To the untrained eye, the vision of Abu Dhabi’s agricultural future on display at the humbly named farm number 46 Madinat Zayed needs some explanation. An avenue of date palms leads from the main gate to a paddock where a herd of sheep graze on rich pasture, goats frolic in a well made enclosure, and a small team of farm workers tend to the livestock and the irrigation. The scene seems far from extraordinary.
Admittedly, everything on the farm owned by Mohammed Said Al Mazrouei and his father seems suspiciously meticulous, but this is to be expected of a demonstration farm managed with the assistance of the Abu Dhabi Farmer’s Service Centre (ADFSC), an organisation whose remit is transforming the emirate’s farming sector.
The ADFSC’s goals are to improve farming practices, produce higher yields of better-quality produce and ensure that Abu Dhabi’s 24,000 farms have the potential to supply the local commercial market, and in doing so deliver a measure of food security.
What is more surprising is the fact that the farm’s contented sheep are grazing on emerald green pasture, especially in this part of Abu Dhabi’s arid Western Region. It is also hugely photogenic, but even this fails to capture the attention of an impatient local TV crew who have come to capture footage of potatoes and will settle for nothing less. Food and farming now capture headlines. Not only are they are of vital strategic importance to Abu Dhabi but they also account, alongside the irrigation of parks and forestry, for a staggering 72 per cent of the emirate’s total water consumption. Unfortunately, food and agriculture are also highly technical and nuanced issues that require expertise, time, and a sense of the bigger picture if their complexities are to be understood by Abu Dhabi’s food producers and consumers alike.
Potatoes are a case in point, having become increasingly popular as a cash crop in Abu Dhabi since the suspension of imports from Saudi Arabia. While it is possible to grow them successfully here, their long-term cultivation requires a level of skill, soil cultivation, and disease prevention which make little sense in the context of the long-term environmental and agricultural challenges facing the UAE. Instead, the ADFSC are keen to promote honey, eggs, vegetables, dates, meat, and fodder production amongst local farmers, not least because there is an existing tradition of producing them. The purpose of the demonstration farm is to display the benefits of integrated farming – the production of multiple forms of produce – on a single plot.
“This farm is the future,” explains Hindri Kuipers, the head of the livestock extension unit with the ADFSC. Kuipers has been working with his team of agricultural advisors to change farming practices in the Western Region for the last three years. One of the biggest challenges has been to persuade farm owners to move their livestock out of the desert – where they are kept in rudimentary enclosures called ezba – and onto farms, as Kuipers explains. “Local people used to have camels and very few sheep and goats because there was no irrigation however, as the UAE developed, livestock ownership increased, and ezba developed.”
Traditionally, farm owners were discouraged from keeping their livestock on farms and the current situation developed whereby farm workers have to deliver water and food to the desert on a regular basis. Kuiper accepts that keeping camels in the desert makes sense, but can see no good reason for keeping sheep and goats on an ezba. Not only is this practice inefficient but it has wider implications as well.
“Does any veterinarian go deep down into the desert to check the animal’s on a regular basis? That is very difficult. There is very little control over animal hygiene on the ezba, there’s no breeding policy, no advise, no control.”
The other big issue with keeping sheep and goats on ezba is the implications that it has for the production and distribution of the fodder they need for their survival, five kilograms a day for every camel and 1.5kg a day for every sheep and goat. As Kuipers explains, “You have to take bales of fodder all the way out into the desert where vehicles can get stuck. Why have all that hassle when you can grow fodder on the farm?”
Other than agriculture’s water use it is fodder, and the size of the government subsidy it attracts, that provides one of the most compelling arguments for the reform of Abu Dhabi’s agricultural sector as it now stands. According to figures released by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), goats, sheep, and camels in the emirate consumed 4509 tonnes of fodder a day in 2011, which amounts to approximately 1.645 million tonnes for the year. Even when the revenue raised from that fodder is taken into consideration – the government charges farm owners only 20 per cent of the market rate – that’s a cost of one hundred and ninety-seven million, four hundred and ninety-four thousand and two hundred dirhams for the year.
Given that the majority of Abu Dhabi’s livestock is raised on family farms for the purposes of private consumption, the expenditure is not insignificant. Coupled with the fact that much of Abu Dhabi’s fodder is imported from suppliers in countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Italy, the US, Pakistan and Spain, the trade also represents an issue in terms of food security.
Since moving their livestock from their ezba in the desert onto the farm, the Al Mazrouei herd has increased to more than 400 head of sheep and goats and so far, the farm-grown fodder has been able to support 70-80% of the herd’s needs. It is not necessary to be an agronomist to see that the economic, environmental and strategic implications of integrated farming and the potential savings there are to be made from a shift from more traditional to integrated farming practices.
While the ADFSC’s policies may sound very simple, they represent a radical transformation of the farming practices that have defined agriculture in Abu Dhabi’s over the last forty years. It’s a shift that makes sense to the farm’s owner, Mohammed Said Al Mazrouei.
“If you came and saw this farm at the start there was nothing green here, the only plants were date palms,” he explains. “Now you see the animals here, the pasture, fruit trees. It is green, you have animals grazing, and even the birds come here now. It has totally changed. Before we had to buy everything, but now we have to buy only 20-30 per cent of the things we need. Everything else, even fertiliser, we now get from the farm.”
Unfortunately, the only measure of the ADFSC’s success will be the number of farm owners who convert to their cause. While the intellectual argument for change may be self-evident and pressing, the impetus for the necessary financial and emotional investment by farm owners is less so, a situation that looks set to continue as long as so many farms continue to operate free from market forces that would encourage investment and impose increased efficiencies.
Hindri Kuipers hopes that family self-interest will act as a motivating force, even if economics do not.
“All of us, including the farmers, we are consumers now. We like to be sure that the things that we eat are produced according to food safety procedures. You have children, they also eat the same meat, so you’d like to know what antibiotics have been used and whether there is a withdrawal period that has been safeguarded. Integration allows you to ensure all of these things.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi