Sowing the seeds of agricultural opportunity in Dubai.
From tomatoes and bell peppers to kale, beetroot and lemons – the UAE’s farming community may be small and seasonally dependent, but innovation and government support are, literally, sowing the seeds for agricultural sector growth.
The UAE relies on imports for up to 85 per cent of its food requirements at a cost of US$2.9 billion per annum, according to the organiser of Agra Middle East, which returns to Dubai International Exhibition Centre from 10-12 April 2017.
Investment is being ploughed into the industry under the government’s long-term agricultural policy, which has a strong focus on sustainability in an arid environment where the annual rainfall is just 120 mm and desalinated seawater keeps many UAE farms viable.
With under 7 per cent available arable land and the challenge of a farming season that has a window of little more than six months, innovation and new technologies are underpinning future sector opportunity.
“[We] are keen to motivate national projects and companies to invest and innovate to promote the sustainable economic and social development in the country as part of the ‘Green Economy for Sustainable Development’ initiative,” said Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change & Environment.
Soil-less farming solutions, new greenhouse gas technology and hydroponics represent the triumvirate of future industry potential and an answer to the average 12 per cent per year rise in food consumption in the UAE.
The UAE’s strategic approach to food security and sustainability, which has been developed in partnership with the UN Food and Agriculture Association, is being implemented over a 15-year period.
Beyond home turf, this includes efforts to boost its position as a GCC/Middle East hub for food trade with the country already a leading re-exporter, supported by private sector partnerships for the development of food storage and distribution capabilities.
The January 2017 signing of 14 new Memorandums of Understanding between the UAE and India added further weight to sector enhancement, with a major focus being agricultural technology co-operation.
Ministry of Environment & Water head Dr Rashid bin Fahad has spoken out on the need to pioneer rooftop or vertical stack farming techniques and the ministry’s Agricultural Innovations Centre in Sharjah is researching various greenhouse solutions.
In Dubai, the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture at Zayed University is piloting a prototype next generation greenhouse that uses 90 per cent less water and 50 per cent less energy than a conventional alternative.
Abu Dhabi’s Food Control Authority is working on a Protected Agriculture Project, which uses UV ray-treated recycled water and an inbuilt cooling system to grow plants without any climate change impact.
Over at the Ministry of Climate Change & Environment, the nutrient-rich benefit of hydroponic farming is a priority and a growing sub-sector, with 1,000 farms now operating hydroponic greenhouses (up from 50 in 2009).
The organic imperative
Dr Al Zeyoudi has also reinforced the UAE’s commitment to developing its chemical-free footprint with 46,900 acres actively dedicated to organic farming.
“Organic products bear a distinctive mark to enhance consumer confidence and the ministry is creating new marketing opportunities for organic products in co-operation with competent local authorities to encourage organic farmers,” he commented previously.
The ministry also launched the Mawroothna privilege card, which offers farmers discounts and other benefits to incentivise them to continue developing their businesses.
Dr John Anurag, general manager of DEENA Organic Farm in Dubai, has been running an operation fully certified by the Emirates Authority for Standardization and Meteorology since 2016.
“Community health and safe food are our [main] concerns. Our produce is local and strictly seasonal and we are able to offer a wide range of vegetables, which helps grow our business, but we would like to see a more organised farmer’s cooperative or association to benefit small farms like us. We’re trying to tie up with other farms in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi for summer supplies,” he said.
The farm also works with various schools and Dubai Mounted Police’s children’s camps to develop awareness of organic and local foods, and has initiated a farmer’s exchange programme of farm visits to facilitate experience and knowledge sharing.
Entering new territory
Outside of the UAE, the government is actively implementing an offshore agricultural investment policy to help secure a guaranteed food supply by funding overseas projects in places such as Namibia, South Africa and Sudan, with the country aiming to cease domestic wheat production altogether in a bid to conserve water.
Taking agricultural innovation to a whole new level, the UAE Space Agency recently hosted a Japanese delegation for discussions about the possible application of space technology in farming.
This includes development of survey and mapping satellites equipped with remote sensing technology that can also monitor plant growth, as well as early detection of farmland diseases.