The outbreak of Covid-19 has been a wake-up call for many countries in terms of food security. With supply chain disruptions, border closures and restrictions in delivery routes, countries that are reliant on imports are feeling the strain.
But, the UAE, which imports 85-90 per cent of its food, has managed to rise to the challenge — taking significant measures to mitigate disruptions in the supply chain.
From maintaining strategic stocks to increasing local food productions and exploring ways to diversify food import sources, the UAE has maintained a sustainable flow of essential items.
“Despite the global challenges created by the outbreak of Covid-19, we are fully prepared and have sufficient strategic food reserves to serve the needs of the community,” Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Executive Council, said earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Mariam Bint Mohammad Saeed Hareb Al Muhairi, Minister of State for Food Security, told the virtual majlis of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, that the UAE is dealing with the current crisis as a new opportunity to build a stronger and more flexible system of food supply chain. She also encouraged people to consume more local food.
“Many people do not know this, but the UAE is growing many types of food,” said Al Muhairi. “These foods are delicious because they are fresh. This is also an opportunity for local producers to grow more, and do not forget the important role of technology in enabling food production locally.”
Last year, the UAE jumped ten places in the Global Food Security Index, moving from 31 in the rankings in 2018 to 21 in 2019. This achievement reflects the efforts of the government to establish the country as a world-leading hub in innovation-driven food security.
While it’s not easy to grow food sustainably in deserts, the agricultural sector in the UAE has seen rapid growth in recent years, driven by new farm tech solutions. Now with the pandemic sweeping across the world and disrupting supply chains, there has been a renewed interest in exploring opportunities to grow and buy locally and increasing self-sufficiency.
Agricultural sustainability and food security
“There are several challenges to crop production in the UAE, but at the same time, the country has three significant natural resources – what we call three Ss – sand, sun and sea,” says Dr Ismahane Elouafi, Director General, International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), a non-profit agricultural research centre based in Dubai Academic City. “ICBA harnesses the potential of all three to grow food locally and sustainably.”
The UAE is already doing an incredible job in boosting local agricultural production and reducing food imports. However, to further strengthen domestic production, farmers need to adapt to sustainable agricultural solutions and should dramatically reduce their water consumption for locally produced crops.
Scientists at ICBA have been successful in growing salt-loving vegetables, including Salicornia, using reject brine from desalination units, she tells GN Focus. “Moreover, over the years, we have been successful in introducing several climate-resilient crops that can thrive here, such as quinoa, pearl millet, sorghum, and several salt-tolerant forages.
“The UAE is already doing an incredible job in boosting local agricultural production and reducing food imports. However, to further strengthen domestic production, farmers need to adapt to sustainable agricultural solutions and should dramatically reduce their water consumption for locally produced crops.”
Sensing opportunities for growth, local farmers have started adopting sustainable farming practices, new technologies and better quality of seeds to scale up operations.
“We believe the future of the farming industry is hydroponics, a method of growing plants without soil,” says Yazan Abu Jaish, General Manager, Armela Farms, a large-scale commercial producer and distributor of water-grown lettuce and kale in the UAE.
There is a vast change in the behaviour of end consumers who want to support local businesses.
“This growing technique combined with the right cooling technology for hot and humid climate conditions is the most efficient method for growing sustainable produce. This, in turn, saves water, increases production capacity by almost 60 per cent, as well as grows clean, pesticide-free produce.”
Abu Jaish has also noted a change in consumer behaviour since the outbreak of coronavirus as many people are turning to farms for local produce from shopping at supermarkets for imported items. “Consumers want to know where their produce is from and how it is grown,” he says. “There is a vast change in the behaviour of end consumers who want to support local businesses.
“We have also noticed a huge increase in demand for local produce from hypermarkets, retailers, online chains and wholesalers as they are facing difficulties in sourcing imported goods. Some are actually trying local produce for the first time and are pleasantly surprised by the quality, freshness and efficiency in delivering goods to their shelves the next day instead of pre-ordering products months in advance.”
Coronavirus has highlighted the need to have more UAE-produced farm-fresh items to ensure a smooth supply of products in times when cargo may not be able to reach the UAE as easily.
Online retailers drive demand for local produce
Agrees Aseam Al Soqi, CEO of online grocery retail platform QualityFood. “Coronavirus has highlighted the need to have more UAE-produced farm-fresh items to ensure a smooth supply of products in times when cargo may not be able to reach the UAE as easily.” QualityFood works with a number of local farms to provide the freshest and most sustainable produce available in the market to its customers.
What’s new in farming?
While aquaponics, hydroponics and vertical farming are gaining traction in the UAE as traditional agricultural practices become unsustainable, experts say the sector needs to explore other innovative cultivation methods and techniques to increase production and support future growth.
Last month, the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) announced plans to invest $100 million (Dh367 million) in four agri-tech companies – Aero Farms, Madar Farms, RNZ and Responsive Drip Irrigation, who will build R&D and production facilities in Abu Dhabi to develop next-generation farming tech.
Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park (SRTIP) has also been developing innovative inland and coastal modular farming technologies that use brine or seawater for irrigation. “We need to develop more efficient farming techniques aside from aquaponics and hydroponics,” Hussain Al Mahmoudi, CEO of SRTIP, tells GN Focus.
Researchers at SRTIP are also exploring ways to grow a number of halophytic, or salt-loving plants, that produce higher yields than traditional plants and save more water. “Although arable land and freshwater resources are scarce in the UAE, we have many success stories to share because of its resourcefulness and reliance on innovation,” says Al Mahmoudi. “There are already many positive results in agriculture across the UAE. For example, the number of hydroponic farms in the country has grown from 50 in 2009 to over 1,000 in recent years.”
Although arable land and freshwater resources are scarce in the UAE, we have many success stories to share because of its resourcefulness and reliance on innovation.
To spur sustained growth in the sector, the government has launched numerous programmes and incentives to support agri-tech start-ups and innovators. One of these innovative companies is Merlin Agrotunnel, an aquaponics farm with an area of around 150 square metres, that can produce one ton of organic vegetables and fruits per month.
“Located inside SRTIP, Merlin Agrotunnel uses very little water – about 90 per cent less than conventional farming, and aside from growing a wide range of vegetables and fruits, the agrotunnel is also producing fresh fish as it uses a form of agriculture that combines raising fish in tanks with soil-less plant culture (hydroponics),” Al Mahmoudi explains.
The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the call for the UAE to further reduce its dependence on imports and become sustainable in food production in the long run. Al Mahmoudi emphasises the importance of supporting research to create a more sustainable agricultural sector.
“We are constantly inviting local farmers, researchers and agri-tech companies to take advantage of our facilities and collaborate in advancing agricultural technology. We offer incentives and we are strongly committed to research and development.
“Aside from innovating local agricultural production, we also need to change the mindset of our consumers by making them actively support our local farmers.”
Nurturing entrepreneurship in agri-tech and food production is also critical for strengthening the agricultural ecosystem and introducing innovation and disruption in much-needed areas of food production.
“Agri-business is one of the main pillars of food and nutrition security in countries like the UAE,” says Dr Tarifa A. Al Zaabi, Deputy Director-General of ICBA.
Agri-business is one of the main pillars of food and nutrition security in countries like the UAE
“Globally, and in countries with a climate similar to the UAE, the focus on agri-tech becomes essential as controlled-environment agricultural solutions improve yield, efficiency and profitability. Now we see more and more of agripreneurship ideas optimising resources such as water, energy, space, capital and labour, while supporting the efforts towards sustainable food production and food security.”
She adds, “To boost agripreneurship, we need to engage more youth as they are the producers, scientists and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.”
Demand for eggs from local sources stays strong
“Local, fresh, safe and innovative products with good packaging are what customers in the UAE are looking for,” says Dr Suheel Ahmed, CEO – Holding, Arabian Farms Investment.
There are many risks associated with the import of eggs, which include contamination, handling losses, use of preservatives, high carbon footprint in terms of cold storage and logistics and varied production practices.
While explaining the benefits of eating farm-fresh, locally grown eggs, Dr Ahmed says, “There are many risks associated with the import of eggs, which include contamination, handling losses, use of preservatives, high carbon footprint in terms of cold storage and logistics and varied production practices. We can overcome these challenges by eating fresh, locally grown SAHA Eggs.”
“Under the patronage of the UAE leadership, the Food Security Council has been proactively advocating the advantages of eating locally produced food, while creating initiatives to support local producers, smart services and e-commerce. The realisation of the importance of local producers in national food security will definitely help take the industry forward.”
How I started a vegetable garden
Dubai-resident Jaydev Nair wanted to try out hydroponic farming, the soil-less technique of growing plants, on the terrace of his villa. So he contacted Greenoponics Agricultural Services for solutions. “Greenoponics installed the complete unit, arranged saplings, nutrients and also arranged for regular follow-up and maintenance,” says Nair. “I am currently able to grow tomatoes, okra, cucumber, red and green amaranth, chilli, basil, mint, thyme, spinach and lettuce.”