Food security is without doubt one of humankind's most pressing concerns and the issue is one that is felt particularly keenly in the UAE. Although considered food secure – primarily because it enjoys a high degree of economic and political stability – the UAE still faces significant challenges. These stem from its arid climate, its shrinking groundwater levels and the volatility of the wider region. Added to these geographic and geopolitical stressors is the country's spectacular growth. As its population has expanded exponentially, increasing from about 300,000 in 1971 – the year the UAE was founded – to more than nine-and-a-half million today, the need to provide for its residents has increased correspondingly.
My responsibility as UAE Minister of State for Food Security is to ensure that the nation continues to enjoy an adequate food supply for its citizens as it develops and to elevate its current position of 31st on the global ranking for food security to the top 10 by 2021. In order to achieve this, we are championing trade facilitation and enabling technology-based production and supply of food. The initiatives to support strategic goals are anchored in diversification of supply, alternative supply sources, technology-enabled enhancement of local production and international trade links, among others. Thus, a major part of my mandate is involved in incorporating agricultural technology – also known as “AgTech” – into the country’s food security agenda. This agenda is enshrined in the UAE’s recent launch of its National Food Security Strategy.
Variously defined as “transforming the global food system through digital technology” and “smart farmers getting smarter using digital technology”, AgTech encompasses advanced agricultural methods that differ distinctly from the traditional ways of farming practised for millennia. Increasingly seen as a solution to the UAE’s food security issues, my office is now placing a strong focus on adopting AgTech in the country’s agricultural sector, as part of a concerted effort to considerably reduce the 90 per cent of food that the country currently imports.
The AgTech government accelerator project, with its two components, is one such initiative. The first component is the promotion of the use of “controlled-environment agriculture” (CEA), which is a technology-based approach toward food production that utilises highly efficient technologies to properly manage agriculture inputs and maximise output. It involves agricultural industry entrepreneurs working alongside government bodies to provide tangible solutions to promote CEA, primarily through implementing an enabling business environment that is conducive to innovation.
The second component of the project is aquaculture, which is farming in controlled conditions of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic plants, algae and other organisms in freshwater and saltwater. With agriculture in general being the world’s thirstiest industry, accounting for approximately 72 per cent of total freshwater consumption, aquaculture represents one of the best uses of what is the region’s most precious resource. To this end, the UAE has established a vibrant aquaculture sector with an investment of more than Dh100 million to develop hatcheries and fish farms.
Vertical farming is another AgTech component that my department is promoting and one that has been identified as offering a solution to the UAE's food security issues. The concept involves plants being grown in vertically stacked layers in an indoor environment where environmental factors can be controlled. Vertical farms typically use artificial light, humidity regulation, temperature control and minimum use of pesticides, enabling the production of vegetables in large quantities all year round without the need for soil, sunlight and chemicals. The commercial applications of vertical farming are already being realised in the UAE, with the opening of the Gulf region's first-of-its-kind facility in December 2017. Located in the Al Quoz industrial area of Dubai, the 8,500sq ft farm produces 18 varieties of micro-greens, including rocket, kale, radishes, red cabbage, basil and mustard.
Remote-controlled drones have become an accepted presence in the skies above the UAE, with the ubiquitous flying machines used by the authorities to – among other things – monitor traffic and deliver post. Now they are providing benefits for the country’s agricultural sector, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being used to map farming areas across the country. Announced in June 2017, the pilot project sees UAVs being used to create a highly accurate agricultural database that supports decision-making and forward planning by enabling the best use of resources and determining the optimum areas for crop growth.
Perhaps the most prevalent form of AgTech being incorporated in the UAE’s agricultural sector is the use of sensors, with their adoption resulting in increased yields in both large-scale agricultural projects and smaller organic farms. Sensor-equipped gyroscopes, accelerators and GPS monitors are being employed to enhance crop production by making the most of land and water use – precision irrigation that is highly effective in reducing water waste. A good example is an organic farm in Sharjah that relies heavily on sensors to determine the salinity and mineral content of the soil to ensure optimum crop growth with minimal use of water. Another prime example is a household name Japanese electronics manufacturer that is creating a farm in Dubai to grow strawberries, with the facility incorporating light-emitting diodes for controlled lighting, air distillation technology and other appliances to check room temperature and humidity.
Aquaculture, vertical farming, drone use and sensors are just four of the technologies that are being utilised in the UAE to maximise crop production while ensuring good husbandry of resources. This is only the start of what will be an expanding role for AgTech in the country’s agricultural sector. The office of food security is currently evaluating how emerging areas of technology, such as robotics, can play a part. Automation combined with artificial intelligence is an exciting field that we are currently assessing. One company in the US has produced a robot that mimics what a fruit picker in the field does. It uses AI to determine which fruit is ripe and ready to be picked, leaving unripe fruit in place on the vine. We are closely following such developments as part of the National Food Security Strategy and will be assessing how rapid technological changes that form part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be best incorporated to ensure food security for all.
Mariam Al Mheiri is the UAE's Minister of State for Food Security