Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News


    Saeed Al Gergawi      

“On land and in the sea, our fore-fathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so because they recognised the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations.”

Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan

It is common knowledge that the GCC imports almost, if not all, of its agricultural goods. However, this is not sustainable in the long run and will create major challenges for the GCC if a solution is not introduced.

Our dependency on imported agricultural produce has manifold effects: A great deal of the nutritional value of such goods are lost during their transport and storage and some of the intensive farming techniques used by food exporters can unknowingly expose us to high levels of chemicals and even additives.

There is also a cost to pay that strains the GCC in terms of finances and human capital. And on top of that, the blind importation of agricultural goods exposes the region to vulnerability when it comes to the issue of food security. In order to counter the effects of such extreme imports of agricultural goods, cities of the future will be their own agricultural producers. Cities of the future will grow their own plants, vegetables and other agricultural goods depending on the demands of their inhabitants, by introducing the practice of urban farming.

What is urban farming?

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, Urban Farming is defined as:

“Urban and peri-urban agriculture provides food products from different types of crops [grains, root crops, vegetables, mushrooms, fruits], animals [poultry, rabbits, goats, sheep, cattle, and etc].”

With that in mind, for those who are familiar with the local culture in the UAE, the concept of urban farming is not new to the Emirati way of life. In many Emirati households, it is quite common that the household has its own herd of goat or sheep, their own palm trees and other minor agricultural practices. However, the modern practice of urban farming utilises all spaces, especially those that are on buildings and skyscrapers, which current Emirati agricultural practices don’t.

Is it beneficial to us today?

Urban farming allows cities to grow and cultivate their own agricultural produce based on the needs of their residents, and enables them to only import goods that the city could never harvest on its own, maybe as a result of its limited space for farming or if a product is truly unique to a particular area or climate, for instance truffles.

Furthermore, urban farming has a core function that is key to its success, which is community involvement and as the community becomes more invested in its urban farming efforts, the community as a whole gradually becomes a specialist in what agricultural goods are being consumed in that city. In a way, it takes us back to taking responsibility for our food in the way our forefathers did.

Nonetheless, there are some challenges that urban farmers face today and one problem that will be the greatest issue in this respect is the scarcity of water in the GCC. Particularly, the UAE needs to tackle the issue of its water consumption and find ways to ease that consumption, before a crisis arises as result of our continued depletion of our scarce water reserves.

According to EcoMENA.org (an eco-awareness website), the UAE is one of the top 10 most water-scarce countries in the world, and has one of the highest per capita water usage globally; which is 550 litres per person per day, over double the global national average of 250 litres per person per day. Furthermore, according to the Global Footprint Network, if the world’s population lives the same lifestyle as those in the UAE, then humans would need five and a half Earths to sustain that lifestyle. It is a distressing indicator which underlies our need to change.

Even so, some farms and households in the GCC are using alternative ways to decrease the consumption of water and increase their agricultural cultivation of crops. Those techniques are hydroponics and aeroponics, techniques that involve growing crops without soil, the plants instead secure the nutrients they need from special solutions and drip irrigation, which consists of tubes buried near the roots of plants, which deposit water directly to the plant roots.

Benefiting from urban farming in future

Now, let’s look half a century into the future of how proper policy, regulation and implementation of urban farming will affect the GCC. Since urban farming requires the element of community involvement to succeed, a farmer’s culture will thrive.

Where cities and towns within the GCC will grow their own crops and set up “farmer’s souqs” starting early in the morning on Friday and end before the Friday prayers, we will see building porters who will double as both farmer and porter, and help farm vegetables, fruits and crops that are requested by the building tenants; and then the GCC as a community will be able to depend on itself for its agricultural goods and the sustenance of the nation.

More importantly, by this time, the GCC will become a centre of urban farming, attracting scientists and institutions that will foster partnerships with entities in the GCC and build industries around the agricultural sector that will be based on research and science that will allow the region to come up with crops and solutions that will thrive in the harsh conditions of the Middle East and Africa (Mena) region.

Lastly, developing a specialisation in urban farming within the GCC will enable its nations to diversify their economies and build independence of supply chains out of our control, so that if a crisis does occur, the region will be self-sufficient and resilient — capable of moving forward towards better times.

Saeed Al Gergawi is a specialist in the sciences and trends of the future. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@saeed_algergawi