Mirage or Oasis? Organic farming in the Dubai desert

Climate Economy

Mirage or Oasis? Organic farming in the Dubai desert

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If you can make it here, can you make it anywhere?

A day in the desert with Sheikh Dr. Majid al Qassimi was my COP28 highlight. Yep, the sun was intense – but that’s what cowboy hats are made for. Yes, walking in endless sand sucks the strength right out of your legs, no matter how much Colorado ranching you’ve done. But clean air, the wind off the enigmatic Hajar mountains to the East, the raw spareness of this ancient land swept the frustrations of that surreal Expo City right off of me. I loved it.

Rare climate hope in Dubai

If there was any hope to be found at COP28 it was in people like Majid. His vision is to make the food system in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) regenerative.

That might be hard to imagine. Yes, the UAE is one of the world’s 10 biggest oil producers, supplying 3.2 million barrels a day.

A rising 80% of the land is now desert. Just 5.5% is farmed. So, the UAE imports 90% of its food. A visit to the local 24-hour grocery shows an abundance of jackfruit from Thailand, mushrooms from China, and tinned beef from ??

Creating a sustainable food system in a desert country like the UAE would be transformative. 

Yet Majid, a veterinary doctor who spent nearly a decade in the UAE government before co-founding a sustainability-focused consultancy, wants to turn the UAE into a global leader in regenerative food production.

Since the planet’s advancing desertification is increasing the millions of climate refugees every year, creating a sustainable food system in a desert country like the UAE would be transformative. 

Sheikh visionary’s regenerative path

But how? Majid’s firm Soma Mater last year published white papers laying out a “future” and a “path” toward a sustainable food system.

During COP28, Majid invited a team of some of the world’s best regenerative practitioners to discuss how we could turn the driest desert into productive, profitable farms. 

Helmy Abouleish, the Managing Partner of SEKEM; Vijay Kumar, the genius behind the Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming; Walter Link founder of Future Economy Forum; Lucy Wallace and Richard Zaltzman of EIT Food, and Merijn Dols of NOW Partners all I drove out of Dubai’s traffic and smog, beyond the irrigated acres of decorative grass lining the roadways to the red sand of Sharjah, the third largest emirate in the UAE and Majid’s home.


The desert stretches further than you can see. You’d be forgiven for wondering if anything could possibly grow there. But I found prints of wild camels that have crossed these seas of sand for generations, and the stubble of nibbled grasses that grow there. 

“Greening the deserts is a testimony to our desire to live in peace and harmony.”

Then we repaired to the Emirates Biofarm, a living example of a teaching farm that is profitable because it not only grows production crops, it also hosts farm tourism.  

Majid and Yazen Al Kodmani, owner of the farm.

At COP28, the UAE introduced the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action. Now 134 countries, including the US, the EU, Brazil and others representing most of the arable land on Earth have signed this voluntary pledge to integrate food production into their climate plans:

“Recognizing that unprecedented adverse climate impacts are increasingly threatening the resilience of agriculture and food systems as well as the ability of many, especially the most vulnerable, to produce and access food in the face of mounting hunger, malnutrition, and economic stresses,” the declaration said, “we affirm that agriculture and food systems must urgently adapt and transform in order to respond to the imperatives of climate change.”

As our regenerative agriculture experts conferred amid the vast and seemingly barren deserts of the UAE, a colleague reminded me of Seiei Toyama, the ingenious Japanese agriculturalist who spent 30 years greening the Kubuqi Desert in China.

“Greening the deserts is a testimony to our desire to live in peace and harmony,” Toyama once said. “Green represents life.”

Majid envisions his land as a living example of how to regenerate the Emirates. “I’m in, I told him. Maybe I’ll be back to the Emirates to help make such change real.

Written by

Hunter Lovins

Hunter Lovins is a pioneer in the global environmental movement. An author of 16 books and hundreds of scientific articles and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, she has consulted on sustainability strategies in business, economic development, agriculture, energy, water, security, and climate policies for scores of governments, communities, and companies worldwide, including heads of state and energy, defense, commerce, environment and other agencies. Chief Impact Officer of Change Finance and a Managing Partner of Now Partners, Hunter has won dozens of awards, including the Right Livelihood Award. Time recognized her as a Millennium Hero for the Planet; Newsweek called her a Green Business Icon. Her recent book A Finer Future: Creating an Economy in Service to Life won a Nautilus Award.