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FoodSustainableHow the UAE’s indoor farming sector is exploding

On December 14, 2019, the UAE celebrated what appeared to be a remarkable achievement. In just one year it had climbed 10 places on the Global Food Security Index, ranking 21st out of 113 countries and apparently on course to fulfil its extraordinary ambition of achieving a top-10 position by 2021. At the time, Mariam Hareb Almheiri, Minister of State for Food Security, said the jump reflected the government’s determination “to transform the UAE into...
Jonathan GornallMay 23, 202228 min
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Krispr indoor farmingImage of indoor farming courtesy of Krispr, a vertical farming initiative in Dubai

On December 14, 2019, the UAE celebrated what appeared to be a remarkable achievement. In just one year it had climbed 10 places on the Global Food Security Index, ranking 21st out of 113 countries and apparently on course to fulfil its extraordinary ambition of achieving a top-10 position by 2021.

At the time, Mariam Hareb Almheiri, Minister of State for Food Security, said the jump reflected the government’s determination “to transform the UAE into a world-leading hub in innovation-driven food security”.

Barely two weeks after she had spoken, however, a novel coronavirus emerged in the city of Wuhan in China, and all bets were off.

Among the countless consequences of the resultant pandemic, global supply chains were severely disrupted and in 2021 the UAE slipped back down the rankings to 35th position — four places lower than it had been in 2018.

It was, doubtless, a temporary setback. But the unanticipated appearance of a virus that within two years would have claimed over five million lives and devastated businesses around the world has served as a cruel reminder that, in the modern world, food security is a finely balanced equation, even in the richest of countries.

“The UAE is in an interesting and precarious position,” says Henry Gordon-Smith, the founder and CEO of Agritecture, a consultancy firm that is advising governments and companies in the Middle East in the development of “controlled environment agriculture”, or CEA.

CEA is the umbrella term for innovative farming techniques that include automated vertical farms, high-tech, closed greenhouses that can withstand harsh climate conditions, standard greenhouses that can operate through the winter months and even low-cost, low-tech “net houses,” which create shade and some cooling for plants.

“Over the past month that I was there, the energy and excitement is really palpable,” said Gordon-Smith.

“But the UAE really doesn’t have a strong supply of consistent products, and that means it’s vulnerable to shocks in the system.”

The regularity of such shocks is only likely to increase, he believes.

“This happened with the pandemic, when there were certain shocks that they were more or less prepared for. But the fact is that whether it’s the crisis in Ukraine or the looming crisis of climate change, things are going to get more difficult for the UAE to compete on the global stage for the supply of products.”

The Global Food Security Index rankings are based on assessments of a country’s standing in four categories – affordability, availability, quality and safety, and natural resources – the latter measuring a country’s exposure to the impacts of climate change, its susceptibility to natural-resource risks, and how the country is adapting to them.

In a country such as the UAE, which currently imports 80 percent of its foods and can afford to do so, it is the third category – availability – that is perhaps the most important.

This category is something of a hybrid, assessing not only “the sufficiency of the national food supply, the risk of supply disruption (and) national capacity to disseminate food,” but also “research efforts to expand agricultural output”.

indoor farming blueberries
Image courtesy Elite Agro

By this measure, the UAE finds itself not in 35th place in the index, but in 14th – a pretty impressive result for a country with an arid climate and very little land suitable for agriculture.

And at the forefront of the UAE’s drive to improve its food security is a small revolution in farming, which is seeing entrepreneurs taking advantage of a new regulatory landscape designed to encourage innovation in agriculture.

In 2019, the minister for food security highlighted a range of initiatives, including the National Food Security Strategy, that had enabled the UAE to “increase domestic agricultural output, guarantee food safety, attract investment into the food value chain, diversify sources of food imports and engage the community in the food security ecosystem”.

The UAE’s progress up the Global Food Security Index rankings, she said, was the result of a combined national effort by “the Food Security Office, government entities, private-sector partners and the community to build an integrated ecosystem that can take concrete steps in the national food security sector.”

Behind those words is a burgeoning, technology-driven agriculture sector that in a few short years has placed the UAE at the cutting edge of a new age of farming, focused on generating maximum yields in novel ways that overcome the natural limitations of a harsh, arid environment.

According to some estimates, the number of hydroponic farms in the UAE — indoor units, where plants are grown in water, rather than soil, in vertical stacks under artificial lighting — has grown from about 50 in 2019 to in excess of 1,000 today.

Not known for doing things on a small scale, Dubai is taking the lead in a big way. In May 2021, Sheikh Mohammed, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched the first phase of Food Tech Valley, a vast project designed to put the UAE on the food-tech map and, in time, to triple food production in the country.

In the same way that Silicon Valley in San Francisco is the natural home for technology start-ups, so it is envisaged that Food Tech Valley will attract innovative agricultural thinkers, start-ups and established companies from around the world.

At the launch, food security minister Almheiri said the project was “part of our efforts to achieve our strategic national goals with respect to food security and constitutes an incubator for advanced farms — including indoor and vertical farms — with more than 60 per cent of the project’s space allocated to these activities”.

Among the many organizations already working in the country is Vertical Field, an Israeli company that has partnered with Emirates Smart Solutions & Technologies to introduce soil-based “vertical farms” to the UAE.

Vertical farming, says Vertical Field, is “an innovative and accessible way to meet the rising population’s need for nutritious food by growing produce in any indoor or outdoor urban space”.

With crops such as lettuce, basil, parsley, kale and mint grown in carefully controlled conditions inside converted shipping containers, Vertical Field envisages units being installed alongside supermarkets, restaurants, urban farmer’s markets, and distribution centers.

“In an age of climate change, urbanization, land use, and rapid resource depletion, Vertical Field offers an efficient way to grow hyper-local produce using minimal resources, such as land and water,” said a spokesperson for the company.

By using a claimed 90 percent less water than conventional farming, and growing crops without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, the vertical farming technique “promises to deliver a sustainable, healthy supply of food in even the most arid of environments, while drastically shortening energy-hungry supply chains in the process”.

Growing crops indoors, the system uses LED lighting, climate-control features that manage temperature, humidity and air circulation, and a drip irrigation system that sends precise quantities of water and fertilizer to each plant based on its specific needs, minimizing waste.

The technology it offers, says Vertical Field, “addresses some of the issues surrounding food security and other global crises of today’s modern era.

“Gulf states rely on imports for much of their nutritional consumption. Vertical field therefore offers them a way to be autonomous over their food supply, growing fresh, healthy and local produce close to the consumer throughout the year, cutting out complex supply chains that in times of crisis exacerbate social issues.”

Among those practising hydroponics, the other widely adopted version of vertical farming, is Uns Farms, whose indoor “farm” is tucked away in an anonymous-looking industrial unit off the Sheikh Zayed Road in the Al Qouz district of Dubai.

Here, there is no soil — the crops are grown in water — and strip lights over every rack provide the light the plants need to grow. This method, says the company, “allows us to use 80 percent less water, 90 percent less land, and 95 percent less shipping fuel than long-distance field-grown produce.”

The plants are fed a mineral-based, nutrient-rich solution and, unlike with conventional farming, there is no loss of water through run-off into the soil. Any water not taken up by the plants is recaptured and used over and over again.

The company, whose products, such as lettuce and cress, are delivered within hours of picking, can be found in stores including Spinneys, Waitrose and Carrefour, says it is “on a mission to positively impact healthy consumption habits and create a self-sufficient food system in the UAE”.

Greenhouses are also playing a part in the UAE’s drive to secure greater food security. In Abu Dhabi-based Elite Agro, an international producer and distributor of fresh produce across the GCC, the UAE now has its first blueberry producer. In 2021 its 14 hectares of greenhouses at Al Foah Farm in Al Ain produced 205 tons of the fruit, and plans to double output in 2023. In 2022, they added raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries.

The blueberry plant saplings are sown not in soil but in a novel “growing medium”, a combination of coconut peat, perlite (expanded volcanic glass) and other substances, explicitly created for blueberries. A drip irrigation system is used to supply them with precise amounts of nutrients that have been mixed with water.

“Our focus as a company is on ensuring future food security, while also keeping in mind the increasingly important tasks of saving water and overcoming the challenges of climate change,” said Ian Summerfield, Elite Agro CEO.

“We’re also investing in state-of-the-art farming machinery and agro-infrastructure to bring efficiencies along the supply chain.

“With an increasing population and demand for healthy, quality food, we’re committed to growing high quality nutritious produce that consumers need, and can trust.”

Since 2014 Elite Agro has been producing three varieties of potatoes at a sustainable, 2,212-hectare farm in Nahel, Al Ain, becoming the country’s largest potato producer and cultivating 8,400 tons this harvest season. Adding to Spunta, Naima and Universa, in 2022 they introduced the Sifra variety with more in the works. Elite Agro now produces enough potatoes to supply the UAE market for nine months of the year.

On a smaller scale, the Dubai-based indoor vertical farming start-up Krispr was last year accepted into the latest cohort of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund’s Accelerator Program.

“The post-Covid 19 environment has clearly demonstrated the need for localized supply chains, especially for essential goods and services,” said founder Khadija Hasan, who was a guest on The Livehealthy Podcast. “Krispr is committed to supporting the GCC’s push towards food security”.

Another sign of the times in 2022, The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai, JBR just announced a partnership with Green Container Advanced Farming for an on-site vertical, hydroponic farm, one of the first in the city. The 40 square meter-space is sealed to keep the operation pesticide and herbicide-free, designed to produce a selection of herbs including Thai basil, and rosemary as well as lettuce and kale to be used across the hotel’s eateries.

Since 2019, multiple Carrefour outlets have installed indoor hydroponic farms in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where customers can see and buy leafy greens.

indoor farming at Carrefour
Indoor Carrefour hydroponic farm/WAM

An adequate supply of water is, of course, key to growing all types of crops, and avoiding water waste is a particularly vital issue in countries as arid as the UAE. Here, too, technology is coming forward with solutions.

Responsive Drip Irrigation, a sustainable technology company founded in Florida and now operating in the UAE, has developed GrowStream, a “plant-responsive”: technology that uses recycled water from a range of sources to increase plant productivity and crop growth.

“Smart” tubes that are embedded in the soil detect a chemical plants release when they are thirsty, and release water in response, shutting off the supply again when the chemical signals stop.

“Water lost to evaporation and soil leeching is eliminated, saving 20 to 50 percent water versus conventional drip systems,” said a spokesperson for RDI. Every litre of water saved “also means reducing energy and fuel costs to pump the water” — although, with a very low operating pressure, GrowStream can still work with a simple gravity system.

In September 2021 the system was installed on a five-hectare piece of previously unfarmed desert land in Al Khatim, Abu Dhabi, in a trial growing sweet corn in collaboration with Alfafa Farms. Compared with standard irrigation techniques, GrowStream saved 40 percent water and increased crop yield by 120 percent. All this was achieved using 50 percent less fertilizer and without laying down fresh top soil before planting, which is typically needed because of the poor quality of soil in the region.

RDI says its mission is “to provide a solution that eases the water crisis, solves problems such as food security, and fosters sustainable development”.

There is no doubt that the UAE is embracing the concept of  “controlled environment agriculture” enthusiastically.

However with a population of about 10 million, expected to increase by a million or more over each of the coming decades, the UAE will need more that current efforts can supply. And there are some basic, vital products that the UAE will never be able to grow at sufficient scale to free it from the vagaries of international supply issues.

“As far as wheat and corn and other such staples are concerned, it just doesn’t make sense and it’s not super viable” to grow these in the UAE, says Gordon-Smith.

Strategic stockpiling is one answer. Twenty large silos built by the government alongside the port of Fujairah in 2016 hold enough grain to feed the population for six months, which is fine, provided any interruption to international supply chains lasts no longer than six months.

indoor farming Elite Agro
Image courtesy Elite Agro

And demand is ever growing. According to calculations by the US Department of Agriculture,  despite the impact of the pandemic, the UAE’s total wheat consumption in 2021/22 was forecast to have recovered by 10 percent to reach 1.7 million metric tons (1,700,000,000 kg).

Imports of corn, barley and rice are also on the rise, by 8, 6 and 15 percent respectively.

With the best will, and all the technology, in the world, none of these essentials can be grown at sufficient scale in the arid, soil-poor UAE.

“I think that globally, as we’ve seen with the pandemic and the Ukraine war, we’re in for a world of hurt, we really are,” said Gordon-Smith.

“I think that the end of the era of abundant, cheap supply of products in general, especially food, is either here, or very close.”

Countries such as the UAE, he says, “with large populations, and a lot of imports, is going to experience that in the most dramatic ways”.

According to a paper published in the journal Food Security in July 2020, “hydroponics, aquaponics, vertical farming and other modern production technologies might allow the Gulf countries to meet some of their requirements regarding fruit, vegetables and fish without depleting groundwater resources at unsustainable rates”.

But, added the authors from the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, “the vast majority of food supplies will continue to come from global markets”.

To secure these, the Gulf states need to develop multiple “multilateral frameworks (to make) international food trade more dependable”, meaning that if one source, such as Ukraine, is cut off, substitutes will still be available.

In a paper published in 2020, global strategy consulting business Strategy& agreed that GCC governments “need to complement their immediate interventions” — such as financial exemptions and credits to farmers and agri-businesses — “with sustainable measures aimed at restructuring food supply chains and safeguarding food imports against potential future shocks”.

The authors added that “the immediate interventions taken by GCC governments to stabilize food supplies were critical in overcoming the disruptions due to COVID-19, but they are only a first step.

“Over the longer term, governments need to build up local food supplies, reinforce supply chains, and increase the flow of imports … Future disruptions to food supplies are virtually certain. By taking the right steps today, governments can ensure that they are prepared”.

Jonathan Gornall

Jonathan Gornall is a freelance British journalist who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.

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