How can we grow food in a desert environment with less agricultural space and far less water resources? How can we be more efficient and drive better yield in our farms? The answer, of course, is to embrace technology and develop innovative solutions to ensure food security.
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, recently announced the launch of Food Technology Valley. He said Food Tech Valley will “serve as a global destination for start-ups and industry experts in the food ecosystem. It will host R&D (research and development) facilities, an innovation centre, smart food logistics hub and areas for vertical farming.
Sheikh Mohammed noted: "The volume of our food trade exceeded Dh100 billion. We are a global logistical forum for food trade and we will work to develop a new work environment for these type of companies to develop new agricultural technologies and consolidate our future food security."
His Highness was right to “create an integrated modern city that will serve as a hub for future clean tech-based food and agricultural products and an incubator for researchers, entrepreneurs, start-ups and industry experts involved in developing solutions that have the potential to shape the future of the food industry” not only regionally but also globally.
We, at Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park (SRTI Park), have been harnessesing technology for agricultural production and food security. Located inside SRTI Park is Merlin Agrotunnel, an aquaponics farm with an area of around 150 square metres that can produce over one ton of organic vegetables and fruits every month.
Aquaponics is a form of agriculture that combines raising fish in tanks with soil-less plant culture (hydroponics). The nutrient-rich water from raising fish provides a natural fertiliser for the plants and the plants help to purify the water for the fish.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of botanists, agriculturists and engineers from Merlin International, has been conducting research to develop a soil-free vertical cultivation (farming) technology that is the ideal way to produce sustainable food in a land scarce environment.
Indoor farming eliminates extreme outdoor temperatures and makes particular sense in our desert environment. We use very little water – about 90 per cent less than conventional farming – and because it is aquaponics, we also produce fresh fish along with a range of vegetables and fruits.
The water that is used to irrigate the fruits and vegetables is seawater, desalinated through solar energy, thus completing the development of an integrated system ensuring sustainability of our natural resources.
This agricultural system at SRTI Park is one of the solutions to the problems of agriculture and food production. Merlin Agrotunnel can be combined into multiple units to create a commercial farm to provide fresh organic produce for multiple households daily.
The Agrotunnel can work in any environment and weather condition – even in the middle of the desert. We use advanced cooling technologies that can work on solar energy and can harvest water from sea or air.
Searing summer temperature, a desert landscape and inadequate rainfall are the main challenges to UAE’s agricultural activities. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has also highlighted concerns of global food supply chains being disrupted. But the pandemic also prompted renewed focus on how best to boost local agriculture and foster farming innovation.
By focusing on research and developing more advanced technology for agriculture, we can definitely overcome the challenges. For instance, we can enhance the soil to have a higher water retention and allow us to have better water management.
We can explain to local farmers how best to deal with crops and maximise their yield. We can teach them about hydroponics and aquaponics. We should also promote vertical faming to control the amount of water needed. This type of farming also uses artificial light as an alternative to sunlight.
Assistance from Artificial Intelligence and big data
Research and further development of farming methods agricultural technology will definitely accelerate the sector’s growth. We can also use AI (Artificial Intelligence) and big data to boost agricultural produce. We can use drones to map out plants suitable on outdoor farms to save resources.
As a research and innovation hub, SRTI Park has an ecosystem and infrastructure to further develop a more productive agricultural technology. Local and global research companies can take advantage of the facilities at SRTI Park to forge strategic partnerships and meet the demands of an ever-changing world.
We want to grow more plants and learn how to grow them better. We want to invite farm owners, agri-business investors, start-ups and anyone interested in this vital sector to collaborate with SRTI Park and advance our agricultural technology.
The indoor farming industry is still nascent, and it’s good news that we have a new wave of support from the government to help push it forward. It has clearly set a road map to ensure food security domestically and beyond.
Hussain Al Mahmoudi is the CEO of Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park