Urban agriculture: boosting self-sufficiency in the GCC

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Urban agriculture: boosting self-sufficiency in the GCC

Indoor vertical farming is changing the course of agriculture and helping to improve food security in the GCC. Omar Al Jundi, CEO and founder of Badia Farms, explains how

The UAE and other Gulf nations, such as KSA, import 80 to 90 per cent of their food. That means that out of every 10 items in your weekly grocery basket, only one or two are homegrown.

This ratio is among the highest in the world and generates significant carbon miles as the produce is imported. It also puts the UAE and the region at risk of food insecurity.

The UAE is serious about reducing its reliance on food imports and in October 2017 the government appointed Her Excellency Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Mehairi Minister of State for Future Food Security. Among Her Excellency’s responsibilities is the development of infrastructure needed to achieve food security objectives, which includes being one of the world’s most food-secure nations by 2071.

Her Excellency has visited Badia Farms ¬– the GCC’s first indoor vertical farm – to learn more about our innovation and how we can help with food security.

What we’re doing at Badia Farms is changing the course of agriculture in this part of the world. Here’s why.

Growing up: the emergence of vertical farming

Farming can be separated into three general categories – high-tech, mid-tech and primitive. Primitive is where you grow produce in a plastic greenhouse with low technology, mid-tech is where you control the temperature and humidity but only in the winter months. High-tech automates the whole process by integrating a centralized computer system to manage the environment inside a greenhouse. At Badia Farms, we take this one step further by growing indoors in fully closed rooms. This is ideal for our region with its harsh climate and limited water resources. Only through high-tech farming can you grow all year round.

We can control the temperature, humidity, lighting and more, but controlling all of that at once is difficult – and expensive. That’s why no one has done it, until now.

Modern farming involves growing indoors in high-tech greenhouses, and that could be horizontal or vertical. Horizontal farming, typically in glass greenhouses, is most common in North America and Europe where there is limited sunlight and where greenhouses have to be heated. Here in the UAE, we have consistent sunlight all year round which generates other issues, such as high temperature and high humidity. We have had to implement other methods, other structures, and other forms to make it successful and viable.

We chose to farm inside a warehouse in the Al Quoz area in Dubai. We were drawn to vertical farming because we believed that by adapting commercial horticulture technology into vertical growing, we could grow gourmet crops efficiently all year round despite the harsh conditions. Vertical farming also makes the best use of space as we grow on a rack system by the cubic meter and not the square meter.

In addition, growing in a closed environment means we can optimize the growing seasons to fit the plant’s needs. This in effect gives the plants a seven-star growing facility, which increases the yield and the flavour. Lettuce, for example, has three to four cycles out in the open field, but here we have up to 12 per year.

Making better use of natural resources

Another very important factor, especially in the desert, is water scarcity. Traditional farming methods typically consume big volumes of water. Unfortunately the water used, can’t be recycled.

At Badia Farms, through our innovative designs, we reuse the water given to plants. The same amount of water that was used once to irrigate the plants in traditional farming is reused up to 10 times in our farm. With our soil-less hydroponic setup, we are able to recycle at least 90 per cent of the water because of the closed system. The plants take what they need during the irrigation cycle and the water returns to a holding tank where it is disinfected, checked for mineral nutrient levels and then recycled. This system allows us to create different nutrient ‘recipes’ for each type of plant, so every plant is getting exactly what it needs to grow during each growth stage.

Another benefit is the lack of the use of pesticides. We are proud to say our gourmet crops are pesticide-free. However, we still take precautions to limit the risk of contamination. For example, anyone who enters the facility uses an air shower to remove up to 80 per cent of potential contaminants.

From Saudi Arabia to the UAE

I’m from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and I moved to the UAE five years ago. In the GCC, we are dependent on other countries for the basic necessities of life, and we need to find solutions to help ourselves, and become less dependent on imports.

When I realized my passion lies in farming, I began researching the subject and took courses in both Holland and the USA. During this time, I met many growers who claimed to know how to grow commercially. Unfortunately none had real commercial experience. I was fortunate to read about Grahame Dunling and the work he was doing in Bahrain at the time. When I met him in person, I realized he is the right partner to begin this venture. Being a fourth generation grower he brings an exceptional wealth of knowledge and experience, which is extremely rare to find. Together, we assembled the right team for the project, and began innovating and building our intellectual property, which were essential for the success of the farm.

From the onset, we realised this would not be an easy project and many have failed in setting up similar projects. Our desire to support the UAE and to provide a viable solution to the region’s food security issues has been our driving force.

Grahame and I developed an innovative design of the facility to ensure the most efficient, cost-effective way to develop this concept to be compatible with the UAE environment.

Trial and error: practice makes perfect

We started testing different seeds with a range of high-tech methodologies to obtain the desired quality and varieties. These were then trialled with chefs and potential customers to confirm the market opportunity.

We initially engaged a few five-star chefs to develop our product range. We focused on introducing new hybrid varieties, which were available in Europe, but never grown in the UAE, varieties such as cinnamon basil, lemon basil, and chocolate mint.

It took us 18 months of innovating and testing to put up our grow systems and record our first sale in December 2017.

Looking ahead: shaping the future of agriculture

We started our venture with a vertical farm, with plans to expand in other forms of farming. Currently we are growing a wide range of leafy greens and herbs.

Our next project will be to expand into horizontal sustainable farming, which will allow us to grow vine crops. We will be able to grow them all year round with consistent quality. The UAE government is doing a lot to help this industry. Her Excellency Al Mehairi has initiated a program, Agcelerator, to promote the adoption of sustainable agricultural technologies of Controlled Environment Agriculture in the UAE. This initiative is designed to support entrepreneurs, technology enthusiasts, and investors to help resolve challenges and shape the future of agriculture regionally and globally.

The UAE’s business environment is excellent as the government is extremely supportive. It is a progressive country and the only place in the world where the private sector is playing catch-up to the government sector. The leaders here are also very accessible, helpful and assist in resolving any obstacle that we might face.

For now, the facility is up and running and as the technology advances, and we gain more experience in this field, new varieties will be introduced and costs will go down.

I believe we are changing the course of agriculture in the region, moving in the direction of self-sufficiency. Across the industry we need to implement high-tech solutions and grow all year round. We need to stop using pesticides, and ensure proper use of our natural resources, starting with water.

For Badia Farms and the wider industry, this is just the beginning. Regionally, we have not scratched the surface of the potential of modern farming and, in particular, vertical farming. Vertical farming globally is still in its infancy. There is massive room for growth in terms of technology, growing models, and plant varieties.

Right now we are at step one. Step 10 could be growing rice and wheat indoors.

Featuring an Innovation Summit, International Culinary League and Startup Programme, Gulfood is held at Dubai World Trade Centre from 17 – 21 February 2019.

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