Masdar City's steel urban allotments could help solve food security crisis

Vertical farms and eco-villas to be profiled at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week could help UAE grow more of its own crops

Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City is piloting a project that could see urban communities growing their own food in an allotment, but with a very modern day twist.

A pilot future farming facility built from recycled shipping containers could solve the region’s food production crisis by allowing communities to grow produce, despite the harsh desert climate.

Masdar City, which was built to be one of the world's most sustainable communities, is collaborating with Madar Farms, who try to find sustainable solutions to the GCC's food security issues, to develop vertical farming inside shipping containers. They are equipped with hydroponic systems that can operate using minimal water.

“With the world’s population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, efficient and sustainable production and distribution of food is becoming increasingly important,” said Yousef Baselaib, executive director of Masdar City.

“This is particularly true for countries with arid climates and harsh environmental conditions like ours.”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 10 JANUARY 2019. Masdar Farm smart farming initiative, ahead of Abu Dhabi sustainability week. The Madar Farms Smart Farming retrofitted shipping container that grows 4 tons of leavy greens per year. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Nick Webster. Section: National.
Hydroponics systems allow tonnes of greens to be grown in small spaces. Antonie Robertson / The National

The 1.5 acre plots inside each 12-metre container have the capability to grow crops using less than 40 litres of water a day.

The crops are constantly monitored by the latest technology within a sealed environment, shortening the growing cycle.

Temperature and carbon dioxide levels can be regulated via a mobile phone app, with an automated nutrient delivery system to produce the best possible results.

“We have begun investing in technologies and partnerships focused on sustainable agriculture with the aim of commercialising farming techniques,” said Mr Baselaib.

“These systems can be applied to urban areas to encourage people in the UAE to eat home grown produce.”


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Food security and sustainable farming will be one of the key focuses of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), which begins on Saturday.

The technology and methods used by Madar Farms use approximately 95 per cent less water and land than conventional farming, making the company one of the most efficient and sustainable growers in the GCC.

The initiative joins other similar schemes such as one run by Agricool in Sustainable City in Dubai, where they are growing fresh strawberries for the local community in hydroponic grow room inside shipping containers.

Masdar City first engineered ideas of productive landscapes in 2008 to address food security issues.

Since then, community gardening plots have been developed to allow for plant research, agricultural education and to encourage people to grow their own food.

Masdar’s agricultural strategy hopes to encourage traditional farming methods and the growth of indigenous plants.

An eco-villa has been built in the eco-friendly city to show how green living could be used in the home on a wider scale.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 10 JANUARY 2019. Masdar Farm smart farming initiative, ahead of Abu Dhabi sustainability week. Kyle Wagner, Head of Operations at Madar Farms shows the inside of the Smart Farming retrofitted shipping container that grows 4 tons of leavy greens per year. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Nick Webster. Section: National.
Kyle Wagner, head of operations at Madar Farms, checks the growth of crops grown in a retrofitted shipping container. Antonie Robertson / The National

“The villa is an example of Masdar’s commitment to sustainability and is a pilot project conceived as a template for affordable, energy- and water-efficient residential villas,” said Mr Baselaib.

By this month, they also hope to have implemented home farming technologies and they will be showcasing the project at ADSW.

The eco-villa uses about 72 per cent less power and 35 per cent less water than a typical villa in Abu Dhabi, displacing an estimated 63 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

During ADSW, Masdar will also show other projects focused on vegetable and livestock farming, water harvesting and recycling, waste recycling and how to use energy for cooking.

Less than 1 per cent of the region is arable and permanent crop land, and more than 40 per cent of the UAE’s food is imported.

Importing that volume of food will cost more than US$100 billion (Dh367b) by 2030.

Masdar Farm smart farming initiative. Under a new programme, Abu Dhabi will offer a series of cash and non-cash incentives to make it easier for local and global Ag-Tech firms to set up in the emirate and further expand their operations in the years ahead. Antonie Robertson / The National
The crops are grown inside shipping containers. Antonie Robertson / The National)

More than 40 per cent of natural water sources have been lost in the past 20 years through overuse and despite water scarcity, 84 per cent of water is used for agriculture and irrigation, which contributes less than 1 per cent to GDP.

That has left conventional farming unsustainable in the UAE, forcing the development of alternative models.

Masdar has paired up with the UAE Office for Future Food Security to rubber stamp its commitment to addressing the most important environmental issues likely to impact the nation.

Other sustainable farming methods are being developed in a Central Park project, using vertical farming techniques, solar-powered greenhouses, a self-contained farmers’ market and edible maze.

“Tackling the challenge of food security is a priority for Masdar and one that we are addressing in a holistic manner by looking at solutions in energy, food and water,” said Mr Baselaib.

Updated: January 11, 2019 11:07 AM


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