Global food demand is rising sharply and agricultural productivity is close to the expansion limit allowed by current technological farming techniques, which means mankind needs to find new creative ways to feed itself. Agriculture is notoriously wasteful and inefficient – around 80 percent of land suitable for farming is already in use, while the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that 1.3 billion tonnes or one third of the global food produced for human consumption, is lost or wasted.
If agriculture is to be able to feed what is soon to be more than nine billion people, sophisticated technology will have to be introduced in farming. Technological giants like Panasonic and Sharp have already started testing food production in closed and controlled environments in order to find sustainable solution for future food needs.
Probably nowhere in the world is the use of high technology in agriculture such a priority than in the GCC region where food import is around 90 percent, and production is restricted due to the region’s arid climate, shortage of arable land and water scarcity. All GCC member states are already investing heavily in innovative farming methods in order to secure enough food for its rapidly growing population and to reduce import dependence.
According to Alpen Capital’s April report, ‘GCC food industry’, food consumption in the region is predicted to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.1 percent over 2012 – 2017, reaching 49.1 million metric tonnes (MT) by the end of 2017, while per capita food consumption is to reach 971.2 kilograms by 2015 and 983 kilograms by 2017. In the GCC, only 1.8 percent of the total land was under cultivation in 2012, and total food production in the region stood at 10.9 million MT meeting only 26.5 percent of its consumption.
Less water, more crops
The GCC’s food import bill is expected to double from USD 25.8 billion in 2004 to USD 53.1 billion by 2020, according to last year’s Economist Intelligence Unit report, so increased farming efficiency and implementation of smart agriculture that uses water efficiently and reduces post-harvest losses is the only way to go.
Regional investment in farming on a higher technological level is still largely focused on building greenhouses that provide an artificial atmosphere, wherein controlled climate plants like lettuce or tomatoes can grow. The costs are still high – precious water is used not just for irrigation, but also for cooling. How to use less water in agriculture (at present, 80 percent of the water used in the region is for agriculture and only produces 5 to 15 percent of the food requirements) and how to improve agriculture practices, is a major preoccupation across the Gulf.
“Agriculture is the prime target for water conservation efforts, as it plays an important socio-cultural role and within food security considerations. So, improving water management, performances and productivity in major agricultural systems is a major issue within the strategy of most Gulf countries,” explains Dr Redouane Choukr-Allah, senior scientist of environmental horticulture at the Dubai-based International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
He says farmers usually over-irrigate their crops. “Some estimates have shown irrigation application in the field could exceed three times crop water needs. This is mainly due to a lack of irrigation management skills and farmers do not have any tools to define the amount of water to be applied and how to distribute it during the day.
Contributing factors are that water is free, power for the well pumps is highly subsidised, and farm managers are generally part-time managers. At the exception of few large farms that use up-to-date computer technologies for managing their water and fertilizer crop supply, the rest of the farmers are left to their own initiative to conduct their crops. As a result new technologies to save water and promote efficient irrigation is needed to save energy and water cost and improve production,” says Dr Choukr-Allah.
A plant that is usually over-irrigated is the date palm – in the UAE there are more than 40 million palm trees, and their average need for water is around 300 litres a day, but according to studies from Abu Dhabi, where irrigation of date palm trees uses about a third of the total groundwater used for crops, farmers tend to use more than twice the water needed per single palm. If irrigation of palm trees was monitored by sensors, over-irrigation and wasting millions of litres of water would be history.
“Very few farmers use sensors for irrigation, most irrigation management is based on solar radiation, however some research centres like ICBA are undertaking research on use of sensors that measure soil moisture content, salinity and sap flow, to improve irrigation practices. A project across the MENA region based on an integrated system of electronic sensors, date loggers and remote communication via cellular network will enable continuous and real-time remote monitoring, to schedule and improve irrigation water use,” explains Dr Choukr-Allah.
The Sahara Forest Project proposes to use restorative practices to establish vegetation in arid areas and reverse the trend of desertification.
As part of the efforts to find a more holistic approach to resolve growing concerns of energy, food and water security in the GCC, the Sahara Forest Project – an integrated system designed to harvest technological synergies while minimising waste – aims to reverse the desertification trend by using restorative practices to establish vegetation in arid areas.
Existing environmental technologies will be used in the project such as evaporation of saltwater to create cooling and distilled fresh water and solar thermal energy technologies. The basic idea behind the project is to utilise existing and sufficient resources to produce scarce ones – using deserts, saltwater and CO2 to produce food, freshwater and energy.
After completing a comprehensive feasibility study in Qatar, the first fully operational Sahara Forest Project Pilot Plant was built and became operational in December 2012. The work done at the Qatar pilot by Yara, Qafco, the SFP research staff, and by members of a large international network of scientific collaborators, will lay sound scientific foundations for bringing restorative growth to Qatar and to deserts around the world.
Green technologies used at the Pilot Plant in Qatar
– Concentrated Solar Power (CSP): At the Pilot Facility, SFP demonstrates an innovative greenhouse-CSP cooling system, which enables the low-cost use of saltwater to achieve wet-cooling efficiencies without utilising precious freshwater resources.
– Saltwater Greenhouses: Saltwater-cooled greenhouses provide suitable growing conditions that enable year-round cultivation of high-value vegetable crops in the harsh Qatari desert.
– Outside vegetation and evaporative hedges: The water coming from the greenhouse is at a concentration of about 15 percent salinity. To reduce the water content further, the brine is passed over external vertical evaporators set out in an array to create sheltered and humid environments. These areas are planted to take advantage of the beneficial growing conditions for food and fodder crops and for a wide range of desert species. New candidate species for use as harvested and grazing fodder for livestock, and as bioenergy feedstock, is identified and characterized from among native desert plants.
– Photovoltaic Solar Power: Dust arresting from the surrounding vegetation and water for cleaning the PV-panels ensure an efficient electricity generation.
– Salt Production: As the water is evaporated from saltwater the salinity increases to the point that the salts precipitate out from the brine. The last stage of this process is taking place in conventional evaporation ponds.
– Halophytes: The Qatar Pilot Facility is implementing and testing a variety of novel cultivation techniques to allow low-cost halophyte cultivation while ensuring no saltwater enters surrounding soil or groundwater aquifers.
– Algae Production: A state-of-the-art 50 m3algae test facility – the only of its kind in Qatar and the larger region – enables commercial-scale research on the cultivation of marine algae species native to the Gulf and Red Sea for use as nutriceuticals, biofuels, and as animal and fish fodder.
One innovative solution for cost-effective food production is hydroponics. Such farms do not require any fertile soil; seeds are placed in a growing medium, which can be either solid or liquid. The advantage of this system is that nearly all of the nutrients poured into the growing medium are absorbed by the plant, making it exponentially more efficient and increasing productivity manifold.
Hydroponics Horticulturist and Marketing Director of Emirates Hydroponics Farms (E.H.F), Rudi Azzato points out that hydroponics is very suitable for the Middle East. “Hydroponics is a very efficient method of growing produce with limited water as this water is being recycled. You can save up to 90 percent of water depending on what kind of crop you are growing,” he says. In the Gulf, hydroponics has been promoted for years – it is not only water and soil saving, it also allows longer growing season, but a lack of training has hampered initial success for some farmers.
In Qatar, which is expected to be the fastest-growing market for food consumption from 2014 to 2019 (CAGR of 5.5 percent), only 6 percent of land is suitable for farming. High-tech agriculture, combined with the latest innovations, has been implemented in the USD 7.1 million Sahara Forest Project. This desert site, operational from 2012, combines latest techniques in desalination, solar power and water reclamation.
Companies behind the project claim the site has a potential to produce 34,000 tons of vegetables and employ over 800 people. Crops are grown indoors and outdoors – there are vertical evaporators that create sheltered and humid environments for cultivation of plants, which are not irrigated solely with freshwater, but also tolerate saltwater (halophytes).
Another such site is to be developed in Jordan, for which the EU recently granted more than USD 828,000. But the Sahara Forest Project is still experimental and other Qatari farms, around 1,400 of them, rely on more traditional methods of farming – heavily irrigated open-field agriculture, greenhouse production, and more recently hydroponics.
“The penetration of hydroponics in farming techniques is being largely driven by the magnanimous difference in the yield quantity, when compared with soil-based farming methods. Recent studies in the region compared water consumption and water productivity between vegetable production in open fields and in protected environments using hydroponic systems and concluded that protected agriculture is the most suitable production system for vegetable crops in Qatar.
“Also, their studies demonstrate the great advantage of using protected agricultural and hydroponics in water saving. For example, the study showed it would require 110 litres of water to produce 1 kg of tomato in soil in a cooled greenhouse. This amount of water would produce 2.3 kg in a hydroponics system in the same greenhouse. As another example, production of 1 ton of muskmelon in open field requires 200 m3 of water, while same amount of water would produce more than 15 tons of muskmelons in hydroponics,” says Dr. Choukr-Allah.
New methods not popular yet
Other innovative methods, like aeroponics (where plants grow in air/mist environment, without a growing medium, and the roots dangle and are fed by the nutrient-rich water), or aquaponics (combination of aquaculture and hydroponics: aquatic animals excrete in the water, and the by-products are broken down into nitrates and nitrites, which feed the plants in a hydroponic system, while the water is recirculated back into the aquaculture system), are still largely unused in Qatar and the rest of the GCC.
“Aeroponics and aquaponics are not popular in the GCC region. Many people believe they can increase profits by introducing fish into the water tanks, but unless they understand hydroponics and fish they will certainly get themselves into trouble,” Amato, adding that new agricultural technological developments are not very common in the region.
“It has only just started to become popular with the GCC region. I believe Emirates’ hydroponics farms has played a key role in developing hydroponics as we were established 10 years ago and I believe we are the first to succeed in this industry. Due to our success many people see us as a role model. The Sheikh Khalifa Fund in Abu Dhabi supports local farmers who introduce hydroponics into their business model,” Amato tells BQ.
Dr. Choukr-Allah agrees: “Hydroponic systems do not require pesticides and require less water and space than traditional agricultural systems. Many farmers in the GCC are using this technology. Aquaponics can hardly be found, but people are interested in investing in it. However, because of lack of proper information and experience in the region, it will take a few years before we hear of success stories,” says Dr. Choukr-Allah.
He adds that most farmers in the region are not familiar with new agricultural developments. “However, the interest for research-innovation transfer into practice and development of new, ‘integrated’ tools to support both the farmers’ decision process as well as the environmental impact assessment of farm production systems is expressed by a large range of stakeholders including local and regional policy makers, farmers, food producers and consumers, technicians and consultants.
Accordingly, the Decision Support System (DSS) for irrigation and fertilization management project aims at promoting an innovative farming approach based on the eco-efficiency concept with the objective to achieve more agricultural output in terms of income, with less input of water, energy, nutrients, and capital,” says Dr. Choukr-Allah about the new farming method developed by ICBA.
According to him most of the large farmers and enterprises have imported new modern tech solutions for managing their greenhouse production, date palm irrigation, reproduction of camels, milk and poultry production. However, small farm owners need awareness of these technologies and would need government and organizational support for introducing them.
Future farming technologies
Addressing food production challenges in a region with limited resources is a challenge. In the UAE for instance, experts say agriculture makes no sense at all as it contributes less than one percent to the economy while using over 60 percent of the country’s water. As part of the revolution in farming, a Japanese technology was recently introduced in the UAE – film farming or soil-less farming.
Film farming has been made possible with hydrogel technology. The technology reduces up to 90 per cent water consumption and 80 per cent fertiliser use, resulting in a productivity boost of 50 per cent. The ‘film farming’ system can be installed on any surface – wood, sand or concrete – and across any terrain – from a dry arid desert to existing fertile farms or even in space.
In a region dotted with increasing numbers of skyscrapers, vertical or skyscraper farming can change the landscape and address food and water security challenges. Vertical farming is a system of growing plants in tall buildings using recycled resources and artificial lighting. The concept adds a positive effect on the environment by reducing waste, cutting down use of water and chemicals used to tackle pests.
Vertical farming uses hydroponics and aeroponics and given the climate and soil in this region, GCC countries can reap the benefits from electricity subsidies, a controlled environment and produce within protected chambers.
An increasing number of early-stage investors including venture and growth equity firms and strategic players such as food companies looking to get in on the trend, believe these vertical farms could revolutionise the agribusiness.
Despite all the high tech innovation in traditional farming, large-scale open field agriculture is more than challenging in the GCC, and very costly as well. Harsh lessons were learned in Saudi Arabia, where in the late ‘70s, thanks to tens of billions of dollars of government subsidies, farmers started to produce cereals in the desert. But it was short-lived – just 30 years later the government decided to shut down all large farms by 2016, because of the amount of water used for irrigation (an average of 19 trillion litres a year).
The farmers virtually dried out all permafrost water underneath the Arabian Peninsula. Cereals are top food category consumed across the Gulf nations – the most imported food (61.2 percent of total food import) – and they accounted for 48 percent of the total food demand in 2012, but to grow them in the desert is unprofitable. The agriculture sector in the Kingdom has changed – cereal production has dropped to almost zero, and today’s investments are focused on sustainable, smaller scale high-tech indoor farming projects.
But investing in new farming technologies, like vertical farming, still needs some careful calculation. Azzato says: “One needs to do due diligence before going into this area of technologies. What savings can one get by introducing vertical farming – lower utility costs, savings on land costs – are just a few points to consider.
If land cost is high then by reducing the actual footprint from 8,000 m2 into 1,000 m2 would be a practical conclusion. One needs to analyse his individual situation before deciding on which hydroponics system to go for. Provided the correct infrastructure from greenhouse design, hydroponics system, irrigation, sterilization, climate control etc. is implemented correctly into the client’s project, I believe hydroponics agriculture farming is very sustainable.”