Rising temperatures and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change are making farming conditions increasingly challenging and disrupting food distribution. But scientists in some of the world’s driest places are coming up with solutions to boost local food production by introducing plants that thrive with less-fertile soil and seawater.
In the Dubai desert, farmers must contend with intense heat, limited freshwater and sandy soil. Here, the International Center of Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) is transplanting and growing salt-loving superfoods in an effort to expand food diversity in the region. “Freshwater is becoming more and more scarce,” explains Dionysia Angeliki Lyra, agronomist at the ICBA. “We have to focus on how we can utilize low-quality, saline water resources for food production.”
Desert farming has existed for thousands of years, but not all desert plants provide the nutrition needed to feed the growing population. The ICBA, a not-for-profit initiative launched in the United Arab Emirates in 1999, embarked on a mission to find highly nutritious crops all over the world that could adapt to and survive in extreme weather conditions — and thrive when grown using seawater and brine from desalination projects. Today, the ICBA boasts a unique collection of over 13,000 seeds. The program has introduced non-traditional crops to the desert, such as quinoa from the South American Andes.
Its scientists tested over 1,200 varieties of quinoa, of which five can grow in these extreme conditions. Farmers in more than 10 countries in the Middle East and North Africa are already producing the superfood, and the ICBA is now introducing it in rural communities in Central Asia. Little-known beyond some parts of Europe and North America, salicornia is a plant from the southern US that needs saline water to grow. It has also been transported to the Dubai desert, where it is thriving. The center deems it the “desert superhero” thanks to its adaptability and versatility. The crop is used for food production and is being tested as a biofuel. The ICBA currently produces about 200 kilograms of quinoa and 500 kilograms of salicornia for research and seeding, while also working with a food company in Dubai to develop salicornia-based food products with the aim to increase consumer adoption. Lyra believes rethinking the types of foods farmers grow can have a long-term impact in these environments.