UAE is cultivating salicornia, a plant that grows in saline conditions, preparing for the future of agriculture in its arid climate. AFP
Salicornia, a succulent, is already being used as a salt replacement in burger patties — a rare farming success in the UAE, which imports nearly all of its food.
"You have the salty flavour with less sodium, but you also have other benefits," said Tina Siegismund, head of marketing and innovation at UAE-based Global Food Industries, a frozen food manufacturer.
The asparagus-like plant reduces sodium content by 40 per cent in the company's healthy burgers, which also contain chicken, quinoa and kale.
A worker prepares a salicornia plant-based mix to be made into burger patties at a food processing plant in Sharjah. AFP
Native to parts of North America, Europe, South Africa and South Asia, the plant is ideal for the UAE's inhospitable climate, and contains anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, according to Siegismund.
Salicornia cultivation began last year in a number of farms across the UAE as part of an experiment using brine run-off from desalination plants by the Dubai-based International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle, chief scientist at ICBA, said research was now underway into generating more of the "high-value crop", which sells for $20 a kilo in France.
A view of salicornia plants growing on a farm in Dubai. AFP
"We went from... building this prototype, to piloting at scale with eight farmers, and now the question is how to scale up," Lopez-Lavalle said. In the future, salicornia could "become a really important food ingredient" he added.
"If there is an economic value and the production system is developed for this, it can become a replacement for salt and any other micronutrients that are added today artificially to processed food."
Salicornia plant-based burger patties are prepared for packaging off a production line in Sharjah. AFP
For now, salicornia remains a niche product, its health benefits unknown to most, admits Siegismund. "It's not a product that makes big, big profit, but we believe in it and we will continue," she said.Agence France-Presse
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