Covid-19 becomes a wake-up call to UAE's food production sector

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Dubai - Most UAE farms are now adopting agricultural technology to increase domestic food production.

By Saman Haziq

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Published: Sat 19 Jun 2021, 7:26 AM

The Covid-19 pandemic that wreaked havoc on food imports and supply chains across the world, served as a wake-up call for the UAE that imports over 90 per cent of its food, a UAE minister has said.

Encouraging Emiratis to pursue careers in agriculture and establish high-tech farms, Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, stressed that the Covid-19 pandemic has become a catalyst in pushing the country to look at bolstering local food production, supporting agri-tech companies to increase local food supply, and getting the youth involved in the agriculture sector.

With the UAE aiming to become the most food-secure nation by 2051, most UAE farms are now adopting agricultural technology to increase domestic food production.

Dr Ameena Al Tenaiji, one of the few Emirati women farmers of the UAE, has taken this call to heart.

Dr Tenaiji, who used to live comfortably in downtown Abu Dhabi a few years ago, decided to move to her farm spread over 1.5 hectare in Al Khatem, after a 30-year career in strategic water policy and management in the UAE, working for a range of top-tier water and electricity entities. She also completed her PhD in water use and agriculture from London and then decided to put into practice all the knowledge she had gained in all these years. In 2008, while still maintaining her career, she bought a small farm of her own and, as she puts it, became a ‘farmer by choice’. With the challenging weather and water conditions for farming in the UAE, she soon began experimenting with alternative techniques. Today, she is a pioneer in small-scale, integrated farming methods. The ambitious, small-scale farmer designs and tests practical, inexpensive, integrated farming systems by combining agriculture and aquaculture to promote sustainable food production in harsh environments.

Dr Al Tenaiji, who studied geology in college and also holds a PhD in civil engineering, said she tested several options, including the aquaponic system.

By building custom-integrated systems combining agriculture and aquaculture, farmers in the UAE have been able to drastically cut their water consumption, while increasing yields in comparison to conventional farms.

Aquaponic systems are also easy to scale, capable of producing enough food for a family, a village or even a commercial enterprise. Importantly, ‘you don’t have to spend a lot of money to build a system’, says Dr Al Tenaiji.

“Three years ago, I started to develop an aquaponic system because the water in my farm is very saline — almost like sea water. So, I wanted to develop something to adapt to the situation. I then approached Dubai’s International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) who helped me expand this project and produce fish and vegetables. This is a highly sustainable kind of farming that not only drastically reduces the need for water, but also increases the produce, and enhances productivity of the farm.”

Dr Al Tenaiji avoids using chemicals and fertilisers and focusses on sustainability and organic food. “This is why I have farm animals such as chicken, turkey, pigeons, goats and sheep and I use animal manure for composting and this is used in my open fields. During the farming season, which is September to May, I grow vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumber and all leafy vegetables in my net house and through the aquaponics system. In the outer field I have palm trees, Rhodes (grass for animals) and some others that are tough enough to handle the heat,” she said.

The harvest size and quality from Dr Al Tenaiji’s aquaponic system has shown promise to date. She hopes to publish academic journal articles to share her methodology and results.

Using similar innovative methods for farming, entrepreneurial farmer Abdulrahman Rashid Alshamsi said he uses integrated agri-aquaculture for enhanced food and water security.

“I started fish farming trials at my farm some five years ago, where I began using nutrient-rich water from the fish tank to irrigate my outdoor fields with vegetables and date palms. This is integrated style of farming which includes vegetables, livestock, fish and poultry,” he said.

“It has helped me have three production seasons in one year, in addition to achieving yields from date palms that are three times higher than normal.”

Lauding the support from ICBA, he said: “With the help of ICBA, we have made progress towards cultivation of quinoa, Salicornia and other salt-tolerant crops which would help the community in the future. Not only am I now using almost 50 per cent less water than used in traditional method of farming but also my produce is organic, of high quality and quantity too. Seeing the success of this integrated model, the UAE government is now implementing a similar approach across 400 other farms.”

Need for agtech and innovation

Highlighting the need for technology and innovation in agriculture, Georg Czerny, managing director of Al Dahra BayWa, one of the largest suppliers of high-quality locally-produced tomatoes in the UAE, said: “The need for technology and innovation has never been higher, especially at this time when food security is a very high priority considering our increasingly volatile climate systems. Climate change and the depletion of resources have led policy-makers, and investors to turn to high-tech agriculture as a solution to the challenges they are facing. This is a welcome development, especially since controlled environment agriculture can deliver a stable supply of high-quality produce without harming the environment.

Al Dahra BayWa is joint venture between Abu Dhabi-based Al Dahra Agriculture LLC and Germany’s BayWa AG and develops and operates high-tech greenhouses.

“In our 12-hectare high-tech farm facility in Al Ain, we have implemented resource-saving processes, integrated plant health management, and state-of-the-art greenhouse technologies as part of our sustainable farming approach. Our facility is one of the largest and most advanced in the GCC, harvesting fresh-tasting tomatoes of European quality all year round, which are delivered to our customers on the same day they are harvested. This way we can add significant volumes to the market at a fair price point and thus reduce the need for imports,” Czerny said.

He added: “We are very optimistic about the potential of high-tech farming in the UAE and believe that the abundance of solar radiation, combined with the appetite for technology and innovation, are highly appreciative factors for local agriculture as a flourishing sector.

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