While the coronavirus pandemic has flagged up the world’s reliance on globalisation and international travel, it also highlighted something far more crucial – the importance of food security.
A global race is underway to address this issue and the UAE has thrown down a challenge to all-comers to come up with answers. Two British companies are now in the running to win a share of a $1 million prize from the UAE FoodTech Challenge, a competition that aims to find agritech solutions to the food security issues that plague the globe.
Lincolnshire-based Jones Food Company (JFC), which operates Europe’s largest vertical farm, while London’s SafetyNet Technologies, which has developed an LED-equipped netting system to help fishermen avoid snaring certain species with their catch, are among 12 finalists competing for the prize on November 17 and 18. More than 435 entrants from 68 countries entered the contest.
Pioneers of the technological revolution in farming believe that bringing agriculture indoors allows a number of advances including control of the environment. In countries where the climate may not be conducive to growing this means a supply of fresh produce all year, regardless of the outdoor conditions.
Since the facility is completely self-contained, there is no need for pesticide or herbicide, with produce grown using hydroponic technology, without soil and with 95 per cent less water used than in traditional farming – ideal for the UAE.
“What we saw in the UAE is a combination of factors which made domestic farming for certain produce quite tricky – the climate, the lack of stable arable land, and the kind of high urban levels, with the populations concentrated in urban areas,” said Will Parry of Jones Food Company on the decision to enter the FoodTech Challenge.
“We see vertical farming as a prime solution to these issues where you can supply super-fresh produce within a few days to a growing urban population. So we saw the UAE as the perfect partner for us, but we didn't have any boots on the ground there and this competition is a great way to learn about the market and … build relationships in order to help us launch into the country.”
Increasing the UAE's self-sufficiency, indigenous food production capabilities and reducing food waste are key priorities for the country's government, which unveiled its food security strategy in 2018. It aims to produce 60 per cent more food by 2051 and halve the amount of food wasted each year by 2030.
Like many desert nations, the UAE has limited access to fresh water and only 1 per cent of its land is arable, meaning the country faces significant hurdles in producing food to sustain its rapidly expanding population.
With the UAE importing between 80 to 90 per cent of its food, according to the FoodTech Challenge, and the country’s average temperate expected to increase by 2.5 Celsius by 2050, food production faces a number of difficulties.
"When we launched the challenge over a year ago, we could never have anticipated the situation we find ourselves in today," said Mariam Almheiri, minister of state for food and water security, which is hosting the competition with Abu Dhabi company Tamkeen.
"The Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on global food chains has reiterated the need for us to reduce our reliance on food imports and to find new ways of producing food, with technology-enabled home farming being one particular area of promise."
SafetyNet Technologies, another UK finalist, said the UAE’s mission aligns with its own bid to create technology that can help a growing global population that’s dependent on fish as a primary source of protein.
“The UAE is a really large market and they eat double the average of the global consumption of fish, so it's quite a high fish-consuming country,” said Nadia Laabs, co-founder and chief operating officer at the company.
“Their fisheries sector has been growing year on year. I think this is one area where we would like to be able to help them harvest the ocean sustainably and responsibly feed the growing population.”
Not yet active in the UAE, JFC is a UK-grown business that started operations in 2016 when founder James Lloyd-Jones saw a television programme about vertical farming.
After carrying out some research, Mr Lloyd-Jones concluded that in order for the venture to work, he had to build the biggest farm he could, which he did in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire.
Today, the farm is the largest in Europe with 4,000 square metres of growing space, the equivalent of 26 tennis courts, which is capable of growing between 50 to 100 tonnes of herbs and leafy greens a year.
“What you have is an extremely land-efficient, resource-efficient, indoor environment that can control the growing conditions with absolute precision in order to create the best product possible,” said Mr Parry.
He said JFC’s concept would help the UAE reduce its reliance on international imports because the farm can grow at scale and at volume, which would drastically reduce food miles.
Like British consumers, UAE shoppers increasingly like to buy food that has not travelled a long way and with the pandemic disrupting supply chains “in a way we’ve never seen before”, the need for vertical farming has never been more obvious, said Mr Parry.
While the UAE already has a handful of vertical farms in operation, Mr Parry says JFC has an advantage as it can build large farms that measure up to 10,000 square metres.
“Scale is a key part in terms of fulfilling large retail contracts and serving significant chunks of the population,” he said.
The company, which plans to open a second UK facility next year in an undisclosed location, also has the muscle of British online supermarket Ocado, which last year became the lead investor in JFC, taking the total the company has raised so far to around £10 million.
“They really are the leader on grocery automation, logistics, engineering and construction and we have that muscle behind us," said Mr Parry. "There really are no other vertical farm builders that bring all that to the table.”
If JFC won the contest, Mr Parry said the company would use the money to help start up its UAE arm, with Abu Dhabi a good fit initially and the focus set to be on leafy greens such as kale, pak choi and lettuce as well as herbs.
For SafetyNet Technologies, a company started in 2011 by Dan Watson, the journey to the UAE has taken a little longer.
Mr Watson was studying design engineering at Glasgow University when he was asked to design a solution for a recurrent global issue. After reading about Norwegian fishermen being fined for discarding fish they didn’t want from their catch, he came across scientific papers from the 1970s where scientists noticed interesting behavioural responses from fish to light.
He contacted scientists that were looking at light as a bycatch mitigation – a technique used to reduce the catch of non-target species – and started developing tools for that.
“The initial prototype was a hardware that would fit into the nets and was literally a ring that lit up,” said Ms Laabs.
Today that device has evolved into Pisces, a product designed with UK fisheries that uses different frequency, intensity and polarisation of light to attract or repel species of fish, depending on what fishermen want to catch.
“Right now about one in 10 fish that are caught are actually the wrong fish,” said Ms Laabs. “They could either be juvenile, an endangered species or just non-market species that can’t be sold easily.”
With stricter fishing regulations in the EU, the US and elsewhere, Ms Laabs said fishermen must now land all the fish they catch rather than throw them overboard.
“So this leads to over 9 million tonnes of fish being discarded each year that are currently caught wrongly," she said.
Using a precision fishing product that only catches the desired species reduces waste, as applying light technology can reduce the bycatch by up to 90 per cent.
Like JFC, SafetyNet has not entered the UAE market but is operating in the UK, across parts of the EU, South America and Southeast Asia.
The company, which raised £1.1m last year from three investment organisations, rolled out the Pisces product in March at the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
However, within days SafetyNet was forced to send its 10 London employees to work from home during the lockdown, even furloughing some staff over the summer.
"Given that the sales weren't turning out as we'd hoped and given the market downturn, furlough was one of the options we agreed on as a company for cost saving," said Ms Laabs.
SafetyNet, which sells hardware kits to major supermarkets and fisheries, initially projected sales of 100 units by the end of the year, but so far the tally is four.
The company operates on a service model, as it regularly configures the device depending on what the fisheries want to catch.
Both SatefyNet and JFC will pitch their solutions during a two-day online final ceremony on November 17 and 18, with four winners sharing the prize fund and receiving a place with a UAE-run accelerator programme to help them bring their companies to the UAE market.
For SafetyNet this offers the chance to test its technology on fish native to the UAE, such as Spanish mackerel, emperors and groupers.
"We’d like to perform some of our trials there to see how effective they can be for those markets and then hopefully be able to supply the relevant fisheries as well," said Ms Laabs.