Picking out potential AgTech winners has been part of ADIO's remit, and those hunches are paying off. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

The late Sheikh Zayed’s vision to transform the ‘desert into a green land’ has stuck with me since I first heard the words years ago. I clearly remember picturing the contrast of cultivated agriculture alongside rolling sand dunes, and taking pride in Abu Dhabi’s ambition to turn this idea into reality.

Great strides were made in the UAE’s early years to green the desert. Agriculture flourished across the Emirates, with fruits and vegetables grown from Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah. The obstacles of water scarcity and extreme temperatures began to be overcome through modern irrigation and innovative solutions.

Since those early days, the pace of agricultural development has accelerated exponentially. Today, there are more than 24,000 farms in Abu Dhabi alone, producing crops of the highest quality, including mangoes, oranges, lemons and figs, in addition to herbs like mint, parsley and coriander.

New produce and production methods are being added all the time. Abu Dhabi companies like Pure Harvest Smart Farms, for instance, are using cutting-edge food production systems to grow high-quality, pesticide-free tomatoes, strawberries and leafy greens year-round in a climate-controlled environment, using seven times less water compared to traditional farming methods.

The ability to grow an expanding range of fresh produce in the desert has its roots in the mobilisation of innovation in the agricultural technology (AgTech) sector. AgTech is enabling more and better food to be grown in the UAE, strengthening local supply chains in a country that imports 90 per cent of its food needs.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Office’s (ADIO) Innovation Programme has played an important role in invigorating this sector, providing incentives that help innovative companies scale successfully in the emirate.

In addition to bolstering crop varieties and quantities, AgTech has introduced new solutions to address challenges further up the food supply chain. US-based Responsive Drip Irrigation (RDI) expanded to Abu Dhabi in 2020, bringing its advanced irrigation technology that reduces water consumption needed for food production. The company has rolled out more than 20 hectares of trial projects that are yielding high-quality harvests using less than half the amount of water normally used for irrigation.

Using a scarce resource - water

For Abu Dhabi and countries in the region with arid climates, RDI’s innovative irrigation solution offers a practical solution that can be applied to a commonly faced challenge. Herein lies the principle of Abu Dhabi’s evolving approach to agriculture. We want to enable the development of technology and innovation in the UAE, with the ultimate aim of exporting these as solutions for food grown all around the world.

Embodying Abu Dhabi’s outward-looking approach is AeroFarms, a company from the US building the world’s largest R&D indoor vertical farm in the UAE capital. The AeroFarms AgX research centre will lead the way in breakthrough innovation to solve some of the world’s most pressing agriculture challenges.

Highly skilled engineers, horticulturists and scientists will conduct research into organoleptics, precision phenotyping, phytochemical analysis and advanced speed breeding, as well as next-generation machine vision, machine learning, robotics and automation. The research outcomes from AeroFarms AgX will play a key role in enhancing AgTech capabilities that can be applied not just in Abu Dhabi, but around the world.

Influencing food technology

Abu Dhabi’s influence as an AgTech hub is growing, given the unique advantages it offers as a base for agriculture R&D. Companies can leverage the emirate’s inexpensive energy sources, reliable infrastructure and established innovation ecosystem to develop initiatives and programmes that boost agriculture innovation.

Building on this strong foundation, Abu Dhabi’s AgTech ambition has expanded beyond our planet. One of the most ambitious and exciting projects that have come to fruition through the Innovation Programme is StarLab Oasis, a research centre that will provide access to the scientific potential of space in developing agricultural technologies for a resource-limited world.

Using the harsh environment of space, StarLab Oasis aims to develop commercially viable products and technologies in the fields of AgTech, climate science, sustainability and robotic innovation.

These are just examples of AgTech innovation being developed in and from Abu Dhabi. Years on from Sheikh Zayed’s efforts to raise the profile of agriculture in the UAE, Abu Dhabi can proudly say that it is greening the desert, the world and even further beyond.