These Desert-Grown Burgers Contain a Trending Food Ingredient

Serving up a slice of innovation!

Aug 3, 2022
These Desert-Grown Burgers Contain a Trending Food Ingredient | Serving up a slice of innovation!

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what about when life gives you an arid desert climate, with little fresh water or arable land? The United Arab Emirates, a county that is mostly desert, is taking advantage of what its arid soil and briny water does have to offer. France 24 reports on home-grown, low-sodium burgers that are hitting the menu in the UAE

The ‘poor man’s asparagus’
Gulf News provides the background. Salicornia is a low-sodium succulent plant with a salty taste that can be used as a salt substitute. Nicknamed the poor man’s asparagus, salicornia grows in briny soil.

Tina Siegismund, head of marketing and innovation at Global Food Industries, a UAE-based frozen food manufacturer forming part of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, described its health benefits to France 24. "You have the salty flavor with less sodium, but you also have other benefits," said Siegismund. “These include its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to grow in a salty environment. 

Because of salicornia’s resilience, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), in Dubai, is able to grow the plant in the salty after-brine produced as run-off by desalination plants

Dr Dionysia Angeliki Lyra, Halophyte Agronomist Directorate of Programmes explained to Gulf News how salicornia thrives in briny, salt water. “The UAE’s groundwater is 90 percent saline which makes it an ideal environment to yield the best salicornia produce,” Dr Lyra explained. “We are optimistic that the launch of the new burger has the potential to transform the UAE’s burgeoning home-grown crops sector.”

UAE’s home-grown crop sector
The salicornia yields are part of a UAE initiative to explore new agricultural technologies and increase domestic food production. According to the UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, Marian bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri, “realistically, we’re looking at maybe increasing our domestic production going toward 30 percent – 40 percent in the next ten years.” 

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A figure of 30 to 40 percent is an ambitious target. Currently 90 percent of food in the UAE is imported from abroad. But, the country is investing in innovation and jumping headfirst into achieving its goal with a number of creative agricultural tactics.

In addition to the brine-grown salicornia, a good fit for the brackish groundwater in the UAE, a joint Korean-UAE team of scientists uncovered two rice varieties that can tolerate salinity, in 2020. 

UAE utilizes not just cutting-edge science, but also high tech in its pursuit of making arid lands more productive. Hydroponic farms, agricultural drones and AI to track crop health are prominent features in UAE’s farms. Research center, StarLab Oasis, even hopes to unveil a high tech “space” greenhouse featuring technology from extraplanetary missions, to make Abu Dhabi’s terrestrial desert landscapes bloom. StarLab Oasis also hopes to initiate “space mutagenesis,” sending seeds into space to allow them to mutate into more productive varieties.

The UAE hopes this innovation will not only boost its own economy but also help the country explore technology that can prevent global food shortages in the future. Allen Herbert, StarLab Oasis’s General Manager explained,  “A great amount of the world’s sustainable and economically efficient food production will one day come from deserts, harsh environments and off earth. All this is beginning now, in Abu Dhabi.”

Food innovation hits the shelves
The homegrown crops are already starting to make a dent in UAE’s food supply, France24 reports. Global Food Industries is turning salicornia into healthier burgers, containing 40 percent less sodium than traditional burgers. These burgers are being made with chicken, quinoa and kale. According to Zawya the burgers have less fat, more calcium, 25 percent more protein and are significantly lower in calories than ordinary chicken burgers.

Ahmed Bayomi, CEO of Global Food Industries elaborated on the product, “This new burger range is a result of the commitment of our R&D team who worked tirelessly in coming up with a product that caters to the current demand for a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.”

Global Food Industries is already making desert-grown produce and salicornia go global. But, France24 reports, ICBA’s chief scientist Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle shared his hope for the future where salicornia could “become a really important food ingredient.”

"We went from... building this prototype, to piloting at scale with eight farmers,” Lopez-Lavelle explained, “and now the question is how to scale up…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."

Are harsh environments the new frontiers for feeding the world? Will salicornia make it to the mainstream? Siegismund thinks so. About salicornia she says, "It's not a product that makes big, big profit, but we believe in it and we will continue."

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Adina is a writer who believes in the transformative power of words. She understands that everyone has a valuable story to tell. Adina’s goal is to learn new things every day and share her discoveries with others.