A hardy plant grown with salt water thrives on the UAE’s desert farms and helps produce ‘healthy’ burgers, showing the potential of sustainable farming in the harshest of conditions.
Salicornia, a succulent, is already being used as a salt substitute in burger patties – a rare agricultural success in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, which imports almost all of its food.
“You have the salty taste with less sodium, but you also have other benefits,” said Tina Siegismund, director of marketing and innovation at United Arab Emirates-based Global Food Industries, a manufacturer of frozen foods.
The asparagus-like plant reduces sodium by 40 percent in the company’s healthy burgers, which also contain chicken, quinoa and kale.
Native to parts of North America, Europe, South Africa and southern Asia, the plant is ideal for the UAE’s harsh climate and contains antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, according to Siegismund.
Agriculture generates less than one percent of GDP in the UAE, a country on the front lines of climate change with temperatures regularly exceeding 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and rising rapidly.
Salicornia cultivation began last year on a number of farms in the United Arab Emirates as part of an experiment on salt runoff from desalination plants by the Dubai-based International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle, chief scientist at ICBA, said research is now underway to produce more of the “high-quality crop,” which sells for $20 a kilo (2.2 pounds) in France.
“We went from … building this prototype to a large-scale pilot with eight farmers, and now the question is how do we scale it up,” Lopez-Lavalle told AFP.
In the future, salicornia “could become a really important food ingredient,” he added.
“If there is economic value and the production system is developed for it, it can become a replacement for salt and all the other micronutrients that are artificially added to processed foods today.”
For now, salicornia remains a niche product whose health benefits are unknown to most, Siegismund concedes.
“It’s not a product that’s going to make big, big wins, but we believe in it and we’re going to keep going,” she said.
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