Urban farming a solution for Gulf countries
Dubai - The lack of arable land, coupled with high temperatures and scarce water resources in the Arab Gulf region are increasingly raising concerns about food security, compelling planners to look for sustainable farming solutions.
“New Urbanism” and “climate-smart” farming techniques are being proposed by experts as it becomes increasingly clear that harnessing new technologies and research related to climatic and soil conditions will become critical factors in achieving food security.
Saeed Al Gergawi, a UAE-based researcher in science and technology, maintains there are many ways in which current practices used in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries can be changed to accommodate the climate. “Fog and humidity, for example, are quite common in the Gulf region. If there were ways to take advantage of the water in the fog and humidity and use it in farming practices we would tackle water issues facing the region,” Gergawi said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“Another approach is hydroponics agriculture,” Gergawi noted. “Under this technique, farmers would minimise the use of water by resorting to special fluids to feed their plants, while reducing the use of soil, which needs more water to sustain crops.”
The researcher said he is confident that appropriate technologies to save precious water resources could be easily adopted in the UAE and other Gulf countries. One way, he said, is to install “urban farms” in large warehouses, which can be rented at low cost and placed under climate control, protecting crops from being at the mercy of the region’s harsh climate.
“In addition to sunlight during the day, urban farmers can use purple light (infra-violet) at night to grow the plants that would otherwise not breed in the current climate,” Gergawi explained, adding that crops could be mass produced in an organised manner “just like in any production line”.
Gergawi said he is hopeful that urban farming, as well as climate-smart food production, will become a reality in the Gulf region in the near future. “With such a harsh climate and increasing population demands, the region has no choice but to adopt such production processes,” he said.
Roof and vertical gardens are other aspects of “urban farming” solutions, said Martin Jose, marketing manager at Landex Green Environment Solutions in Dubai.
Pointing at examples of households who cultivate small quantities of vegetables on balconies, Jose said, “We need to cultivate a culture in which more edible landscape practices are implemented rather than ornamental ones.”
“Even public parks should accommodate fruit trees,” he told The Arab Weekly.
In his opinion, every household should have a small greenhouse in which residents can cultivate the minimum of salad leaves and vegetables, using “Green Mat”, a product that can save up to 50% of irrigation water. “This will help each individual to know what he eats and also will inculcate the habit of cultivation among the new generation,” he said.
Food security and sustainable agriculture is a high priority for the authorities in Abu Dhabi, which established the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre to provide technical and operational support to farmers and help them increase their productivity.
The establishment also helps market the produce of some 1,200 farms in the emirate under the brandname Local Harvest, offering consumers the chance to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, dates and honey.
“The centre is currently promoting the use of greenhouses and modern hydroponics systems through the Agricultural Investment Fund and the Khalifa Fund,” explained centre spokesman Ahmed Al Suwaidi.
“The weather can be 50 degrees (Celsius) outside the greenhouse in the height of summer but, thanks to new greenhouse technology, the temperature inside will remain a steady 28 degrees — the optimal conditions for year-round growing of crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers,” Suwaidi told The Arab Weekly.
The UAE is the second-largest food producer and consumer, after Saudi Arabia, accounting for 14.8% and 18.5%, respectively, of total Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) food production and consumption in 2012, according to the GCC Food Industry Report released in April 2015.
Although it produces more than half of its total fruit consumption and 30.5% of its dairy needs, the oil-rich country imports almost 79% of its food needs.
There are an estimated 7,600 greenhouses in Abu Dhabi, in which capsicum, strawberries, chillies, aubergines and leafy vegetables are cultivated. New greenhouses will feature temperature and humidity sensors that monitor the temperature inside and automate processes to ensure ideal growing conditions at all times.
During winter, farmers can sell their products several days a week at special farmers’ markets in Abu Dhabi and the emirate’s western region.
“These markets offer farmers a chance for additional income and link the urban population with rural farmers, providing a unique opportunity to exchange ideas and highlight the importance of agriculture,” Suwaidi said.