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Resilient foxtail millet could aid Gulf food security 

Foxtail millet could help Gulf food security Reuters
Oman has registered a significant rise in food production over the past five years
  • NYU finds foxtail millet thrives in arid conditions  
  • Gulf ramping up domestic agriculture 
  • Date crop breeding could tackle pests

Researchers in Abu Dhabi have identified what they claim is a highly climate-resilient cereal crop – never farmed at scale before in the Middle East – that could pose a solution to the region’s escalating food security problem. 

Michael Purugganan, professor of biology at NYU Abu Dhabi, and his team published a study this summer claiming to demonstrate the climate resilience of a crop called foxtail millet. They conducted the study in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing.

According to the research team, foxtail millet is one of the world’s oldest domesticated grain crops and has been grown by humans for around 11,000 years – mainly in China, India and elsewhere in South Asia. 

It deploys a form of photosynthesis that enables it to adapt to different environments, meaning it is resistant to drought and can thrive in low-nutrient soils such as those in the Middle East, the study said. 

Purugganan said the Middle East should “seriously consider” the commercial farming of foxtail millet.

“It has the potential to be important for food security under climate change,” he said. “Already the region is not a very hospitable area for agriculture, and global warming will make sustainable farming more of a challenge. 

“There has to be an investment in the breeding and development of new crop varieties [that can grow in harsher conditions].”

However, Martin Keulertz, a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, cautioned against becoming too excited about “wonder crops”.

“While it’s true millet is drought-resistant, a native species and a good crop to be grown in hotter climates… the problem is consumer behaviour and consumer uptake,” he said.

“Academics believe in food system change and millet plays a major part in this. [But] find me the market players that adopt millet. A McDonald’s burger bun made with millet?”

Reliance on imports

The UAE imported as much as 80 percent of its food in 2020, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, while other countries in the Mena region, such as Lebanon and Jordan, import far more than this.  

High dependence on food imports leaves the region vulnerable to global food price shocks. The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic stoked currency weakness in some countries, prompting high inflation and an increase in local food prices. Later, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to blockades on grain shipments and pushed global food prices to an all-time high last March. 

Prices have stabilised since then. The United Nations food agency’s world price index fell in August to a two-year low, despite a surge in rice prices following India’s decision to ban exports

Embracing technology

Some Mena countries are faring better than others when it comes to withstanding such shocks.

The UAE, for example, is expanding its domestic farming and agtech industries. Adoption of pioneering technologies in particular is critical to boost local food production and cut reliance on imports. But there is more work to be done, Purugganan told AGBI

“Looking at the UAE, I’ve seen quite an impressive ramp-up in the government’s interest in agriculture over the past five years – in vertical farming, for example, and the underlying technologies. The UAE is laying the foundation for modern 21st century agriculture in the region, which is great to see.”

However, Purugganan says sustained breeding efforts for new crops are lacking.

Commercial farming of foxtail millet is no more costly than other types of farming – if anything, it is cheaper because it requires less intensive irrigation, Purugganan said.

But rolling it out in the UAE would require investment to put in place a breeding infrastructure and secure the expertise required to put academic research into practice. 

“They need to develop a programme that goes from discovery in the laboratory to deployment in the field,” he said. “Many countries have that sort of infrastructure, but I’m not seeing it in the Gulf countries, and they should, if they’re serious about [agriculture and food security], think about this.”

The Khalifah Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology at the United Arab Emirates University in Abu Dhabi is “moving in the right direction”, Purugganan said. It explores new genomic technologies and genetic engineering, with a view to developing new crops for the region. 

Breeding for change

There is also an untapped commercial opportunity.

“It could be the government [that bridges the gap], but equally it could be a private sector company that sees the potential and wants to be a seed vehicle, like many of the industrialised agricultural research companies in the West.”

Red palm weevil food securityReuters
Breeding new varieties of date palm could help to combat red palm weevils, says NYU’s Michael Purugganan

Crop breeding programmes could also help the Gulf improve its farming of other produce such as the date, a symbol of the region’s heritage, said Purugganan. 

The indigenous date palm has shown it can thrive in arid conditions. But farmers are grappling with issues such as high salinity – “they’ve been irrigating date palms for so long now that there’s a build-up of salt in agricultural fields” – and pests such as red palm weevil, which causes extensive damage to tree trunks. 

“By breeding new varieties, farmers could overcome these issues, increase their yields and start to improve date varieties in ways that might be interesting for them, such as different taste profiles and quality.” 

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