A Veggitech saffron farm in Sharjah. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Who says you cannot grow food crops in the desert? Thanks to vertical farming methodology and light-assisted hydroponics systems, farmers in the UAE are not just effortlessly growing mass-consumed food crops but also rare and exotic plants and foods of high value.

Recently, Sharjah-based agricultural technology company Veggitech unveiled that it has cultivated and harvested the world’s most expensive spice, saffron, also known as red gold.

After a few years of experiments with smaller quantities of saffron bulbs, the teams at Veggitech cultivated roughly 150,000 crocus Sativa bulbs from the Netherlands by growing them in vertical farms in Al Zubair. The company’s farm in Sharjah also has a vast fig plantation and grows mass-consumption produce such as tomatoes, chillies, and green leafy veggies.

Apart from saffron and fig, at least 75 farms in Abu Dhabi have been encouraged to shift towards organic agriculture and are successfully growing tomatoes, cabbages, and cucumbers, for example.

And it doesn’t stop there. Seafood farmers in the emirates have adopted new aquaculture methods to successfully grow and breed Atlantic salmon, oysters, sea bass, and sea breams for domestic consumption. Fish Farm in Dubai produces 10,000-15,000 kg of salmon every month.

More recently, Bustanica, the world’s largest hydroponic farm from Emirates Flight Catering, has already begun distributing its products to supermarket retail outlets such as Geant. The facility can produce more than 1,000,000 kg of high-quality leafy greens annually.

Bustanica Geant
Bustanica produce at local supermarkets in the UAE. Image Credit: Supplied

Why saffron farming?

It’s a very profitable business, say the officials at Veggitech. The first of its kind in the UAE and the largest in the MENA region, the ‘red gold’ farm spans 165 sqm, equivalent to 3.5 hectares of land. Depending on the grade and quality, a kilogram of saffron can sell from Dh3,200 to Dh11,386.

The vertical farm technology, fitted with indoor temperature control solutions, produces healthier crops without fertilizer and pesticides.

“In our first harvest, each bulb will produce three to four strands of saffron, but next year we would expect 12-15 strands, and this will only continue to grow over time,” said Dr Ardalan Ghilavizadeh, who joined Veggitech to lead the saffron project. Once the flowers appear, the bulbs are transferred to the greenhouse for the next stage of the crop cycle.

“Our inaugural saffron vertical farm currently houses approximately five tonnes of saffron bulbs, from which we expect 1000kg of the saffron crocus. From this we’ll get 3 kg of the world’s best Super Negin. A fascinating time indeed and a huge step for the UAE,” explained Dr Ghilavizadeh.

Boom time for UAE agriculture

According to a joint report by the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park and Deep Knowledge Analytics, published on November 24, UAE’s agritech sector comprises 36 per cent indoor farming, 15.9 per cent precision agriculture, and 15 per cent agri inputs.

The report said the industry will likely register a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.5 per cent between 2022 and 2027.

There are currently 66 UAE companies addressing the sustainability issue, with UAE-based companies receiving more than $50 billion in investments in 2021 or around 1.1 per cent of the global capital invested in agritech. Moreover, around 65 per cent of the nation’s agritech companies are micro-sized enterprises with fewer than 50 employees.

Ripe time for aquaculture

Ramie Murray, the CEO of Dibba Bay Oysters Farm, told Gulf News: “We are continuously growing. At the moment, we are producing between 300,000-400,000 oysters a month. This is phenomenal growth for us. We produced 30,000-40,000 a month only two years ago. We will produce 600,000 a month by early next year.”

An oyster nursery in Fujairah. Image Credit: Supplied

“At the moment, half of our production is consumed locally. We export the rest to countries like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.”

The company is targeting to export to many more Asian markets shortly. It has made oysters readily available in major supermarkets around the UAE and over 100 hotels and restaurants around the country. “We have three farm-to-table outlets in the UAE – two in Dubai and one in Dibba - where people can come and enjoy the oysters directly from the people who have grown them.”

In general, oyster farming is a sustainable form of aquaculture with no negative impact on the environment -- oysters improve water quality by filtering 200 litres of seawater a day.