Dubai: As local farmers are ramping up their harvest and finding innovative ways of delivering their produce to consumers because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, they are also hoping the demand for local produce will continue to soar even after the pandemic ends.
“If there is one key take-away from the pandemic, it is about ensuring food security. The virus has put pressure on global food supply chain and countries, like the UAE, which rely heavily on food imports are looking at local farmers to address the gap,” Emirati farmer Rashed Al Ketbi, 50, told Gulf News.
He said locally-grown farm produce are now more in demand as food imports are negatively impacted by logistical problems.
“Thanks to government investments in programmes increasing food output in the country, we were able to cope with the hot climate and lack of water,” said Al Ketbi, who comes from a family of farmers.
“My father and grandfather were farmers and I helped in the farm when I was six years. I got my own farm in 1995 and practiced traditional agricultural until 2008, when I switched to organic and more resilient, high-yield farming,” he added.
“These past couple of months, we are reaping the rewards of a spike in demand for local produce and we are actually looking at expanding our farms,” added Al Ketbi, who talked to Gulf News from his 33-acre Rashed Organic Farm in Al Ain.
He noted that the pandemic has highlighted the need for more technology in local farming and an improved distribution network.
“Recently, we have introduced home delivery, aside from supplying farmers market and supermarkets. We have also ensured that we have enough labour force to guarantee that food can keep moving,” he added.
Kamal Vachani, group director of Almaya Group, said: “locally-grown produce are very much in demand and we are stocking and selling locally-farmed vegetables due to their amazing quality and taste. We encourage and continue to support the local produce in our supermarkets.”
Support local farmers
Yazen Al Kodmani, operations manager at Emirates Bio Farm (EBF), said they have never been so busy lately. Their 100+ staff are working overtime to cope up with the demand.
EBF has sold more produce in the last two months to both wholesalers and individual consumers. In fact, their home deliveries have increased four times, from an average of 15 a day to between 60 and 80 daily.
But aside from the brisk business, Al Kodmani is hoping the demand for local produce will become constant and not just because of closure of borders and airports.
He said the outbreak should lead to lasting changes to residents’ eating habits and that consumers who have turned to local produce – maybe for the first time because of the coronavirus outbreak – would continue to support local producers.
“The pandemic has highlighted the need to ensure local food production. But after we are over with this virus outbreak, we have to ensure that our consumers continue to support our local farmers,” Al Kodmani told Gulf News.
“Consumers are the end stage of the agricultural production – what they buy or eat dictates what we supply. I hope they will continue to buy our produce not just out of necessity because of the pandemic but because they will continue to advocate for local, With their support, I think we can ensure our food security,” he underlined.
Al Kodmani said they are also encouraging residents to venture in home gardening. “We have a section in our website (https://www.emiratesbiofarm.com/) where give tips on how to grow vegetables,” he said.
While EBF has temporarily closed to visitors its 25-hectare farm in Al Ain, Al Kodmani said they are ready to welcome residents soon to learn more how they grow 55 types of vegetables, herbs and seasonal fruits.
“We highly encourage people to buy local, so farmers can expand local production and play a bigger part in ensuring food supply from farm to kitchen,” he added.
Agrotunnels in the desert
The Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park (SRTI Park) is advocating the creation of more agrotunnels in the UAE desert to create more innovative and sustainable methods of agricultural production.
In a previous interview, Hussain Al Mahmoudi, CEO of SRTI Park, told Gulf News: “Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, a team of botanists, agriculturists and engineers from Merlin International, one of SRTI Park’s innovative partners, has been conducting research over the past two years to develop a soil-free vertical cultivation technology that is the ideal way to produce sustainable food.”
Located inside SRTIP is Merlin Agrotunnel, an aquaponics farm with an area of around 150 square meters that can produce one ton of organic vegetables and fruits per month.
Merlin Agrotunnels use very little water – about 90 per cent less than conventional farming – and because they are based on aquaponics, they also produce fresh fish, along with a range of vegetables and fruits.
“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,” Al Mahmoudi explained.
“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,” he added.
Al Mahmoudi underlined the current global pandemic has brought to the fore the issue of developing a safe haven for food self-sufficiency. “The agricultural system being developed at SRTI Park is one of the solutions to the problems of agriculture and food production,” he added.
In-store hydroponic farms
Recently, Majid Al Futtaim inaugurated its third in-store hydroponic farm at its Carrefour market in Al Wasl.
The in-store hydroponic farms are part of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by the company with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) to promote sustainable locally-grown produce.
The farm uses 90 per cent less water and less space than traditional farms to deliver approximately 10kg of fresh herbs and microgreens per day, which is equivalent to the yield of about 1 acre of farmland.
The latest in-store farm on Al Wasl has a total growing area of 54 square metres and can accommodate up to 16 varieties of leafy greens, including lettuce, arugula, and kale, and herbs, such as basil, dill, and sorrel.