In the past four years, the United Arab Emirates has grown a small but rising share of its own organic tomatoes, aiming to shore up food security in an import-dependent desert country.
The effort -- part of a broader push to produce more home-grown food amid fears climate change could trigger instability in the global food trade - started after the country was hit by food export bans during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Today, the move to build up food resilience is paying off early in the face of another crisis: the coronavirus pandemic.
General view of a hi-tech vertical farm in Sharjah where local farmers cultivate various crops. (Reuters)
“Thanks to the work being done to harness the benefits of innovation, agriculture is becoming possible and profitable in a country with harsh climatic conditions,” Elouafi said.
Under the UAE’s National Food Security Strategy - which was officially launched in 2018, but had already been woven into government policy for several years before - the country has worked to boost domestic food production.
It has built infrastructure, including complexes for cattle-breeding - and introduced financial measures, from exempting value-added tax on food produced on local farms to paying subsidies on fodder.
But traditional farming methods can only go so far in a country with limited supplies of fresh water and arable land.
Last year, the World Resources Institute classified the UAE as under “extremely high water stress”, meaning more than 80 percent of available surface and groundwater supply is withdrawn on averageevery year.
The bulk of that water is used by the agricultural sector. Combined with a warming climate and a growing population, this is causing available groundwater levels to drop by 0.5 cm (0.2 inches) per year.
To meet the country’s freshwater needs, the government is increasingly turning to energy-intensive desalination methods.
Another challenge is that less than 1 percent of the UAE’s land is arable, according to the World Bank.
The focus is on finding ways to farm with fewer resources - which is where technology and experimenting with new crops can help, said Sajid Maqsood, associate professor in the College of Food and Agriculture at United Arab Emirates University.
“Urban and vertical farming has to be an important part of the strategy,” he said by phone.
Year-round fruit, vegetables
Farming in the UAE has been moving in a high-tech direction over the past decade.
In 2009, for example, the Middle Eastern country had 50 hydroponic farms, where plants are grown without soil using nutrient-infused water. Today, it has more than 1,000, according to the ICBA.
Most of the farming innovations gaining ground in the UAE involve growing crops indoors, in an attempt to tackle one of the main challenges facing the region’s farmers: the climate.
Global warming is expected to lead to less rainfall, fiercer droughts, higher sea levels and more storms in the UAE over the next 70 years, a group of climate experts said in a 2019 paper.
By 2050 the country’s average temperature will increase by about 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), they noted.
“At least four months of the year are not conducive to traditional agriculture - heat, humidity and dust are challenges to farming in the region,” explained Digant Raj Kapoor, people manager at Madar Farms, a local agriculture tech company.
“It means that yields and quality cannot be controlled or predicted. An indoor facility is able to tackle this by having as much control over growing conditions as possible.”
One project, Pure Harvest Smart Farms, has been producing a share of the UAE’s home-grown tomatoes since it launched in 2016, using the country’s first technology-enabled greenhouse.
With its climate-controlled system developed in the Netherlands, the Emirates-based start-up can grow year-round, producing about 2 metric tons of pesticide-free tomatoes each day on its 1-hectare (2.5-acre) proof-of-concept farm.
Crops at Badia Farms, a high tech urban vertical farm, as the city lockdown continues to counter the spread of the coronavirus in Dubai, UAE. (Reuters)
Pure Harvest plans to diversify into other fruits and vegetables, expanding to 30 hectares in the next few months.
In recent years, the UAE has also seen a rise in the number of vertical farms, in which crops are grown stacked under LED lighting and watered with mists or drip systems.