Interview: Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri

How can local food production be expanded while ensuring water resources are utilised sustainably?

MARIAM BINT MOHAMMED ALMHEIRI: Agriculture is the world’s thirstiest industry. In the UAE 59% of all water produced is used on agriculture. Demand in the UAE is considerably higher than in other regions because of the hot climate and low annual rainfall. Added to this, the country’s groundwater levels are dropping at a rate of 0.5 cm per year. All of this adds up to water having a particularly high value. The water, energy and food security nexuses are inextricably linked, meaning that actions in any one area usually have impacts in one or both of the others. As a result of this, ensuring water security is essential if we are to ensure food security.

To address this pressing issue, the UAE Ministry of Energy and Industry unveiled a new water security strategy in September 2017, which aims to ensure sustainable access to water during both normal and emergency conditions. Included among its objectives are a reduction in total demand for water resources by 21% and an increase in the reuse of treated water to 95%. The Water Security Strategy 2036 aims to reduce average consumption per capita by half and place a focus on sustainable practices.

Recognising that water is the region’s most precious resource, the UAE authorities are progressively shifting local production towards a controlled agriculture environment (CEA) approach by implementing agricultural technology, or ag-tech, that can reduce water consumption by 90–95% via recirculation. They have also identified that one of the best uses of water for food production is aquaculture, which is the controlled-condition farming of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic plants, algae and other organisms. The government has invested more than Dh100m ($27.2m) in this sector to develop hatcheries and fish farms, and ensure a sustainable supply of fish. Vertical farming is another water-saving farming method that is increasingly being used commercially in the country. This constitutes a sustainable food production system that involves growing plants in layered vertical stacks in a controlled indoor environment. It typically deploys artificial light, temperature control, humidity regulation and a minimal use of pesticides. This enables the vegetables to be grown in large quantities without the need for soil, sunlight or chemicals. The UAE opened the Gulf region’s first vertical farming facility in December 2017. The 8500-sq-feet farm in Dubai’s Al Quoz district currently produces 18 varieties of microgreens.

In what ways can the UAE’s agricultural sector encourage increased research and technology adoption to fulfil its food security agenda?

ALMHEIRI: The UAE is actively promoting the adoption of the latest research and technology as part of its National Food Security Strategy. The Ag-tech Accelerators project is one specific initiative. The programme aims to establish ag-tech in the UAE by introducing and fostering sustainable technologies to promote agriculture in marginal environments. It works by creating a platform that enables governments, private sector organisations, NGOs and academic institutions to work collectively and resolve challenges to the adoption of sustainable agricultural technology.

The Ag-tech Accelerators Project has two components. The first is the aforementioned aquaculture initiative and the second is the use of CEAs. This aspect of the project sees agricultural industry entrepreneurs working alongside government bodies to facilitate and provide solutions to promote CEAs. It does this by implementing an enabling business environment. Practical applications of technology already being seen in the UAE’s agricultural sector include gyroscopes, accelerators and GPS monitors employed to enhance crop production. The UAE’s National Food Security Strategy also includes a unified research and development agenda in the fields of biotechnology and bio-engineering to improve agricultural yields using minimal resources.