Plans to turn Abu Dhabi's desert green

Khalid al-Shamsi learnt to till the desert sand from his mother on the family's Abu Dhabi farm. Years later, he is leading an experiment that his government hopes will transform the emirate's health and attitudes to the environment.

Mr Shamsi, 36, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Organics Group, has for the past five years been honing his horticultural skills to produce an array of fruit and vegetables from the reddish sands near Abu Dhabi airport.

Happy with the yields and quality of his government-funded pilot project, his one-time hobby is about to turn into a full-scale commercial venture once the fierce summer heat subsides and the autumn season begins.

"We want to be the first locally produced, certified organic produce in the market," said Mr Shamsi, as he showed off the last few crops - sweet potatoes, mangoes, asparagus and lemongrass - that can tough out the soaring temperatures.

The people of Abu Dhabi have long enjoyed the benefits of oil wealth - from free land to subsidised utilities. But some of the excesses of consumption are said to be spoiling a generation. The Bedouin staples of camel milk and dates have been replaced within a generation by a fast-food obsession. This has contributed to ballooning obesity rates and diabetes affecting up to a quarter of the adult population - four times the global average.

Abu Dhabi Organics plans to operate on commercial lines. But as an experiment in changing the agricultural base, it currently benefits from free land and water, with the emirate's crown prince backing the project in an effort to introduce cheap, healthier food into the market place.

Mr Shamsi believes that, even once he has to pay for water after going commercial, his prices will compete in the market, especially as about 85 per cent of the United Arab Emirates' food is imported. Part of the broader business plan is for Abu Dhabi Organics to open retail and catering chains.

Mr Shamsi says his pilot, which has so far fed only acquaintances, will be ex-panded in the summer into an area of up to seven sq km, growing 60 to 70 types of vegetables, fruits and herbs; along with honey bees, and camels, goats and cows for meat and dairy products.

The first produce, fertilised with camel dung and dried fish, will reach markets towards the end of the year. To keep the company producing through the summer, Mr Shamsi plans to begin indoor cultivation and eventually expand production into other countries, such as Pakistan, Morocco and Tanzania, where the climate is more forgiving.

He believes that the farm will deliver better-tasting, fresh produce at roughly the same price as the almost exclusively non-organic fruit and vegetables that fill the UAE's supermarket shelves.

The project received warm praise from the Prince of Wales during his visit to the UAE in March. The prince, who expressed amazement that such a range of produce could be produced in the desert, asked for a delivery of the farm's tomatoes to his room in Abu Dhabi's smartest hotel, the Emirates Palace. Mr Shamsi is now exploring a partnership with Prince Charles's firm, Duchy Originals, which has helped to develop organic farming in a number of countries.

Abu Dhabi Organics is also applying for certification from Britain's Soil Association, which certifies organic produce.

Some environmentalists would question the farm's impact, given the water resources required to irrigate the desert. The UAE already has one of the world's highest per capita water consumption.

Mr Shamsi says the irrigation water he uses is a by-product of power generation, while the UAE's authorities are overseeing various projects intended to reduce general water consumption.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has welcomed Mr Shamsi's contribution to sustainable agriculture in a harsh climate. His farm has also become a repository for plants and trees threatened by rapid local development.

He hopes his broader contribution to promoting environmental care will help change attitudes in the UAE's throw-away consumer society. The company has raised finance to build an "Organic Oasis", a 47 sq km residential and tourism area beside the farm - powered by green energy - which, he hopes, will become the country's first major sustainable development project.

"There are many ways to protect the environment," he said. "Organic isn't just for food - it's our whole life. We received this land pure; we need to safeguard it for future generations."

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