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Why the GCC and Britain are collaborating for food security

Why the GCC and Britain are collaborating for food security

The GCC states have launched agritech programmes and are working to facilitate global agribusiness trade and diversify international food sources

Jones Food Company

As the Gulf region looks to beef up its food security strategy amid the coronavirus pandemic, the UK is seeking to outsource its farming expertise to Middle Eastern shores.

In a region that imports up to 90 per cent of its food, policy makers are leveraging global agritech innovation across robotics, big data, engineering, water management and farm science to optimise scarce natural resources as the population expands.

The UAE is leading the charge for the Gulf’s uniquely ambitious and forward-looking agritech strategy.

According to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, the pandemic has highlighted the need for the UAE to make its food and water security strategy a “top priority”.

“Ensuring the nation is self-sustainable and able to protect its resources is key to its development in the post-coronavirus age. The pandemic has given us a better view and a bigger ability to deal with challenges,” he recently said.

Countries across the region are working to facilitate global agribusiness trade and diversify international food sources, as well as beefing up technology-enabled domestic food supplies and reducing food waste.

The GCC states have already launched innovative agritech programmes amid global threats such as climate change and more localised challenges, such as high temperatures and scarce water resources.

One such project is Oman’s Sohar University Greenhouse project, delivered in partnership with the UK’s University of Sheffield. The 150sqm renewable energy-powered greenhouse enables horticultural production amid arid climes by utilising a unique foam growth system and a solar evaporation-based desalination system.

“The two countries are working together to come up with sustainable, affordable agritech solutions that will benefit the community and the world,” said Sohar University vice-chancellor, Barry Winn.

Innovation is key

As the Middle East ramps up its food production goals, the GCC is increasingly working together with stakeholders in the UK to tackle regional resource scarcity challenges.

The global agritech sector is set to be worth more than £136bn globally by 2025, according to Agri-Epi Centre. British farmers are drawing on breakthroughs in genetics, insect protein, remote sensing, vertical farming, and data analysis to make systems more efficient, by reducing inputs and maximising yields and profits.

According to Damian Malins, venturing projects director at UK-based Fera Science – an agriculture, food and environment research and consulting company with over 350 scientists – “Coronavirus has highlighted how our food is dependent on complex global supply chains and how easily these chains can be broken. Thus, shortening and simplifying these chains by building regional and national self-sufficiency is a top priority for governments. For the GCC, the climate presents particular challenges and comes with specific risks.”

Fera works works primarily with governments and industry in support of plant health and biosecurity, food safety and authenticity and environmental sustainability.

It is working with several Gulf countries to support the design of an alternative animal feed ecosystem that is sustainable.

“With concerns growing over the unsustainable global sourcing of soya for animal protein, many are looking for alternatives. One high potential area is to use insects to convert organic waste residues, such as food waste, into insect protein that can be used as animal feed. We are working with partners and governments to ensure these new technologies are safely administered,” Malins said.

“From what we see today it is very apparent that the Gulf is deeply committed to ensuring the sustainability and safety of its food chain,” Malins concluded.

British agritech expertise

UK universities have long worked closely with industry to translate agricultural research, innovations and new technologies into commercial propositions to meet demands from farmers and agri-businesses.

Several UK agritech suppliers are already active in the Middle East. UK-based Jones Food Company (JFC), which operates the largest vertical farm in Europe with over 5,000sqm of growing space, is poised to ink a number of long-term partnerships across the region.

JFC’s unique hydroponics systems use renewable energy and 95 per cent less water than traditional farms.

Agritech

According to David Gregory, chief operating officer at Welsh data science and machine-learning company, Agxio, British-sourced technology could be key to solving the Gulf’s food challenges in the coming years.

“Addressing the global food supply chain instability is at the core of what we do,” he said. “The Gulf region – and the rest of the world – has finite natural resources that need to be here for a long time.

“Life sciences, biotech and agricultural industries have been dramatically transformed through the availability of large volumes of data through IoT innovation and advances in technologies. We view the Middle East as an important next-stage market,” said Gregory.

Agxio’s agritech solutions include a machine-learning engine, which can self-programme and optimise farming models, as well as a genetic analysis engine, which can monitor animal bio markers, optimise livestock lifespan and monitor disease prevalence.

‘Amazon’ for farmers

David Bouvier, global business development manager at UK and Ireland-based farming products suppliers, Agrihealth, said his firm is already “very active” in the Gulf region, taking orders for the region’s growing collection of vertical and high-intensity farms.

“We are like the Amazon for farms. We can offer expertise about what to buy and how to use the products,” Bouvier said. “The Gulf operates some very large-scale farms, so it can be important to bulk-buy and cut out the middleman.”

Agrihealth already supplies major UAE and Saudi Arabian farms, and now has designs on Qatar and Kuwait.

“The region has shown incredible foresight in its desire for food security and we see a huge opportunity to offer our expertise,” Bouvier said.

“The population is growing, so it’s important for the region to be self-sufficient in every aspect. We see our business growing exponentially in the Middle East.”

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