Farming in the desert: Quinoa could transform agriculture in the Gulf

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock
Experts have urged Gulf states to look to an Andean super-food beloved of hipsters as a staple crop at a time when groundwater supplies are shrinking and becoming more saline.

Quinoa, which needs a fraction of the water required to cultivate wheat, maize or rice, and can thrive in regions of high salinity, has been undergoing trials at two farms in the UAE that had earlier been abandoned because of too much salt in the groundwater.

Based on early research, it appears that certain varieties of the plant can yield up to five tonnes per hectare, compared to the 2-3 tonnes of wheat produced by the region’s farmers in the same area.

Quinoa can play a major role as a staple crop in marginal environments due to its adaptability to harsh conditions including those with annual rainfall as little as 200mm​,” said Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the UAE environment minister.

While average rainfall in most Gulf states is roughly half that figure at best, a number of microclimates exist in the region that might fit the bill.

Speaking in Dubai recently at one of the biggest international conferences dedicated to quinoa, Al Zeyoudi highlighted the “urgent need to find solutions and adapt, and where possible mitigate effects of climate change on different fronts, including agriculture​”.

More than 150 policymakers, scientists and agriculture professionals from 46 countries were present to share the latest developments in quinoa research, production and trade, and advise on quinoa cultivation in arid environments.

Despite growing global recognition of quinoa’s potential, and the positive outcomes in pilot studies, many constraints must be addressed before quinoa becomes a “crop of choice​” in such areas, said Ismahane Elouafi, director-general of the Dubai-based International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture.

He said: “There are still many areas to be researched and improved on as we introduce quinoa into agriculture in marginal environments, in order to make sure its introduction and production systems are beneficial to the communities and their ecosystems now and in the future​."

These challenges include restricted availability of genetic material outside the Andes, limited knowledge of best management practices—especially concerning nutrient and water requirements—and a lack of suitable marketing channels through which smallholders can sell their produce.

Research, however, has gained impetus since the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.

Yet the wisdom of introducing the grain ahead of seeking to elevate wheat yields has been called into question by some campaigners. Likewise, the FAO has been accused of steamrolling new and unknown crops into an area without considering local preferences. Meanwhile, dramatic price fluctuations have hit the livelihoods of Andean farmers reliant on quinoa harvests. 

It stands to reason that if you introduce production of a particular grain or food into a country where formerly it was not grown it will mean market competition for the traditional growers of that crop and a subsequent drop in the prices they receive​,” said Lynne Chatterton, author of Sustainable Dryland Farming.

Researchers are currently working on boosting the nutritional content of quinoa grown in Middle Eastern conditions, which is lower than in more fertile areas.

If the Dubai researchers are successful, though, they could have found a way to promote more agriculture in a part of the world that climatologists predict will be almost crop-free by 2050.

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