Interview: Rashed Mohamed Al Shariqi
In what ways can technology play a role within the local agriculture sector, particularly with regards to water conservation and management?
RASHED MOHAMED AL SHARIQI: Technology can and must play a major role in any conservation initiative. Though expensive in the short term, technology helps to achieve sustainability in the long term. The latest technology platforms in agriculture, such as hydroponics, aeroponics and greenhouses, are currently used in Abu Dhabi. We have replaced people with machines as much as possible, in seeding, harvesting, as well as in other activities.
One of the most important initiatives has been the introduction of irrigation technology, a big step towards sustainability and ecological and environmental protection. Some 95% of the water used in farm irrigation in the emirate comes from ground water and only 1.3% of extracted ground water is renewable due to our low average rainfall. Additionally, 20% of all desalinated water is used for irrigation. We have also banned the cultivation of Rhodes grass, a popular livestock feed that was consuming around 59% of all irrigated water.
We are relying heavily on new technologies to deal with the water crisis, for both increasing water availability and ensuring its efficient use. However, creating awareness among farmers and farm owners about how the right use of technology can contribute to increased productivity, higher incomes and less time spent on cultivation is also very important.
To what extent can proper training improve food preparation practices and safety within Abu Dhabi?
AL SHARIQI: Training plays a major role in improving the behaviour of food handlers. Our training schemes are designed to help those working with food to internalise best practices in a methodical manner. In fact, almost 90% of food handlers in the emirate have already undergone mandatory Essential Food Safety Training. We are offering this training through approved third parties in around eight languages, in addition to pictorial training for those with limited language skills.
What challenges does the emirate face as a result of importing the vast majority of its food?
AL SHARIQI: Since the largest chunk of our food is imported, it is a constant challenge to ensure food safety. Food products reach our borders from all over the world and it is important to keep pace with the imports on a regular basis. Another major challenge is the possibility that food-monitoring authorities in the exporting countries may be lax in making sure that only safe products are allowed to be exported.
It is important to remain vigilant about diseases and contaminants that may reach us, even before their incidence is reported in the source countries or alerts are issued by international authorities. Thus far we have proved equal to the task, without any major hazard or mishaps being reported to date.
How is the manufacturing of more value-added agriculture products being encouraged?
AL SHARIQI: A number of initiatives have been launched through the Farmers Services Centre (FSC) with the aim of helping farmers streamline production and post-production so that the waste of produce is minimised.
Currently, one of the main drawbacks is the imbalance between sufficient production and the lack of corresponding facilities for the post-production phase. The FSC has worked, in association with ADFCA's agriculture sector, to increase the average rate of production of farms and to increase their competitive edge. This will involve a more efficient use of farming areas as well as an improvement in the quality of crops. Between 2010 and 2011, for example, high quality potatoes were cultivated in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi using intensive methods.
There are a number of similar efforts being made for the cultivation of a variety of products. A new culture of farming is now being promoted with the aim of increasing productivity, ensuring higher incomes for the farmers, streamlining marketing channels and taking farming to newer and higher levels of sophistication.
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