A couple of years ago, the UAE unveiled its National Strategy for Food Security. The plan’s primary aim is for the country’s population to have access to healthy food at affordable prices – and to hit top spot on the Global Food Security Index by 2051.
However, the coronavirus pandemic and its ongoing impact on economies and trade have seen the importance of food security become paramount – something needs to change. “I believe the current pandemic has provided us the opportunity to completely reimagine the global food system,” Tony Hunter, a global food futurist, tells GN Focus. “Countries should look to ensuring domestic manufacture of basic foodstuffs for their own populations.”
Ravindra Shrotriya, Founder and CEO, VeggiTech, says, “The long-term sustainable impact on any industry [comes] through research and innovation.” For his company, adds Shrotriya, this means bringing in the investment, talent and knowledge ecosystem to indigenously research, design and develop the latest in agro-technologies. “We do have to think about different inputs to get different outputs to make us food secure.”
One of the technologies touted to help the UAE achieve food security is hydroponics, which is used at Armela Farms to grow 5,000 heads of lettuce (in 19 varieties) and a tonne of kale (three kinds) every day. Yazan Abu Jaish, Managing Partner at Armela Farms, points out two major benefits of hydroponics: A severely reduced risk of pests and other insects, and sustainability.
“Most pests, fungi and bacteria are soil-borne and as hydroponics is a soil-less growing technology, we are eliminating 80-90 per cent of this risk. Good agricultural practices are very important, for example using tolerant seed varities, modern biotechnolotogy, natural enemies and beneficial microorganisms.”
In the sustainability stakes, he says the right hydroponic growing method, matched with the optimal cooling technology for the UAE’s climate, is what helps save water when it comes to growing sustainable produce.
“In the traditional fan-and-pad cooling system currently widely used in the UAE, more than 80 per cent of the water requirement is used for cooling. The new agri-tech, fully automated climate control system used in our expansion, reduces water consumption from 80 per cent to 15 per cent while increasing production capacity by 60 per cent.” Abu Jaish says Armela Farms’ closed-loop system is the first-of-its-kind in the region. “It is a hybrid greenhouse, fully automated with an advanced cooling system.”
Building partnerships is also important for achieving the UAE’s long-term security goals. “VeggiTech has invested in a complete eco-system with local schools, universities, businesses, industry partners and respective ministries to raise the awareness of technology in disrupting the traditional agriculture industry,” explains Shrotriya.
Sustainability doesn’t stop at the production stage but is also affected by packaging of products too. “Since packaging became a thing in the internet of things [IoT], its role in the customer journey has extended far beyond the shelf,” explains Sami Amir Ahmed Syed, Founder and CEO of the Phoenix Group. “This has had a transformative effect in a number of ways, including smart packaging, which helps cut down wastage in complex, global supply chains and many other industries.”
The Phoenix Group manufactures smart packaging machines across a range of industries, including fast-moving consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, molasses and perfume. Syed says the pandemic has encouraged Phoenix to place a heavier emphasis on robotic machines, in a bid to address customer concerns about hygiene and manpower costs – though the group has been focused on developing its servo and robotic machines over the past couple of years. “In food packaging, the automation process fits the food itself into the flow – once something is ready, it directly goes into the packaging machine without the need for any human intervention.”
This can help farms, for example, fulfil orders on time even when operating with a smaller than usual labour force. “The UAE government is also supporting manufactures a lot through providing various facilities and an excellent infrastructure,” says Syed, highlighting areas such as Dubai Investment Park and the country’s numerous free zones as examples of this.
“Sustainability is becoming important for all companies, across all industries. We too embrace sustainability and try to help our client companies to do the same by helping them to adapt new technologies and techniques by our new innovative inventions.”