New innovations are promising to feed the world in an increasingly challenging environment
Row upon row of climate-controlled, hydroponic greenhouses stand on the land surrounding Dubai. Using a combination of clever cooling, nutrient-rich water, and data-driven management, they grow crops like bell peppers, chillies, eggplants, and tomatoes. The greenhouses enable farming on land that wouldn’t be suitable for conventional agriculture. But they’re also more efficient than traditional farming. “The main benefit of a hydroponic farm is its ability to reduce water consumption by up to 95%,” says Alexander Kappes, CEO of Dubai-based Greener Crop, which operates hydroponic farms across the GCC.
The company is even looking at weaving solar panels into the greenhouses’ shade nets to make the farms as self-sufficient and sustainable as possible. The global population continues to swell amidst an increasingly challenging climate. Greener Crop is part of a technology revolution that is sweeping agriculture in a bid to bolster food security. But there’s a reason the company emerged in Dubai.
Environment For Innovation The UAE’s National Food Security Strategy 2051 aims to make it the most food-secure nation in the world by mid-century. It already climbed to 23rd from 35th between 2021 and 2022 on the Economist Impact Global Food Security Index. The policy dovetails with the UAE’s Year of Sustainability in the run-up to hosting the COP28 climate summit in November, where attendees are due to present food security plans announced at COP27. A key pillar of the food security strategy is a dramatic escalation of domestic food production – leading to a range of government support, such as subsidies and incentives, that works alongside Dubai’s robust private funding ecosystem: the emirate is home to one-third of MENA investors.
This robust funding and policy support combines with Dubai’s natural advantages to create a uniquely fertile environment for agriculture technology (agtech) innovators.
“We have such phenomenal conditions here [in Dubai],” says Kappes. “We have a lot of sunshine. We have a lot of land. And with the subsidies and support from the government, the cost of setting up a farm is very low.”
And those conditions are already yielding some of the world’s leading agtech projects, promising to both bolster food security while reducing agriculture’s environmental impact.
The Technology Of Farming
Dubai’s agtech ecosystem is especially strong on controlled environment indoor farming. Alongside hydroponic greenhouses, the emirate is home to one of the world’s largest vertical farms.
Standing near Al Maktoum International Airport, Bustanica is operated by Emirates Crop One – a partnership between U.S. vertical farming company Crop One and Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC). The enormous facility houses 330,000 sq. ft. of controlled farm environment, with rows of leafy greens stacked on top of the other.
Bustanica produces up to 3,000kg of produce per day, without using pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals. It uses 95% less water than conventional agriculture and it harnesses advanced digital technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI) to optimize growing conditions.
Similar technology is employed by Greener Crop – Microsoft’s GrowthX Accelerator is a lead investor – which Kappes says is essential to future food security: “If we can make farming 20-30% more efficient, that’s 20-30% fewer farms we need to build.” Other innovations include Dubai startup Desert Control’s revolutionary liquid clay technology, which transforms desert into fertile land; the exploration of crops like sea asparagus that grow more easily in the emirate; and the development of alternative proteins. There is doubtless more to come. Launching in 2024, Food Tech Valley is an 18 million sq. ft. ‘agtech city’ that will house a complete food ecosystem under one roof: production, business, research and development, and logistics.
The latter capitalizes on Dubai’s position as a major global trading hub and gateway between east and west – equally vital for shoring up the world’s food supplies. Diversifying Food Sources Food security is multi-dimensional. While agtech is a primary driver, a diversity of sources is still the surest path to resilience – for filling gaps in domestic production, and when times are tough. That’s why the UAE’s food security strategy also calls for diversifying its own international food suppliers and facilitating greater global trade. A recent example of the strategy in action is Dubai International Chamber’s work with Nhimbe – one of Zimbabwe’s largest fruit exporters – to establish exports into the emirate, as well as supporting re-exports to Asian markets, using Dubai for trans-shipments. Partnerships like these will only expand as part of the Dubai Economic Agenda “D33”, which aims to make Dubai a top five global logistics hub.
The Future Of Food Security The world has never needed innovation more to secure the global food supply. With its combination of policy support, funding opportunities, and network effect, Dubai has created an agricultural ecosystem that deftly combines mission imperative with business opportunity. It’s an ecosystem that is already yielding solutions that may come to feed the world far into the future.