A hardy plant grown using salt water is thriving in the UAE’s desert farms and helping to create “healthy” burgers, showing sustainable agriculture’s potential in the toughest conditions.
Salicornia, a succulent, is already being used as a salt replacement in burger patties — a 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,” Tina Siegismund, head of marketing and innovation at Global Food Industries, a frozen food manufacturer, told AFP news agency.
The asparagus-like plant reduces sodium content by 40 per cent in the company’s healthy burgers, which also contain chicken, quinoa and kale.
Native to parts of North America, Europe, South Africa and South Asia, the plant is ideal for the UAE’s climate, and contains anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, according to Ms Siegismund.
Salicornia cultivation began last year in a number of farms across the country as part of an experiment using brine run-off from desalination plants by the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai.
Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle, chief scientist at ICBA, said research was now under way into generating more of the “high-value crop”, which sells for $20 a kilogram in France.
“We went from … building this prototype, to piloting at scale with eight farmers, and now the question is how to scale up,” Mr Lopez-Lavalle told AFP.
In the future, salicornia could “become a really important food ingredient” he said.
“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.”
For now, salicornia remains a niche product, its health benefits unknown to most, Ms Siegismund admits.
“It’s not a product that makes big, big profit, but we believe in it and we will continue,” she said.