With limited land and water resources, innovation is key to boosting agricultural output

Historically, the development of agriculture in Abu Dhabi has been driven in large part by government investment and support, including the provision of free water and infrastructure, and subsidies for inputs. This approach continues today, with the government playing an important role through organisations such as the Abu Dhabi Farmers Services Centre (ADFSC) and the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA). In its 2012 policy document for the sector, ADFCA describes itself as a “catalyst to build a sustainable production base, providing targeted assistance as necessary”, noting that with the exception of some large-scale producers, most farmers in the emirate have not been able to invest to increase production capacity.

Funding Farms & Farmers

While the ADFCA has stepped in to provide some investment to maximise local food production capacity and maintain farmers’ standards of living without having them become dependent on social welfare, there are many exceptions to this rule and signs that private investment in the sector is on the rise. The ADFCA cites Al Ain Dairy as an example of a local operator investing in capacity increases. The aquaculture sector has also attracted a significant amount of private investment in recent years. For example, Asmak International is building an on-land salmon farm with a capacity of 4000 tonnes per annum in the emirate at an estimated cost of around Dh100m ($27.2m), which will be the first of its kind in the Gulf. In November 2014 the firm said that the new 500, 000-sq-metre farm would be open within a year at most. It is also working on seabream and hammour ( orange-spotted grouper) farm offshore, near Delma Island.

Innovation

Government entities play an important role in local research and development (R&D) initiatives. In its 2012 policy document, ADFCA calls for R&D to be prioritised and suggests the establishment of a specific strategy for it that could be revised yearly.

Hydroponics – that is, soil-free farming, which offers the important advantage for the emirate of water savings of up to 70% – is emerging as a particular area of interest. Nasser Al Junaibi, the ADFSC’s chief financial officer, told OBG that the centre would launch a hydroponics project in the near future, which he said could help fill a gap in supply from farms in the emirate over the summer. A Dh100m ($27.2m) fund launched by the ADFSC in December 2013 also focuses in part on promoting the technology (see overview).

“The introduction of hydroponics could have a major impact on agriculture in Abu Dhabi, as production under the technology is high in both quantity and quality,” Al Junaibi said, adding that the technology has already been tested by some farms in Al Ain. “The results were very positive and suggest that the technology can be commercially viable here,” he said. In February 2014 the federal Ministry of Environment and Water launched an initiative to promote the use of the technology.

Private firms are also implementing new technologies to address some of the key agricultural challenges. For example, to tackle the problem of sandy soil, which leads to the rapid loss of water, the Al Ain-based Desalt Innovation Middle East has developed a form of sand that can be made water-resistant through the use of an additive, allowing it to act as a base layer under soil that gives plants more time to absorb water. The firm argues this works better than plastic sheeting used for the same purpose as it is permeable to gases. Local firm JBA Agritech has also developed a hydroponics-inspired form of agriculture it calls “aquaponics” to grow vegetables and tilapia fish in the same greenhouses.

Tech Use

Investors in growing agricultural segments are deploying advanced technologies. For example, Asmak International will use a recirculation aquaculture system (RAS) at its planned 4000-tpa salmon farm. RAS is a relatively new technology that allows fish farms to use comparatively small amounts of water and also facilitates on-shore farming, reducing environmental risks such as the spread of disease from farmed fish to their wild brethren. In light of such projects, it is quite fitting that the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture is set to be held in Abu Dhabi in March 2015.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2015

Agriculture chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2015

Cover of The Report: Abu Dhabi 2015

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