Special Report: How farming is gaining ground in UAE
On average, about 11 to 12 litres of water is being used to irrigate one sqm of land per day in the UAE.
The UAE has implemented a range of policies, measures and strategies to ensure constant food supplies from abroad and scaled up agricultural production at home - and this is evident as businesses come forward and share their roles in aligning their strategies to boost food and water security.
On Sunday, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said: "Food and water security are among the priorities of the UAE government for the post-coronavirus period, and the objective is to launch specialist initiatives that will ensure our readiness to confront all types of crises."
The farming sector is aggressively working towards boosting local production of agro produce. Agrotech company VeggiTech, for instance, is addressing the key challenges of traditional farming through its design of protected hydroponics and grow lights-assisted hydroponics.
"We have chosen the challenging conditions of UAE to demonstrate the positive use of agro technology to create sustainable farms aligned to the UAE's vision of food security," said Hemant Julka, co-founder and COO of VeggiTech.
In the last 18 months, the company has built and is operating over 30 hectares of farms with protected hydroponics and is also in the process of going live with 4,500 sqm of indoor vertical farms that employ grow light-assisted hydroponics.
"We produced over over 1.6 million kg of produce last year and this year [including the summer months] and we will produce more than 1.9 million kg with over 500 tonnes of organic produce from our farms between August 2020 and July 2021," added Julka.
Similarly, Dake Rechsand's primary focus is enabling desert regions to expand their agriculture and long-term water storage capacities and create food and water security.
"Our strength is being able to achieve this using simple, ordinary and abundantly available sand as a raw material. We are ramping up production and expect our technologies to enable farming and greenery for at least 10,000 acres across the UAE or for half-a-million trees by the first half of 2021," said Chandra Dake, executive chairman and group CEO of Dake Group.
"Within the same period we also expect to be ready with a comprehensive strategy for harvesting and usage of rainwater, which will allow us to enable 10 cubic metres [two million gallons] of water storage from harvested rainwater. In fact, we are ready to take on pilot projects during the upcoming monsoons next month and work with the government bodies to showcase how our products and technology can help harness rainfall and deliver immediate and tangible results for the UAE."
VeggiTech produce utilises less than 10 per cent of the water used in traditional farms and is pesticide-free. In addition, they have deployed technology for complete food transparency through QR codes that give complete visibility of the growing process of the vegetable produce from farms. The firm is in the business of offering "farming as a service", where the firm builds and operates digital smart farms that are sustainable and environmentally friendly.
In the first half of 2020, despite the Covid-19 circumstances, VeggiTech signed contracts for 13,000 sqft of grow area for indoor vertical farms and building protected hydroponic farms of 80,000 sqft.
"We are upbeat on the current pipeline of projects [over 10 million sqft of farms - protected hydroponics; more than 200,000 sqft of indoor vertical farms] to be signed in the third and fourth quarters of 2020 and these would start producing over 25 million kg of produce every year from 2021-22. The optimal use of land assets combined with the reduction in water resources and pesticide free crops are an ideal example of using technology to align with the UAE's food security goals," added Julka.
The Middle East, including the UAE and GCC, is enriched with desert sand. However, most of these desert regions import a bulk of their food commodities. Dake Rechsand has what it calls 'magic sand', a technology enables the sustainable production of organic food in the desert using up to 70 per cent less water than conventional methods. At 65 per cent of total use, the agriculture sector is the largest consumer of water in the UAE.
"On average, about 11 to 12 litres of water is being used to irrigate one sqm of land per day in the UAE. If we reduce that requirement by 70 per cent, we could conserve about 45 per cent of the total water consumed in the UAE. More importantly, this can be achieved while increasing the UAE's agricultural production significantly," said Dake.
Dake Rechsand creates breathable surfaces for roads, kerbstones and pavements, etc, which can absorb water, and harvest it.
"Coupled with our decentralised mini-reservoirs made from the same material, we can help harvest rainwater and keep it fresh for up to seven years, without any energy inputs. This can not only result in a creating a new, reliable and cost effective water source, adding to the UAE's water reserves, but also one that is much cleaner since rainwater is a better source than desalination," added Dake.
"Our approach towards maximising water retention in sand is what propels desert farming and is both economically as well as organically efficient. That means one can get organic products grown from these regions very easily. Our products are designed scientifically, and they contribute to environmental sustainability."
ICBA committed to boost food and water security
The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) completely supports every effort towards the food and water securityof the UAE's vision.
Dr Ismahane Elouafi, director-general of the ICBA, said: "Like national security, food and water security must be a priority for all countries. Thanks to the UAE's wise and visionary leadership, the country has always been at the forefront of ensuring food and water security in the country. During the recent disruption to global food systems, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE set an excellent example of its efforts towards food security. It was one of the few countries where the food supply remained uninterrupted. Even though the UAE is short of arable land and freshwater resources, and has harsh climatic conditions, the country harness the benefits of innovation to make agriculture possible and profitable in the country."
The UAE's National Food Security Strategy 2051, which was launched in 2018 with a vision to become a world-leading hub for innovation-driven food security, also prioritises agricultural research and development. The country rose from 33rd place in 2017 to 21st in 2019 in the Global Food Security Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The ICBA has been working on several technologies and innovations to boost agricultural productivity and improve farmers' livelihood, in non-arable lands and harsh ecosystems.
All of the ICBA's research and development programmes are directly beneficial to the region, particularly to the UAE.
"We have introduced what we call climate-smart and resource-efficient crops such as quinoa, pearl millet, sorghum, and Salicornia, among others, in countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. These crops are nutritious and resilient to heat, drought, and salinity, therefore fit for ecosystems such as UAE. Furthermore, our crop development and research trials have been mostly conducted in our experimental farm in Dubai. Hence, all data and results are very relevant to the UAE," added Dr Elouafi.
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