UAE to build world's biggest vertical farm producing essential food items

Country is steadily heading toward self-sufficiency in food by betting big on technology and innovation


Anjana Sankar

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Published: Mon 21 Feb 2022, 5:05 PM

Last updated: Mon 21 Feb 2022, 10:59 PM

The UAE will build the world's biggest vertical farm near the Expo 2020 site to bolster the country's food production, a senior official said on Monday.

"It will be functioning very soon and it will produce many of the essential food items that we need such as tomatoes, leafy greens and so on," Essa Abdul Rahman Al Hashemi, Head of UAE's Food and Water Security Office, said without divulging further details.

Speaking at the Food, Agriculture and Livelihoods Business Forum at Expo 2020 on Monday, Hashemi said the country is steadily heading toward self-sufficiency in food by betting big on technology and innovation.

"Our self—sufficiency targets are moving steadily and in an ambitious yet realistic manner," said Hashemi.

In recent years, the UAE farmers have been growing 70 different varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, mangoes, oranges, according to the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

There are more than 35,000 farms in the UAE, and many use modern technologies like hydroponic farming and vertical farming.

Technology helping the desert bloom

With the global agricultural and food landscape facing severe challenges from climate change, shrinking biodiversity, depleting water resources and disruptions in global supply chains, food security is a key national priority for many countries.

It is even a bigger challenge for countries like the UAE that imports 90% of its food.

With a growing population and rising consumption needs, the UAE has a task cut out to address its food security needs which was only exacerbated by the pandemic.

The UAE launched the National Food Security Strategy 2018 to strengthen food security and develop local agricultural production.

"We found that by adopting technology and innovation, we can balance the way we manage our food security landscape in the UAE.

"We have 24 food items in our basket that are critical for nutrition, resilient to climate, could be grown sustainably in the UAE and commercially viable," said Al Hashemi.

The UAE's national food basket is divided into subgroups covering proteins, dairy products, vegetables, fruits and edible oil. It includes food that is grown in the UAE.

Explaining the comprehensive strategy, the official said the UAE's national food basket includes food that can be grown in the UAE, food that has be reserved in stockpiles in case of emergencies or supply shortages, and diversified sources of import.

Farming in controlled environment

Hashemi said the UAE took a plunge into advanced faring technologies as early as 1968.

"UAE had the first greenhouse established in 1968. It demonstrated that it is possible to grow food that we thought was difficult to produce. Starting from that stage till today, the UAE is clearly focused on controlled environment applications and the technologies that are associated with that concept," he said.

He said such techniques that allow controlling humidity, temperature and the production environment enhance yield while maintaining efficient production of clean food.

He said indoor farming is also trending, with many people transforming buildings or containers to produce food.

As for our farmers, they are adopting low-tech, controlled environment applications such as net houses.

He said the elementary net houses that cover crops from excess heat and humidity are very water-efficient. "So, we found out that the net houses are even more efficient than some high-tech greenhouses."

Though controlled technologies for farming is a very big theme here in the UAE, the official said the country is looking at being an early investor and entrant into the novel food production.

As a hub for innovation, the country is keen to promote non-conventional production methods like soilless farming, food grown in labs using alternative nutrients etc., he said.

"We are looking into how to attract entrepreneurs, innovators, and arid agricultural technology companies to address the challenges of food security in the UAE."


$1 million food tech challenge

He said the UAE would soon be announcing a Food Tech challenge, a global initiative to attract solutions to enable technology-based solutions to grow food in very arid and marginal environments.

"And it has a total price award of $1 million which will be given to four winners," said Hashemi.

He said the winners would set shop in the UAE.

"We are in very close coordination with leading entrepreneurship management firms and innovation incubators across the globe in order to disseminate this idea and attract the startups to apply to this specific challenge, and move their ideas from basically ideation phase to commercial viability, he added.

But while pushing to achieve food security, Hashemi said the country is also on a journey of energy transition and will become net zero by 2050.

In 2023, when the UAE will host the COP28 climate conference, the official said the country hopes to have remarkable achievement on that count on reducing carbon emissions. "This will definitely happen. But we need to basically push as hard as possible," he said.

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