How AI can help produce a new crop of Emirati farmers

Exchange programmes planned with the Netherlands aim to sow interest in agriculture

Artificial intelligence systems to monitor plant health could draw more students to agricultural research. Photo: Wageningen University and Research
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The UAE is taking a leaf out of the Netherlands' book in attempting to persuade young Emiratis to take up farming by using advanced technology – including artificial intelligence – to drum up interest in the agricultural sector.

UAE professors and government officials from the environment and education ministries recently met diplomats, private companies, farmers and academics in the Netherlands to discuss food security before Cop28, which will be held in Dubai this November.

The meetings were part of a series of dialogues to gain knowledge of how the Netherlands has retained its role as the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural produce after the US.

Young people don’t want to be farmers anymore
Oscar Niezen, senior adviser at Lentiz Education Group, Netherlands

During field visits, experts from the Netherlands explained how AI, using real-time analysis of data, can monitor crop health round-the-clock.

AI systems can also help improve the quality of a harvest and detect disease in plants, with sensors providing detailed information to increase efficiency, forecast temperatures and predict the yield.

Agriculture no longer ‘old fashioned’

Leo Marcelis, professor horticulture and product physiology at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, said it was a struggle to capture the attention of young people.

“Students and young people are traditionally not so interested in agriculture because they think it’s old-fashioned,” he said.

“But when they see new technology, they say, ‘Wow, this is innovation.’

“The young take sustainability really seriously and it attracts them to come here to study.

“With international collaboration we can ensure food is produced for people in the whole world in a sustainable way.”

Ranked among the world’s top agricultural research institutes, the university is known for cutting-edge studies and works with companies using greenhouses to employ technology to reduce water consumption and control the environment so crops can thrive.

Students have the option to study in applied agricultural science colleges or vocational schools that teach agricultural skills. Training and education is also available for farmers.

“We need to make farming attractive for young people. No farmers, no food,” said one poster at an education institute.

Change the perception of young people

Oscar Niezen, senior adviser for international projects with the Lentiz Education Group, said it was important that UAE students understand the quality of life farmers could have.

The group organises training programmes for international students in the Netherlands that run from a week to nine months.

Students visit farms for internships and work in greenhouses growing vegetables and flowers.

“They see the life of the grower is comfortable, cool even,” Mr Niezen said.'

“They understand it’s not dirty. It’s good for young people to actually see this because for students all over the world, agriculture has a bad name.

“Young people don’t want to be farmers any more.

“But then they see how profitable it can be, that the grower has a nice car and house. Yes, he works hard but it’s a good job.

“The technology used in modern greenhouses can help change the perception of young people.

“When they see all this, it comes alive.”

Tech for the UAE

The UAE is aiming to become self-sufficient and produce fresh food locally.

Charbel Tarraf, chief of operations and development at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture, said that, to achieve this, a strategy was required to build vocational agricultural schools in the UAE to train young people.

The ICBA, based in Dubai, works with more than 50 countries, conducting crucial studies to improve the resilience of trees, irrigation efficiency and crop genome research.

“The UAE is at the start of its agricultural journey, the Netherlands is advanced and so we need to see how to learn from them,” he said.

“To have successful agriculture, you need manpower, human capital.”

He said sometimes in the Arab world, farmers are not as valued as they should be.

“But when you talk about entrepreneurship, technology that requires skill and bringing this to farms – that will definitely be an incentive for the young.”

Elke Neumann, a professor of plant nutrition in United Arab Emirates University's College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, said exchange programmes would build knowledge on both sides.

The UAEU in Al Ain is the only institute in the country that offers higher education programmes in horticulture, food sciences and agribusiness.

UAE citizens make up the majority of about 160 students in specialised agriculture programmes at the university.

“Most students join not because they don’t find anything else to study but because they are really truly interested in agriculture,” she said.

“More and more students are finding jobs in new private companies.”

Over the past few years, the UAE has used technology to produce locally farmed salmon, berries and quinoa.

Vertical farms use a hydroponics system in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich water instead of soil.

Ms Neumann said the task before researchers was to develop unique systems to tackle harsh climate conditions.

“This requires confidence that we can find solutions specifically tailored to UAE requirements,” she said.

“We need intrinsically to do something for our country and not always modify a solution that is imported.

“We require a massive expansion of our agri-research capacity and it absolutely can be achieved.”

Disease detection

UAEU has joined forces with Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi to develop robotic technology for agriculture.

Irfan Hussain, assistant professor in Khalifa University’s mechanical department, is keen to use AI to guard against the spread of diseases in plants.

This is the future and is much needed for the UAE,” he said.

“I do believe we can get the next generation excited because of the tech element and the promise of innovation.”

UAE government officials said changing the mindset of local farmers to embrace technology and training was the way forward.

“We are looking to further develop our agricultural sector in terms of local production,” said Ahlam Al Mannaei, an agricultural engineer with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

“We will need more education and to develop strong communication with local farmers to shift from traditional farming to modern farms.”

Updated: May 18, 2023, 6:02 AM