Over a span of just six months, Covid-19 has not only changed the way we work, celebrate occasions and stay healthy but also forced countries to take a hard look at how they feed their residents. “I believe the current pandemic has provided us the opportunity to completely reimagine the global food system,” says Tony Hunter, a global food futurist.
One of the factors pushing the global agri-tech agenda is the growth and increasing density of cities. “By 2050, more than two thirds of the world’s population is forecasted to live in cities,” explains Smitha Paresh, Executive Director of Greenoponics, a UAE-based retailer of commercial and consumer hydroponics systems, adding that urban agriculture will be crucial for feeding burgeoning urban populations.
“On a macro level, we will see a rise in urban farming, mostly using high-tech farming methods such as hydroponics, aeroponics or aquaponics.” Paresh cites Singapore’s conversion of car parks into urban farm centres as an example. “In the UAE, as per the national food security strategy for 2017-2021, we have already witnessed a huge increase in climate-controlled greenhouses all over the country.”
In the UAE, as per the national food security strategy for 2017-2021, we have already witnessed a huge increase in climate-controlled greenhouses all over the country.
For Hunter, who spoke about potential silver linings of Covid-19 at a recent Gulfood webinar, new technologies present the best means of achieving domestic self-sufficiency. “They can release countries from the tyrannies of arable land and water stress.” He singles out algal products that rely on low rainfall and can use seawater; cultivated meat and biomass products; cell-based products such as milk proteins; and synthetic biology that can manufacture a range of food products.
Over the long term, Ravindra Shirotriya, CEO, VeggiTech, believes there are three critical areas for sustainable farming in the UAE. The first is precision agriculture, which focuses on growing conditions for plants using hyperbaric chambers and nanotechnology-based organic nutrition. Photo bio-reactors, meanwhile, can cultivate food-grade algae such as spirulina. Finally, Shirotriya cites smart farms, which work with smart cities to create harvest plans based on real-time data on food demand and consumption within communities. “This will address our current broken food ecosystem, where we waste 35 per cent of food while 15 per cent of the world population goes to sleep hungry.”
VeggiTech’s primary focus is on setting up LED-assisted hydroponics for indoor vertical farms and protected hydroponics for sustainable farming in the UAE.
Smart farms will address our current broken food ecosystem, where we waste 35 per cent of food while 15 per cent of the world population goes to sleep hungry.
In terms of crop production, Avinash Vora, Co-founder of Aranya Farms, says new technologies aim to boost yields, reduce waste and grow produce entirely. “Technology is being applied at every stage, whether for plant seeding, monitoring growth, managing water, energy conservation, harvesting and packaging. “We are making huge strides adapting all of them here in the UAE; the interest and investments in agriculture prove that.”
For Philippe Peguilhan, Country Manager of Carrefour UAE at Majid Al Futtaim Retail, the UAE had already been seeking self-reliance in food production, but coronavirus amped up its importance. “The disruption that Covid-19 caused to the supply chain highlighted the importance of local produce and presented an excellent opportunity for local farmers to grab a greater share of the market.” Majid Al Futtaim recently made headlines for opening the UAE’s third, and Dubai’s first, in-store hydroponics farm.
The disruption that Covid-19 caused to the supply chain highlighted the importance of local produce and presented an excellent opportunity for local farmers to grab a greater share of the market.
Hydroponics is one agri-tech that’s attracting keen investor interest. “As an indicator, Madar Farms’ 7,000-sq-m factory will produce 365 tons of tomatoes a year, and about 14,000 tons of cherry vine tomatoes were consumed in the UAE in 2019,” says Hunter. “There’s therefore the market opportunity for 38 Madar farms in the UAE for tomatoes alone. Add in other nutrient-dense crops such as cucumbers, peppers and leafy greens. Depending upon their size, we could be looking at several hundred businesses.”
On an individual level, more people are leaning towards home farming, especially towards soil-less cultivation since it is simple and easy, according to Paresh. “It guarantees a certain amount of yield. Home farming will be on the rise, considering the disruption we may face in trying times like this.”
As with most technologies, Hunter says the biggest challenge of hydroponics is profitability. “Fortunately, the costs of technology inputs required to optimise hydroponic production efficiencies are falling rapidly. This drop, together with simultaneous increases in performance, is driving down the costs of hydroponics, making acceptable ROIs much easier to achieve.” He adds that economies of scale can help achieve good ROIs. “Currently most farms are in the 1-2 ton per day range but farms of 50 tons per day are being projected by as early as 2025.”
“Challenges in building our own farm were access to sufficient and cost-effective electricity; renewable sources of water; and the availability of locally made raw materials, specifically growing media, nutrients and seeds. With seeds we are adapting — we have been growing our own seeds but having a library of seeds to choose from that are suitable for our climate and environment would be a huge boon to all farmers.”
— Avinash Vora, Co-founder of Aranya Farms
With seeds we are adapting — we have been growing our own seeds but having a library of seeds to choose from that are suitable for our climate and environment would be a huge boon to all farmers.