Ag-Tech – short for “agriculture technology” is not only a buzzword but a necessity these days, and the UAE has embraced the indoor farming trend in a big way for years now: a necessary move anywhere, but particularly forward-thinking for a nation that imports the vast majority of its food, amid a global setting of food insecurity, supply chain shortages and price hikes.
Khadija Hasan is the founder and chief executive of KRISPR, a UAE based Ag-Tech startup she created with a vision to create a movement for better agriculture. It’s a tall order: transforming food production and reversing nutritional decline, all without damaging the planet. The company is bringing together the best elements of science and technology to the cultivation of nutritious, fresh, beyond organic food.
Khadija began working in finance as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch/KASB and Citibank, leaving after six years to launch KRISPR as part of efforts to solve the global food security challenge sustainably. Since launching, the company has raised US$1 million in angel funding, established their first urban indoor vertical farm in Dubai, and began producing its first products. Those baby greens, micro greens and herbs are now grown using a fraction of the land area and water of a traditional farm. She spoke to The Livehealthy Podcast about the challenges of vertical farming, the transformation of agriculture in the GCC and the region’s food security challenges in general.
Is Ag-Tech something the general public knows anything about?
I don’t think so. I get a lot of interesting questions about what the heck it is. Then you tell them that you’re taking basically an old building, and you’re converting into farmland. There’s lots of big, round eyes. People are just very surprised something like that is possible today, and yet it is. We’re taking systems that we’re already used to, building control, air conditioning, HVAC, climate control, humidity, and stuff. We’re plugging those existing systems into old buildings, and we’re creating environments that are suitable for plant growth, suitable for fruit growth. Nature has a way of growing. You don’t have to do too much.
How did you get involved in this?
I wanted to do something a little bit different before I went back to the standard track. The environmental stuff has always been fascinating. I had this school project in high school where we were collecting trash and sending it out, recycling and stuff like that. I had an opportunity to look at an oil purification technology that had a smaller environmental footprint, less greenhouse gases, and less CapEx, but it didn’t move forward as some startups don’t. Then somebody had suggested that I look at agriculture, perhaps there was startup potential there in terms of improving how we were farming. Then I haven’t looked back since.
I started with soil-based farming, looking at that, and moved to greenhouses, mid-tech, high-tech, low-tech. Then vertical farming was the one that appealed the most, because if you could do a lot in a smaller footprint. We’re 85 percent urbanized globally, probably. Farms need to be not on huge pieces of land. They need to find a more compact way to meet how we’re living today. It appealed a lot and I haven’t looked back since.
People are talking about this. It’s not that we need to have fewer cities or fewer people living in cities, but we need to be able to feed those cities from the city. Is that part of it? You need to be able to have a self-contained city, rather than importing everything into it.
Essentially, we’re creating farmland out of buildings, around your buildings. The food security is very much related now to issues like climate change and water scarcity. The GCC water is a huge problem, but globally, we are seeing changes to the climate. In California and the fires and farmland issues, other parts of the world temperatures drop or temperatures rise, and then hail storms in Kenya, that really affects food supply globally.
With COVID, we also saw that there was a little bit of panic because imports couldn’t happen. Systems weren’t in place to tackle anything related to a pandemic. Hopefully, we’re building for a future that doesn’t come to pass but should climate change accelerate, population growth continues at the rate that it is, we need to find food sources that are independent of anything that the climate can do. Climate-proof resources, the environment should matter. Water supply should be so low that you can run a farm on bare-bones water. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Our system, for example, use a combination of hydroponics and aeroponics. We don’t use too much water when we’re growing the plant. We need to find ways to be independent of all of these restrictions that have in the past chained agriculture and determine where farms could be located, where farms could be set up. Arable land, for instance, big restriction. If you start growing in water, you don’t have to be tied down due to land for example.
Tell us about what you grow and what your KRISPR farm looks like…
We grow leafy greens right now, baby greens, baby kale, some basil, lettuce varieties. If you go inside the farm, you enter through this passage which blocks outside environmental factors, then you enter the farm and you see rows of plants basically, at various stages of growth. Some, at like 14 days, some 20, some 30, some 35.
We start harvesting around 30, 35 days, because that’s the right age for a baby leaf. It’s lights, and it’s panels and lots of machinery and filters but other than that nothing much. The environment is like it’s about 20, 22 degrees Celsius. We have CO2 that we use for healthier plant growth and sugar carbohydrate formation. It’s very pleasant. It could be 55 degrees outside and it’s nice and chilled out inside the farm.
Why leafy greens? Why is that the first thing you grow?
It’s the fastest to grow. You can get the market with the product very quickly. They have a 30 to 35 days cycle. As a startup, we need to be validating what we’re producing as quickly as possible so that we can get to the next phase of the company; 30 days in and out you can test the taste, taste the flavor with consumers with whoever’s buying, and see if there’s a model that can work. From there on, you can add complexity to the growing by putting in other products.
What can you see happening next?
Well, we’d love to try fruiting. They have a much longer gestation period because we wait for the flower and then the fruit to come. For us that will be the next stage and maybe add a little bit more the things like spinach and arugula and maybe one or two more herbs to the existing portfolio.
A lot of the food that we’re getting is grown in soil that been compromised, and then the nutritional value of the food is actually lower than it has been in the past. How is Ag-Tech like yours different?
Well, there’s a couple of things there. First, the soil itself was not what it used to be. You do have to supplement quite a bit if you’re able to find at all. The second issue relates to the supply chain. Should you be able to farm and get the right quality of produce out and do it without pesticides, for example? You’re basically either farming a crop early so that it survives the long supply chain. For example if it’s a tomato, you would ideally farm it before it’s ready, before it’s ripe, before it’s ready to be eaten, then you ship it. Before it makes it to the supermarket, you would have to ripen it artificially and various gases are used in that process. It’s not a ready-to-eat happy tomato. It’s gone through so many different different processes. It’s gone through a lot to get there on your plate.
Everyone talks about trauma. Ag-Tech can stop the tomato trauma
You can imagine then what is left at the end of the day, because the minute you cut something, it starts deteriorating in terms of nutrition. The quicker you can eat it, the better it is for you. For example if we’re 30 minutes away, if you harvest now and somebody orders out produce from our partners, within an hour or 30 minutes within even the same day. That’s just 24 hours versus the week, 10 days, or whatever that poor tomato was traveled. You’re talking about higher nutrition, just by dint of being closer to the market, closer to points of consumption in the first instance.
The UAE is working on Ag-Tech. There’s a national food security strategy 2051. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are both investing heavily and it seems that you came at the right time because you got a significant amount of funding and you’re also part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund and accelerator. Can you talk about how you’re fitting into that ecosystem that’s being built here?
Well, yes, the government is very, very pro food security. They’re conscious of the issues. Both emirates have allocated funds; food security, and sustainability, both are very, very big issues here. Our timing was during COVID so we need help with making a case for the fundraise. We’re getting more money and our whole push is food security going through but doing so in a sustainable manner. With a low water footprint for example, no runoff, no pesticides, getting completely clean produce out into the market. That’s very much a governmental thing as well. They want to increase local production.
People always have knee-jerk criticism for new things they don’t really know anything about. What do you get for Ag-Tech?
I think the first key criticism that we get is that we’re using a lot of power. That’s a valid criticism. We haven’t yet found a solution to go completely renewable, although we are actively working on it. Electricity is very important. We are so working on it right now.
The other criticism is how can you ever compete with anything that’s not in the soil or that wasn’t farmed the way we’re used to farming?
The answer to that is that we’ve had an impact on the planet over the last 200, 300 years, and there isn’t that much arable land to go around. There’s too much deforestation. You can’t cut more trees. What are you going to do? How are you going to supply the needs of a 9.5 billion population planet in 10, 20 years? You have to find more innovative ways to tackle the issue without actually making the problem worse.
When you grow a tomato or greens in water, as opposed to soil, what is the nutritional difference?
Well, we’re running tests on that to be very honest so I would be hesitant to share that information until the test results come back. What I can say right now is there’s zero pesticide use, and the water is drinking quality water. We purify that water to drinking quality levels and then feed that to the plants. Traceability, just a very small step, you could come into the farm and you could see how your produce is growing, which is a lot, which you can’t say for something that’s been flown from 200 miles away. Pure water used for cultivation and absolutely zero pesticides.
It’s not like hydroponics is new. It’s been around I feel like for decades, right?
For decades we’ve doing that and with, what do you call, with greenhouses. Greenhouse is growing to some hydroponics. Decades, decades, decades, it’s an accepted form growing in water.
Is it organic? Because people get hung up on that word organic…
It’s not technically organic, because organic issoil-grown produce. Now, we haven’t been able to sort that out in terms of a definition. Globally there is a discussion in place of how to certify this kind of produce because we’re so new to the market. Organic is very much a soil-based drawing technique and it does not apply to water baseline so that we could never overlap. It is pesticide-free, which depending on how organic is interpreted wherever it’s grown, sometimes a permissible level of pesticides is there.
What’s your dream for CRISPR?
We’d love to see many more of our farms in the Middle East, and across the world so we can clean up agriculture, we can make the whole system a lot more sustainable, and get really good quality food to everybody.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.