Special focus: How the UAE is leading the charge in food security

There’s something remarkable growing in the desert – it’s a brand new style of farming



Scottish salmon traditionally thrive in chilly waters. If you eat the Highland delicacy in a restaurant in Dubai, it has probably been farmed, frozen and flown nearly 6,000km. Or at least, it was – until a few months ago. Now, you can buy fresh salmon farmed in Jebel Ali.

“When people hear about it, they think we are bluffing,” says Bader Mubarak, the CEO of Fish Farm LLC who comes from a line of Emirati fishermen that stretches back several generations.

“The best thing is when they see the fish, and you see their faces.” Bader’s story sounds just as improbable as the plot of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an award-winning novel by Paul Torday which inspired a movie by the same name, starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. In that story, an Arab sheikh dreams about introducing the sport of fly fishing to the Yemeni desert. And while Fish Farm does have a rather important backer – Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – that is where the similarities end.

To start with, no one is going fishing. The salmon are farmed indoors, in massive circular pools, controlled by computers. This Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) enables the company to control every element of the watery habitat – from the temperature, to the food supply, the ph and salinity. It’s a closed system, so there are no nasties like microplastics, or pests like sea-lice, so when marketed, the fish are considered ‘better’ than organic.

“It’s pretty unique,” explains Nigel Lewis, the aquaculture and technical manager at Fish Farm. “Salmon have never been grown to market size in a RAS system outside their normal cold water habitat. We can grow anything you like, anywhere you like, as long as you have a modest amount of water – 97 per cent [of it] is being recirculated.”

The company already successfully farms sea-bream, sea-bass, shrimp, hamour and sashimi-grade yellow tail kingfish, and they’re looking for funding to expand. This is a capital intensive style of farming. The outlay at first is huge compared to outdoor cages, and Bader says they could not have done it without Sheikh Hamdan.

“If we would have presented [this] to any normal investor, he definitely would have refused the project, but the courage His Highness had, and the encouragement – it motivated us and alhammdulillah, we reached what no one expected – salmon in the desert,” he says.

Now the company has turned a corner, and the farm is proving itself to be commercially viable. After a several years of growing the fish, they are now selling for a high price in supermarkets and restaurants. The UAE’s chefs are happy to pay top dirham for a tasty, traceable, fresh product, and transport costs are, for obvious reasons, very low. However this is not just about making money. Fish Farm plans to revolutionise fish consumption in the UAE.

“Food security is our first priority after being profitable” Bader explains, “The strategy of His Highness is to replace the need for imported fish.” If you consider that the UAE currently imports 92 per cent of its fish, this sounds impossible in the near-term, but Nigel insists the “blue revolution” is well underway.

“The financial world is embracing RAS systems. Just to keep ahead of population growth – aquaculture has to double, because there’s less fish in the wild. In arid countries like this where it’s difficult to produce food – it ticks boxes, it doesn’t use fresh water, it has a low carbon footprint, and fish are an efficient producer of protein – they grow fast.”

Public sector push

Food security is a relatively new preoccupation in the UAE – the Ministry for Future Food Security was only set up two years ago. The country actually ranks reasonably highly in the Global Food Security Index – it’s stands at number 31, but the government wants to be in the top 10 by 2021.

It is not going to be easy. Currently, 90 per cent of all the food in the country is imported, and the UAE is located in a volatile part of the world, meaning supply chains though numerous, are vulnerable. The population is expected to increase from 9 million now, to 11.5 million by 2025, and fresh fruit and vegetables are already much more expensive than in Europe or the US.

The Ministry is determined to improve food production, but arable land is scarce, and water supplies are dwindling. Clearly the desert is not an easy place to farm, so high tech agriculture is being singled out as one of the solutions.

“There are lots of facilities now and they’re all adopting technology to grow food,” explains Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Mehairi, the Minister of State for Future Food Security.

“If we as a government can enable the eco-system for the private sector to invest their money and grow food then that’s the way to go. We want to become a hub for technology when it comes to hot arid regions – [and for] things like biotechnology, seed technologies and gene editing.”

Last summer, the ministry ran a 100 day AGcelerator, designed to resolve the challenges facing the sector. Entrepreneurs, financiers, and farmers brainstormed the problems and come up with pragmatic solutions.

The Ministry acted quickly on the recommendations, creating new agtech zones, bank codes and permits. Then in March this year, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces announced Dhs1bn in agtech incentives. These government initiatives are already attracting international investors, many of whom are eyeing up home-grown success stories.

For example last year, the US company Crop One signed a $40m deal with Emirates Flight Catering to build the biggest vertical farm in the world. Once it is built, it might be the largest, but it will not be the first in the UAE.

That accolade goes to Badia Farms – a privately owned company located deep in Dubai’s industrial district of Al Quoz. The ‘farm’ looks like a nondescript warehouse, but inside the vacuum-sealed door, far away from the searing desert sun, delicate leafy greens are growing under artificial LEDs. There’s no soil – the plants are growing hydroponically in a mixture of nutrients dissolved in water. The exact feed recipe is a closely-kept secret, as is the design of the lights, which glow pink in the gloom.

The CEO is Omar Al Jundi, a Saudi Arabian entrepreneur who started Badia Farms with private money only three years ago. Now they’re making $55,000 a month supplying dozens of Dubai’s top restaurants, along with several upmarket supermarkets. The produce is delicious – crisp and crunchy salad leaves, tasty micro-greens and fragrant herbs, all grown and harvested minutes away from where they’ll be eaten.

Demand for Badia Farms’ produce currently outstrips supply. “We’ve created a market,” Al Jundi explains, “It’s like the iPhone – people didn’t know what they wanted until we gave it to them.”

Costs are kept low, thanks to automated sowing, growing and watering systems. The LED lighting systems does not draw much power, and during the summer, when the humidity is high, the farm is water positive, as it draws more from the air, than the plants need to grow. The farm never uses pesticides.

“I tell chefs not to bother washing the leaves,” insists Grahame Dunling, the COO and horticultural brains behind Badia Farms. “There’s no soil, no pathogens, no nematodes, no weed seeds. It’s cleaner than organic.”

Expansion plans loom large on the horizon – both in the UAE and abroad. The company is currently in talks with a strategic partner for Series A funding of $10m to build a new farm 30 times the size of their current grow area. They are also planning to grow other crops vertically under LEDS – something that has never been done before commercially. For professional grower Dunling, this facility proves that vertical farming is not just sustainable, but scalable: “We can put our farms anywhere in the world. This is just the beginning of a food revolution in the GCC.”

POWERED NATURALLY

One hundred kilometres away, in the middle of the desert, another ambitious project is bearing fruit. Pure Harvest Smart Farms was founded in October 2016 and is backed by a government fund, technology partners and angel investors including Careem founder Magnus Olsson. It is also a hydroponic facility, but instead of using artificial lights, their international team of farmers is harnessing the power of the sun to grow tomatoes all year round.

Outside their 7,000 square metre greenhouse, the mercury is climbing to 43 degrees, and the humidity is hovering around 80 per cent. Indoors it feels like a summer day in northern Europe. Bees buzz noisily as they drift from plant to plant. Bundles of tomatoes hang heavily from thick vines – ripening in the sunlight.

The facility is incredibly sophisticated, and completely sealed from the outside world. No pesticides are used – instead a type of ladybird called a macrolophus is introduced to naturally control white fly, and thousands of bumble-bees are imported from Holland to pollinate the flowers.

Visitors have to go through an air-shower, disinfect their shoes and put on protective clothing before they are allowed to enter.

Every element of the climate is carefully controlled by artificial intelligence to encourage optimum growing conditions. Carbon dioxide is dosed into the air, the temperature and humidity is adjusted, even the glass is specially designed to optimise the light, and every tomato vine is fed the perfect amount of nutrient rich solution each day. As a consequence, the yields are incredibly high.

The CEO of Pure Harvest Smart Farms is Sky Kurtz, a technologist and venture capitalist from Arizona in the USA. He’s convinced the UAE is a great place to farm – despite the inhospitable climate.

“Think about what you need to farm profitably; sunlight, CO2, power, land, labour, water and taxation. Sun – we have an abundance of light. CO2 – we’re the hydrocarbon capital of the planet.

“Energy – we have an abundance of cheap sustainable energy from solar power, let alone other forms of energy. Land is cheap and abundant, labour is cheap and fluid, and Abu Dhabi has a 0 per cent corporate tax rate for 50 years. So when you go down that cost structure, very counter-intuitively [the UAE] is one of the best places in the world to farm.”

The futuristic greenhouse was expensive to build, and in the summer it has to be cooled – but Kurtz still insists this style of farming is sustainable.

“We’re doing 10 to 15 times the production of a traditional farm, and we consume less than 30 litres of water per kg of production. A traditional farm here in the UAE consumes over 260 litres of water per kg of production. The government allows these farms free access to water. That is not sustainable. And now with our ground water level depleting it’s a national security concern. So expense is relative. This is a commercial-scale proof of concept. The economics of producing this farm at scale are far, far better.”

Pure Harvest’s high quality organic tomatoes sell for much more than locally-grown produce, and they can grow all year round. As with Badia Farms’ leafy greens, demand is outstripping supply. Customers in the UAE prefer to buy local fruit and veg – partly because it costs less than imported food from Europe or the US, but also because it is more sustainable.

So far the Pure Harvest has raised $5.5m, but the company is ripe for expansion.

“This is just a pilot,” explains Majed Halawi, the company’s chief of staff. “The whole idea was to build a small facility and to learn from it. We now want a much bigger footprint in the UAE, so we can diversify into leafy greens and strawberries.”

Halawi says they are close to finalising another round of funding of between $40m and $50m, and are shovel ready, with plans for farms in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. By Q1 of 2020, they hope to harvest their first crop from the new greenhouse.

Pure Harvest is not the only player in this market – two years ago, German company BayWa teamed up with Abu Dhabi’s Al Dahra in a $45m joint venture. They are also growing tomatoes hydroponically in two climate controlled greenhouses, each covering five acres, in Al Ain.

Christiane Bell, Head of BayWa’s Global Produce Business Unit, describes the Emirates as an “extremely attractive” market, due to growing consumer enthusiasm for sustainably grown, local produce. There are constant rumours of new companies looking to establish facilities here.

CAMELS, CAMELS EVERYWHERE

This entrepreneurial enthusiasm for using climate controlled environments to grow food is not the only element in the agricultural revolution taking place in the UAE. The other ingredient is research into which crops and livestock can survive in the desert heat.

Located on a nondescript stretch of the Al Ain Road, just outside Academic City, the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) has been carrying out research into crops that can grow in arid, salty conditions for the last two decades.

It is an internationally funded, not-for profit organisation with a mandate to improve food security and nutrition around the world. The UAE is a major contributor, along with the US and Sweden.

Dr Ismahane Elouafi is the Director General of ICBA, and is not convinced that high-tech climate controlled farming is the answer – particularly in the developing world. She notes, “In the reality of things, hydroponic [farming] right now produces less than 8 per cent of the food produced worldwide.”

Instead the Centre focuses on making scientific advances in the development of drought-resistant crops which are also high in nutrition, like quinoa and pearl millet. Several local UAE farmers are already acting as pilot projects, growing a special variety of quinoa and using sophisticated sensors to reduce their water usage.

ICBA’s researchers are also excited about another plant, namely salicornia or samphire. This has potential as a desert crop thanks to its tolerance of very salty water. ICBA has commissioned chefs to develop a salicornia sports drink, citing its high electrolyte and protein content, but due to its strong, salty taste, it’s more likely to be used as animal feed or even as a biofuel.

In January Etihad Airways flew a commercial flight to Amsterdam using jet fuel blended with the fleshy plant. The Ministry for Future Food Security wants to encourage the use of this innovative crop, and in February hosted 100 local farmers at the Centre to showcase new growing-techniques and technology. One option is for regional farmers to combine aquaculture with growing the succulent flowering plant, so the crop can be fertilised with the effluent-rich waste water from the fish. ICBA has developed a successful pilot project, and Dr Elouafi says traditional farmers need to make the change.

“I always say [one needs to pair] the right crop with the right agricultural system. They have to move to other crops that are more adaptable to the region. The data shows that if they don’t [change crops], if they keep the same rate of subtraction of water, they’re going to finish their groundwater within 60 or 70 years.”

One type of farming entirely suited to the UAE is camel herding. The so-called ships of the desert were first domesticated in 3000 BC, and thanks to their unique physiognomy, they have become ubiquitous across the region. Just 10 minutes down the road from ICBA is the biggest camel farm in the world. Camelicious is owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and it is home to over 5,000 of the traditional Bedouin animals.

It is both the biggest camel farm in the world and a state-of-the-art research centre. Chief Vet, Dr Judith Juhass has been studying the animals since 2003. Prior to this no one had considered milking them commercially, despite their popularity among Bedouin communities. She believes camels could help solve the UAE’s food security concerns.

“With the proper breeding, this species is the species of the future, as a food producing animal. They survive in such a harsh environment,” she says. Camels are harder to milk than cows, but they can live outdoors in the summer heat, and continue to produce milk year-round.

In fact, their supply peaks in July and August. Unlike cows, they do not need air conditioned sheds or large amounts of water to drink – instead they live out in the open in sandy, shaded pens. This makes farming the animals highly sustainable.

Dr Juhass advocates a high standard of animal welfare, and speaks fondly of how the livestock recognise the staff. “They are very clever, they are as intelligent as horses. The [milking] parlour is a restricted area, so this is new for camels. But if you respectfully train them, they will cooperate.”

Researchers at Camelicious have discovered that the dromedaries need to be walked for an hour a day for optimum milk production, and the calves need to stay with their mothers for a year after birth. Certain camels produce more milk, and the farm has a careful breeding programme, to achieve higher yields.

Camel milk represents 3 per cent of the $360bn global dairy market, but is expanding fast – at a rate of 6.8 per cent a year, according to market research company, Technavio. Celebrity Kim Kardashian is apparently a fan, and it is considered a good alternative for people who are allergic to cow’s milk because it is low in lactose. It is also 50 per cent lower in fat, and rich in natural vitamin C and iron.

Camelicious creates an array of products, from fresh milk, to baby milk powder, ice-cream and energy drinks. Their biggest market is the Middle East, but they are making strides in Europe. The company does not yet make a profit – its focus is on proving the benefits of the Bedouin staple, and introducing it to a wider market.

Dr Juhass believes both science and tradition should work hand-in-hand, “We shouldn’t forget the camel belongs to these people, to the Arabic people and many African people. It would really be a waste to just forget about these animals as a food producing mammal.”

FUNDING ON THE RISE

Seen together these high-tech farms, pilot schemes and research projects demonstrate a paradigm shift in the UAE’s approach to farming. They are currently in the development phase, and have so far have relied on wealthy backers to get off the ground, but their track record is attracting interest from around the world.

Sky Kurtz, the CEO of Pure Harvest Smart Farms is a fervent believer: “This is the future of farming. There’s a huge boom in agricultural technology and investment. We are attracting interest from regional private equity investors, global sovereign wealth funds, and international REITS (real estate investment trusts).”

The farms have undoubtably created a market for premium, locally-grown produce in the UAE. The companies profiled here insists that millions of dollars of seed funding is set to flood into UAE agriculture before the end of this year, and with on-going government support, agtech in this desert land has the potential to bloom. Once scaled up, climate controlled farming should bring bigger profits.

Rising populations, dwindling fresh water supplies and the continued threat of global warming mean food security is pushing itself onto the agenda of desert countries and developing nations.

Questions remain as to whether high tech farming can deliver solutions and feed the masses, but soon it might not seem such a strange idea to farm fish on land, or grow tomatoes in the desert.