The Bahraini former pilot with a food security vision

Sunday 10/09/2017
Green dreams. A cutting-edge hydroponic farm of Pegasus Agriculture. (Provided by Michael Jabri-Pickett)

Abu Dhabi - Mahmood Almas is a retired Gulf Air pilot who knows that one of the greatest issues facing the long-term survival of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is where the region will get its food a generation from now.
The Bahraini businessman is the founder and owner of Pegasus Agri¬culture, a Dubai-based hydroponics company trying to help the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East figure out their food needs.
“My family has been in the food business for 40 years,” said Almas, who joined Bahrain’s national air¬line as a flight attendant in 1993. “Part of my family is in farming, like my grandfather, and part in food distribution.”
In 2003, Almas went to Australia to earn his pilot’s licence. When he returned, he flew for Gulf Air for nine years, leaving in 2013 to start Pegasus.
“While flying I was thinking of doing something with food,” he said. After years of research, he said he realised that, despite the weath¬er conditions in the GCC, there was much that the region could control.
Hydroponic farming grows plants in a water-based solution that is rich in nutrients; no soil is needed. This method uses 90% less water than traditional soil-based agriculture.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahy¬an, the founding father of the Unit¬ed Arab Emirates, was so interested in the method that, just before the country was formed in 1971, he in¬vited a research team from the Uni¬versity of Arizona to establish a hy¬droponics farm in Abu Dhabi.
Forty years later, in a May 2011 report by the University of Arizona titled “Hydroponics system grows crops with less water, no soil,” au¬thor Brandon Merrill said: “Hy¬droponics allows farmers to adapt to any situation, whether it’s Ant-arctica’s frozen tundra [or] Saudi Arabia’s windswept and barren de¬serts.”
Almas said: “Hydroponics is a way forward because of the short¬age of water and because of food-security concerns. Food security is a long-term concern. The water issue is number one.”
Aquastat, which is the part of the United Nations’ Food and Agricul¬ture Organisation, said 69% of the Earth’s freshwater goes to tradition¬al, soil-based agriculture.
In a 2014 report titled “The Fu¬ture of Global Water Stress: An Inte¬grated Assessment,” the Massachu¬setts Institute of Technology said that, by 2050, more than 50% of the world’s population will live in areas where freshwater supply is under pressure.
“Companies should be looking to enhance the technology to use the water efficiently,” Almas said. “At Pegasus, we are spending a lot of money on [research and develop¬ment] to reduce the electricity out¬put of our greenhouses as well as to reduce our carbon footprint and labour costs.”
The company has established a futures fund that focuses on food security. While it is trying to help re¬duce the GCC’s reliance on imports, it is investing in food manufactur¬ing and technology; research and development; and supply-chain transparency. Operating out of Abu Dhabi, the fund will focus on estab¬lishing and growing operations in the Middle East and North Africa re¬gion as well as in the United States and Europe. Pegasus also offers a Hydroponic Investment Product, which is sharia compliant.
Almas said hydroponic farming of¬fers solutions in both the short and long term, including controlling the environment so crops can grow year-round.
“Anyone can grow in the GCC in the winter time,” he said. “The chal¬lenge is can you grow in the sum¬mertime with 100% humidity and 45-degree temperatures.”
NASA data indicate that the warmest year on record was 2016. Combine that with a 2014 World Bank report that said the GCC im¬ports about 90% of its food and the challenges for the region are im¬mense.
“There is no way we are going to stop all the imports because not eve¬rything can be grown hydroponical¬ly but at least we can get some fresh food delivered on a daily basis to the local market rather than importing it,” Almas said.
“For example, in wintertime, you have flight cancellations and delays, weather conditions affect flights. These issues will increase the prices in the market. Therefore, growing locally will make sure that every¬thing is delivered on time rather than depending on imports. That is part of the solution.”
Another part of the problem is what consumers don’t see. “Con¬sumers see the most polished apples but what has been sprayed on these products — pesticides, which is a big no-no when it comes to food safety,” Almas said.
In April, the UAE banned importa¬tion of certain fruit and vegetables from Egypt, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen because of pesticide use. The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment said that as of May, the UAE would no longer allow all varieties of pepper from Egypt; pep¬pers, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, squash, beans and eggplant from Jordan; apples from Lebanon; mel¬ons, carrots and watercress from Oman; and fruit from Yemen.
Hydroponic farming uses no pes¬ticides.
In Lisbon, Pegasus is setting up 27 hectares of greenhouses to sup¬ply one of the biggest supermarkets in Germany as well as customers in the United Kingdom and Poland. In the United States, the company has about 93 hectares of land leased for 25 years in Fort Pierce, Florida, north of Miami. “We will be grow¬ing strawberries there for the local market and exporting it to the UAE,” Almas said.
In the GCC, Pegasus has opera¬tions that include lettuce growing in Oman, mint farms in Abu Dhabi and a greenhouse and technology sup¬plier in Saudi Arabia.
Almas said hydroponics is not just about technology, it is also about ways to help the region survive and thrive.
“You’ve got to know what works where, what to grow where, how the food supplies move around the world,” he said. “Because very soon — and I’m talking about in ten years — only five or six countries are going to control food in the world. We have to secure food for the Mid¬dle East as well.”