It’s like a scene from a sci-fi movie: purple UV lights and bare-rooted plants hanging from metal racks controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) – welcome to the future of the UAE’s food security: hydroponics, the method of growing plants without soil.
“The fact that we have all-year round harvests is a great step towards supporting this,” Robert Fellows, Bustanica Farms’ Production Director, tells Frankly. “It’s not like traditional farming where you can only grow certain products at a certain time of year – we have versatility and can change to alternative products when required – such as strawberries, for example.”
Bustanica Farms is a joint-venture by Emirates Airline and Emirates Crop One. Set up in July this year, it sources food locally and provides the airline with fresh products, in addition to providing produce to retail platforms Noon, Talabat, Lulu Hypermarket, Union Co-op and Choithrams.
With a little help from my AI friends
Unlike traditional farming, hydroponic-produced plants are aligned vertically on multiple shelves throughout an indoor space, hence the term ‘vertical farming.’
It typically involves using ultraviolet light from LEDs, 95% less water than traditional farming, no soil, and no herbicides or pesticides.
In the ‘growth chamber,’ where the plants are kept, AC units are set between 24-26 degrees, and plant seeds are placed in a foam substrate membrane made out of biodegradable material.
Plants are then put in trays where nutrient-infused water at a pre-determined pH level is dispersed to each plant. Attached to each tray are ultraviolet light strips that act as a surrogate for natural sunlight to give the crops the necessary light needed to grow. After that, nature takes its course.
The energy consumption justifies the yield
So far, the UAE has 1,000 operating hydroponic farms, according to AStechnologies tech solutions, which means it comes as no surprise that the industry is expected to grow to $58 billion by 2023, according to research company Future Market Insights.
While hydroponics currently requires more energy than regular farming, the results justify the consumption, which is also expected to be reduced over time, according to Professor Chair of Decision Sciences and Economics Hassan Zeineddine at the American University in Dubai.
“There is an exponential relationship you can achieve in two stories with the technology in hydroponics. You don’t double your produce, you actually multiply by a hundred, maybe, in a small area of land, given the technology being used,” he says.
“Although a small hydroponics farm might need more energy to operate than planting things horizontally, overtime, technology will improve and the energy consumption will be reduced. Plus, the high yield will justify the energy being used,” Zeineddine adds.
Moreover, due to the UAE’s hot climate and arid lands, traditional farming methods are proving to be less sustainable.
The UAE’s agriculture industry accounts for over 80% of all water consumption, according to the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai, yet it generates only 20% of locally consumed produce.
The majority of food supplies in the UAE – 80% to be exact – are also dependent on imports, while water resources are decreasing at an annual rate of 0.5%, according to thinktank EcoMENA.
Show me the (investment) money
With import dependency and the Russia-Ukraine war looming over food security, the UAE has intensified its investment into hydroponics and vertical farming, with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) investing $100 million in four agtech companies.
The country aims to reach its National Food Security Strategy of “eradicating hunger, practicing more effective agricultural methods, enhancing food production and producing nutritious food year-round” by 2051.
Hydroponics is served
Major hotels like Marriott International and The Ritz Carlton in Dubai have already implemented hydroponics into their establishments.
“From a chef’s perspective, we are always looking for the freshest product,” says Chef Tobias Pfister from The Ritz-Carlton. “Being in Dubai, this is bearing some challenges because we have to import everything from overseas. So, looking into salads, micro greens, leaves – they are generally traveling 2-3 days until they’re actually reaching my loading bay.
“With this being said, they’re losing a lot of nutrition. There is a fair amount of wastage throughout the travel journey because there is some clear spoilage. I have the right consumption, so, my property has the right size to consume about 10 kilos of crops a day – the whole scenario just fit my operation,” he tells Frankly.
In December last year, Pfister joined hands with hydroponics farm GCAF to produce eight to ten kilos of fresh produce daily, and which is grown overnight on their on-site farm at the hotel’s JBR property. The farm is houses plants such as thyme, rosemary, basil, lettuce, and kale. In addition, GCAF is working towards producing tomatoes, peppers, and other fruits.
Bustanica Farms, which currently has 27 growing rooms that produce 3,000 kilos of leafy greens daily at full capacity, relies heavily on AI to monitor its farms.
“The farm uses solar panel energy for our systems to run,” says Production Manager Aaron Moore. “When something fluctuates, the system – comprised of AI – will tell us what the problem is and we can fix it. The plants are constantly being monitored and the data is always being used – it never stops running.”
It seems the UAE’s ambition to ensure food security for its people will never stop running either.