This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.
It’s been less than five years since vertical farming first launched in the UAE but it is already emerging as a viable food security solution for a country that imports most of its fruits and vegetables.
In vertical farming, produce is stacked upwards and grown using artificial light, but without chemicals or pesticides. No one has yet found a way to use renewable energy in any meaningful way, which means vertical farming is still heavy on conventional energy and therefore costly, but it does use a whopping 90 percent less water than regular agriculture and it allows for year-round growth.
The first vertical farming operation was Badia Farms in 2016 but there are now plans for at least a dozen more in the UAE.
“It can provide a farm-to-table business model in which food mileage is removed, giving the region fresh, healthy food grown at a better value and price and available across different channels,” explains Omar Jundi, the industrial engineer who is Badia’s chief executive.
When Jundi started out, vertical farming wasn’t even listed as a company activity by Dubai’s Economic Department (DED). It took numerous meetings with the DED, with Dubai Municipality and the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment to explain it but three weeks later, all three government entities farming gave Jundi the green light and a license to start his operation.
Vertical farming requires a major shift in thinking. No one had ever thought about , growing food without soil but Jundi says the support for innovation and change was there.
“The UAE’s progressive government is giving serious attention to the subject of food security,” he says.
Having grown up in Saudi Arabia, Jundi knows what it is to have limited availability of fresh produce. Vertical farming not only means more fresh fruit and veg, it also addresses the problem of water shortage in the region.
Thirty percent of the world already suffers from water scarcity. The UN predicts that will rise to 40 percent within ten years.
“The GCC is already at 75 percent shortfall, almost double what the world shortage will reach in 10 years if no action is taken, which is very alarming,” says Jundi. “As such, the GCC can’t afford to lose time and is heavily investing in food security and water management/treatment solutions to ensure sustainable levels for the future.”
Four years after launch, Badia Farms produces more than 30 varieties of greens such as arugula, coriander and kale. Their products are available at most restaurants and hotels in the UAE and are sold directly to consumers through Carrefour and Kibsons, says Jundi.
Forthcoming plans include moving to a new facility in Dubai Industrial City with 20 times the capacity of the current site, branching out into fruit cultivation and expanding into Saudi Arabia
Badia Farms is also working with the Ministry for Future Food Security and the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment on educating the public about the need for new technology in agriculture.
Abdulaziz AlMulla was also alarmed by the looming crisis over food and water facing the GCC. A year after Badia, he co-founded Madar Farms, using vertical farming technology to grow a range of leafy greens such as kale and lettuce and seven varieties of microgreens, including pea shoots, daikon radish and amaranth. The farm’s research and development hub is in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi but a major expansion is planned for the end of the year to Khalifa Industrial Zone to set up the world’s largest commercial-scale indoor tomato farm. At 5,000 square meters, with more than 5,000 ultra-efficient LED fixtures, AlMulla says the company will triple their microgreen output and produce more than a tonne of tomatoes each day.
“Since it is halfway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we will be able to deliver the produce anywhere across the UAE in just hours, rather than days,” he explains.
As with Badia Farms, growing and producing food is only part of the job. Madar Farms has a full roster of educational programs and workshops giving the public a close look at how indoor farming works.
“In September 2019, we launched our Sustainable Futures program for schools, empowering the next generation with the awareness, knowledge, skills and behaviors to create a sustainable future for us all,” says AlMulla.
Madar is one of four pioneering companies helping the Abu Dhabi government to support and develop the agricultural technology (AgTech) sector with a Dh1 billion package. The investment is part of the three-year, Dh50 billion Ghadan 21 program led by the Abu Dhabi Investment Office to diversify the economy – in this case by creating a global center for innovation in desert environment agriculture.
While vertical farming is starting to take off in the UAE, there is a big downside, says Jeffrey Culpepper, chairman of Agrisecura, a Dubai-based commercial investment firm for ethical food security solutions. It is energy intensive and expensive to run.
Scale is what makes the farms work financially – like the Al Dahra BayWa greenhouse in Al Ain, a 10-hectare project that already produces more than 3,000 tons of tomatoes a year.
“This level of production starts to make a dent in reducing food import requirements,” Culpepper explains. “There is another project called Al Mazaire under development that will be a private-public partnership ten times the size of the Al Ain project.”
As for energy requirements, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai is working on production systems for “marginal environments” like the GCC’s. The center launched in 1999, has 56 full-time employees and is supported by the UAE government and the Islamic Development Bank Group. With private sector partners stretching from South Korea to Scandinavia, ICBA is also looking at the cooling, dehumidifying and lighting requirements for vertical farms, and asking how renewable energy can be used, says director-general Dr Ismahane Elouafi.
On the last point, Dr Elouafi is confident of a breakthrough in the UAE by the end of 2020. She needs no persuading of the potential of vertical farming. She says, “Vertical farms can make a significant contribution to solving food and water-related problems of hot, dry regions like the UAE.”