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According to statistics, the UAE imports 80 per cent of its food, which is a major challenge for the country's food security. To address the situation, steps are being taken to restructure the food supply chain. Vertical farming, a practice of growing local fruits and vegetables with minimal resources, is currently making waves.
"Vertical farming is the future of sustainable agriculture in the UAE. We import a huge amount of goods, and need to find ways of being not only more sustainable but more self-sustaining as well, meeting local demand through local production," said Mustafa Moiz, managing director of Uns Farms, a local indoor hydroponic farm growing fresh, locally produced leafy greens with no chemicals or preservatives.
"We're able to offer a wide variety of salad leaves, kale leaves, various types of lettuce and basil leaves at 30 to 40 per cent less than the cost of imported produce. Once the 30,000sq-ft facility reaches its full capacity, we'll be producing about 1.5 tonnes per day and, therefore, meet the growing demand in the country," added Moiz.
Agrotech company VeggiTech, on the other hand, focuses on addressing the key challenges of traditional farming - soil, temperature and water - through its design of "protected hydroponics" and "grow-light-assisted hydroponics". The company has over 15 hectares of farms in the UAE with protected hydroponics and 4,500sqm indoor vertical farms that use grow-light-assisted hydroponics.
"The UAE currently produces between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of its food locally. We are committed to expanding the local farming footprint in a sustainable manner," said Hemant Julka, co-founder and COO of Veggitech.A VeggiTech-designed hydroponics greenhouse is functional at GEMS Modern Academy in Nad Al Sheba, offering a hands-on curriculum that teach students, parents and teachers sustainable farming techniques.
"The adoption of thermal insulation material used in Veggitech greenhouses allows farms to be operational 12 months a year. Hydroponics is a growing technique that consumes 75 per cent to 95 per cent less water, as compared to traditional farming methods. Soil-less farming means there is no need for pesticides, thus providing safe products to consumers," said Julka.
Radical measures like harvesting water with alternative energy sources have also yielded positive results. Erik Smidt, agricultural counsellor from The Netherlands, said: "The state of agriculture in the UAE is rising. The Netherlands is extending assistance in horticulture through techniques that allows one to produce vegetables with almost no water and with the use of alternative energy resources (solar, wind). "Circular agriculture is a new priority in The Netherlands. As the world population is growing, set to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, we need to produce more. For this, we need to produce food using all available materials and minimise waste. The Netherlands is willing to assist the UAE in implementing this concept," he added.
Aside from promoting sustainability, the UAE's food security strategy also aims to ensure access to safe and nutritious food. This is why organic farming - a method that doesn't rely on synthetic fertilisers - has also been gaining traction.
"I have seen a huge evolution, from not being able to find organic produce to seeing a wide array of companies in the market. There is a rise in the demand for organic produce. And many of the farms have grown significantly over the last few years to meet this demand," said Ripe founder Becky Balderstone, who has been in Dubai for the past 13 years.
Ripe works with farms that follow strict organic farming procedures and have organic certification from the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology. The availability of these local crops has also encouraged more residents to adopt a healthier lifestyles.
Harvest water from the air
Dutch firm SunGlacier has been selected to design a new and innovative 'solar-powered' unit that can generate water for the Dutch Pavilion at the World Expo 2020 in Dubai. The unit shall harvest an average of 800 litres of freshwater per day from the surrounding desert air.
The SunGlacier team is maximising a new and natural configuration of sunlight, air and gravity that can produce potable water from air nearly anywhere on the planet, even in hot and dry desert areas.
Quinoa: Most promising crop for UAE farmers
It may be surprising to hear, but one crop that is showing a lot of promise in the UAE is quinoa, according to scientists at the agricultural research-for-development centre International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). The number of farmers cultivating quinoa in the UAE has been steadily increasing since 2016, with ICBA scientists distributing quinoa seeds to 12 pioneer farmers in Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Sharjah, and Fujairah.
Established in 1999 by the UAE and the Islamic Development Bank, the ICBA has been working with farmers in the UAE to introduce crop varieties and technologies that have performed well during trials under local conditions.
Dr Ismahane Elouafi, director-general, ICBA, said: "The UAE has improved its ranking on the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) from 33rd in 2017 to 31st in 2018, based on three core categories of affordability, availability and quality and safety. However, its rank is fifth within the Mena region based on the country's commitment to food security."Different organisations based in the UAE, including ICBA, are supporting the great initiative for the sustainable food production in the region with innovative technologies like growing crops that need less water or can thrive with the brackish water or producing nutritious food (like quinoa and millet) from marginal lands with poor quality water.
"The UAE must further invest in innovation and science to develop and adopt new food systems that can fulfil their national targets," added Elouafi.
The UAE has appointed a Minister of State for Food Security to strategically address food security and nutrition challenges. The country ranks fourth in food affordability, but 50th in availability, hence a large amount of the food security is based on the import of food products.Harsh desert climate and scarce freshwater resources have been considered major challenges.
Source: Khaleej Times