UAE greenhouses grow crops without soil
Dubai - How can food production be increased by 70% to meet the demands of a global population forecast to reach 9 billion by 2050? How can a sustainable food supply be achieved with minimal risk to the environment?
These are the kind of issues that experts focus on at the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre (ADFSC), the government partner in the sustainable agricultural development sector in the United Arab Emirates.
Since it was set up in 2012, ADFSC has been sharing knowledge, experience and technical findings in sustainable farming with experts at home and abroad.
ADFSC Consultant Adnan al- Sammarraie said one way to achieve these goals is to improve agricultural practices, which would increase productivity, ensure food safety, environment resources sustainability and minimise product loss during the growing season.However, the strategy of expanding agricultural land will cause pollution through greenhouse gas emissions and further depletion of the Earth’s resources.
“To achieve the goal of a sustainable food supply with minimum risk to the environment, we need to deal with the problem in another manner and investigate human food habits — i.e. type of food consumed — reduce food waste and improve agricultural practices,” Sammarraie said. “Water being a vital factor, we need to consume low water equivalent commodities in order to save water.”
Next-generation agricultural solutions that could shape the future of sustainable farming are being tried out around the world. In the UAE, which has scarce water resources, innovative strategies being applied include hydroponics, a technique for growing plants and vegetables using mineral nutrient solutions in water without soil.
The use of hydroponics in greenhouses is economically feasible as it does not require the use of soil, which means that the local low-fertility soil will not pose a problem for production and it can produce large quantities with better quality in less space for most crops.
Greenhouses are being used to grow tomatoes, capsicum, strawberries, chillies, aubergines, cucumbers, leafy vegetables and herbs.
It is not commercially viable to grow crops such as cabbage or potatoes in greenhouses in Abu Dhabi, as those vegetables are either too large, require a lot of space or can be grown in open fields.
There are an estimated 7,600 greenhouses in Abu Dhabi, many using low to medium technology. Farmers are increasingly upgrading greenhouses or installing new ones with hydroponics systems. These feature shading systems, temperature and humidity sensors, which monitor conditions and automate processes to ensure ideal growing conditions.
“Before the ADFSC was established, hydroponics activities on local farms were carried out on a trial basis, primarily for growing leafy vegetables. There were no industry standards for growing vegetable crops,” said ADFSC specialist Basem al-Khawaldeh.
“Shortly after the establishment of the ADFSC four years ago, the Protected Agriculture Unit implemented two hydroponics demonstrations in the Western Region for growing cucumbers, tomatoes and capsicum, which are an important part of the Middle Eastern diet.”
He said the main concern over the next five years is reduction of water consumption in greenhouse cooling systems.
“The weather can be 50 degrees Celsius outside the greenhouse in the height of summer but, thanks to new greenhouse technology, the temperature will remain at a steady 28 degrees C inside, which is the optimal temperature for year-round growing of crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers,” Khawaldeh said.
Of 100 farms in Abu Dhabi supported by the Khalifa Fund project, there are 56 medium- to high-tech greenhouses in operation and 44 under construction and expected to be finished by the end of 2016.
Khawaldeh said a number of steps needed to be taken to increase the popularity of hydroponics in the region.
“First of all, capacity building of farming stakeholders can be achieved through training, setting up demonstration farms, and through technical publications and other communication packages focused on the target audiences,” he said. “There should also be increased marketing of hydroponics farming.
“The capabilities of local research stations must be boosted to carry out applied research on the critical components of the hydroponics systems, in particular, crop protection and nutrient management as well.”