Focus: Food industry

Grow Your Own

Oct. 11, 2019

Sharjah is developing innovative methods to produce and import food to serve its growing population for decades to come.

One can find just about everything in the UAE. From the latest business ventures to technological innovations and niche tourist attractions, international investors and travelers have come to recognize the UAE as a place where almost anything is possible. Now the nation, and Emirates like Sharjah, are finding new ways to mitigate the arid climate to expand the local food industry through innovative farming techniques and import partnerships that will help feed the growing population for decades to come.

Climate change and falling groundwater levels are increasingly grabbing international headlines, and environmental issues are particularly pronounced in hot, desert regions such as Sharjah. For this reason, the UAE Minister of State for Food Security Mariam Al Mheiri has been encouraging initiatives to expand local agriculture production while promoting joint-development projects with global trading partners to ensure long-term food sustainability.

Noting the UAE's population has grown exponentially, from just 300,000 in 1971 to 9.5 million in 2019, Al Mheiri is promoting a technology-based National Food Security Strategy, in which the Emirates will increasingly collaborate to produce regional solutions by incorporating more vertical farming and hydroponic technologies into the food industry.
Vertical farming involves the production of vegetables indoors,within a controlled environment where various food products are grown in vertically stacked arrangements, using minimal soil, light, and chemicals. The practice is not only highly efficient, but is also particularly well suited for arid climates, as it reduces water evaporation and produces high harvest volumes without draining groundwater supplies. Applications of vertical farming are becoming increasingly popular in the UAE, where the first facility opened in 2017 in Al Quoz, boasting 8,500sqft of farmable area to produce a variety of greens, which are commonly used in local cuisine and throughout the restaurant industry.

Hydroponic farms are also expanding due to the fact they use 90% less water than traditional farming methods, vastly improving cost and resource efficiency in local food production sector. Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the Minister of Climate Change and Environment, promoted the UAE's new push for hydroponic farming as a means of achieving more sustainable food production at the World Government Summit in Dubai in February 2019. “We at the ministry have developed a policy for food biodiversity where we encourage a change in the behavior of our local farmers—toward more resilient agricultural practices—to produce the right crops," Al Zeyoudi said.

The combination of such technologies makes the most of the UAE's limited arable land, while also reducing the carbon footprint of the agriculture sector. Controlled indoor production environments also allow for the installation of smart meters and artificial intelligence applications to be utilized in distributing fertilizers and monitoring humidity levels.
To improve traditional farming methods, smart sensors are now being attached to gyroscopes, accelerators, and GPS monitors to regulate irrigation. In Sharjah, at least one organic farm is already using such sensors to measure the salinity and mineral content of farm soil to ensure optimum crop yields while reducing groundwater consumption. Scientists are also introducing new crops to the UAE climate, such as quinoa, bathua, amaranth, pearl millet, and sorghum, and genetically modifying them to grow using saltwater straight from the sea.

At the same time, UAE business leaders are investing USD5 billion in an India-UAE food corridor project over the next three years, to not only ensure food security for consumers in the Emirates, but also expand a key export market for Indian farmers.
“India's fertile land grows enough food to feed 1.2 billion people. However, 30% of the food is wasted. The UAE could bring in the required investments for mega food processing parks, huge cold storage facilities, warehousing, logistics, transport facilities, so that UAE entities can buy food when the crop comes into the market, benefitting both the UAE market and Indian farmers," said Abdulla Ahmed Al Saleh, Undersecretary for Foreign Trade and Industry at the UAE Ministry of Economy.
By bolstering crop yields and maximizing efficiency in local food production, while also securing trade deals with partners in India's large agriculture sector, state and business leaders in Sharjah are creating new business opportunities to ensure long-term food security for local consumers.