Farmers harvest rice at the Dubai base of the Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center this June in Dubai. (Photo: Courtesy of Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center.)
Driving southeast from Port of Jebel Ali, the urban glamor of Dubai gradually fades away and the landscape turns into vast expanses of saline-alkali soil and endless dunes. About an hour's drive later, six patches of green paddy fields suddenly appear.
This is the Dubai base of the Qingdao Saline-Alkali Tolerant Rice Research and Development Center. Led by Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping, dubbed the "Father of Hybrid Rice," the project aims to grow rice in Dubai's desert and feed people in countries with large portions of saline-alkaline land.
According to agreements between China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), these crops could cover as much as 10 percent of Dubai's total land area and turn vast expanses of desert into human oasis.
The rice experiment was prompted by an invitation from the office of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE, and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai. According to the UAE newspaper Khaleej Times, the country is currently importing 80 percent of its food supplies, and aims to boost domestic production by 60 percent.
In 2017, after the Dubai ruler learned that Yuan's trial saltwater-tolerant rice project succeeded in China, his personal office got in touch with Yuan's team and invited them to carry out rice experiments in Dubai's desert. "We couldn't believe it was true when we got the invitation. We were only certain after different sides verified this for us," Zhang Guodong, deputy director at the Qingdao research center in Shandong Province, told the Global Times.
Yuan helped establish the center in October 2016 to develop commercially viable rice tolerant of saline and alkali soil. In 2017, in a rice crop experiment, the center used diluted sea water on the soil to test which types of rice could survive and prosper in saline environments. Four types of rice stood out in the experiment, registering an estimated output of between 6.5 to 9.3 tonnes per hectare, laying the foundation for commercialization, Xinhua reported at the time.
While the experiment proved that saltwater-tolerant rice was commercially viable, moving the trials to the desert was a daunting task. "The cooperation with the ruler was exhilarating, but we were also worried because the soil and weather conditions in Dubai are very different from China. We feared the experiment would fail. However, we still accepted the invitation, because we believed that even if we failed, this would still be an important attempt in the history of rice cultivation," he said.
The challenge of desert farming is daunting. The temperature in the desert changes drastically from day to night, with a difference of as many as 30 degrees. Sand storms often invade the area. The nutrient-poor soil is too sandy. This is aggravated by salty seawater just 7 to 8 meters below the soil.
"This means most of the mature system of rice cultivation will become useless here in Dubai. We have to explore new means that fit the local reality," said Zhang Shuchen, the production head of the Dubai project of the Qingdao center.
Apart from selecting rice types that can better adjust to the local soil, the research team also came up with four ways to improve the local soil.
They include soil conditioners that can alter the alkalinity of the soil, and an Internet of Things-based system for underground irrigation. Scientists buried an irrigation system about 0.5 meters beneath the soil to send nutrients and water to the roots of the crops, and another system 1.8 meters beneath the soil to monitor and adjust the level of seawater. Experts say the system can nurture better soil in two to three years.
"There were times when we were anxious and worried, and times when we were fidgety. But in the end we would go back to the fields and try to solve the problems. You can't try to fool others in agriculture, because the yields will talk," Zhang Shuchen said.
A seed grows
On May 26, the center invited an international team of experts from India, Egypt, the UAE and other countries to evaluate their progress. The international team found five types of rice yielding 4.8 to 7.8 tons per hectare. These types all exceeded the global average yield of 4.5 tons per hectare.
In the ensuing experiments, the team found another four types of rice that exceeded the global average yield. These results show initial success in planting saltwater-tolerant rice in desert areas of Dubai.
A member of the Western Region Development Council of the UAE said the success of the experiment is great news for desert areas bordering the sea. He said that in order to improve the local economy, the committee had focused on attracting foreign investors for property investment and boosting the vacation industry. The success of the experiment shows that developing modern agriculture on this land is not impossible.
He said he will closely follow the project and is interested in developing ecologically friendly real estate projects, which he sees as a way to commercialize saltwater-tolerant rice in the long term.
In order to mark this historic breakthrough, Dubai is turning some saltwater-tolerant rice crops into souvenirs. The team also invited Global Times reporters to taste the desert-grown rice. When the rice was being steamed, a special aroma filled the room, and the flavor was impressive and not salty at all.
The Chinese research team, which at its peak numbered around 20 people, is responsible for a range of experiments and activities including improving the soil, developing farmland infrastructure, planting and cultivation. Visiting Chinese agricultural scientists also need to fly to the UAE to solve problems in the different stages of rice growth from seedling to maturity.
Zhang Shuchen doesn't speak Arabic or English and has been working far away from his wife and child in Dubai since January 2018. When asked if he feels his days in Dubai are excruciating, he said, "Not at all. My only concern is to get my job done. It's worth it to offer some data to the project when I have the energy."
Under the guidelines of the "Green Dubai" cooperation framework agreement, the Chinese research team will conduct four stages of experimental and industrial tests.
The first stage involves a variety of rice planting methods at different temperatures to help decide which genetic resources and growth techniques are most suitable.
Experiments for the rest of 2018 are underway. A primary focus is confirming optimal soil parameters and fertilizer circulation, with the aim of reducing production expenses.
Both sides will begin the third stage in 2019, which will include the development of a saltwater-tolerant rice farm. They will also explore green ecological land usage, and introduce commercial investment through using capital from China's Belt and Road Initiative.
The fourth and final stage involves using the technology in more areas by 2020. The aim is to cover 10 percent of Dubai's land area with seawater crops.
In the future, China and the UAE also plan to jointly promote seawater rice in the Middle East and North African countries by establishing a seawater rice promotion center, Zhang Guodong said.