most vulnerable to water scarcity in 2040
Wajih Syed, co-founder of Kinwa Foods Pvt Ltd., spent more than two years persuading farmers in Pakistan to plant ICBA-supplied quinoa seeds in salty soils. The grain can earn these farmers up to 20 percent more profit than wheat, and some growers have started to cultivate it on land no longer fertile enough for traditional crops, he said. Yet the grain remains a niche product.
“Changing the eating habits of a thousand years is not an easy job,” Syed said. “I don’t see quinoa becoming a staple food in Pakistan for at least the next decade.”
Ripe quinoa at ICBA’s Dubai facility, left, and drip lines water quinoa crop, right.
ICBA also breeds salt-tolerant sorghum and pearl millet, as well as salicornia, known as sea asparagus or glasswort. Salicornia can be used in salads, animal fodder and even biofuel. Etihad Airways PJSC, the Abu Dhabi carrier, recently used jet fuel blended with locally produced oil from salicornia in a commercial flight.
The research center’s modest profile and resources belie its importance in the quest for food security in nations like the U.A.E., which has little arable land and imports as much as 90 percent of its food. Like other oil-rich countries in the region, the U.A.E. is scouring the planet for farmland to help ensure supplies.
United Arab Emirates could benefit from planting high-value halophytes
Salt-loving Salicornia plants growing at the ICBA farm in Dubai. Biosaline AgricultureBiosaline Agriculture
Many farms in the Middle East rely on underground water reserves for irrigation. Aquifers are rarely replenished in the arid climate, and as groundwater levels decline, the reserves become dense with salts that can kill traditional crops. In coastal areas, seawater often intrudes into diminishing aquifers, making salinity worse.
And still, this international organization is struggling to drum up cash to develop crops the world needs.
“It’s so hard to fund-raise for research when you are in the U.A.E. because the donor thinks you are swimming in oil money,” Elouafi said. “When they see these high skyscrapers and luxury and what have you -- the images of Dubai that are portrayed everywhere -- it’s super-hard.”