The food sustainability dream
Mita Srinivasan
10x Industry

The food sustainability dream

GCC countries are food-secure while not yet self-sufficient. Technology and policies seem to be areas that will help the region get self sufficient, according to several experts from the region.

Food Security is everyone’s responsibility in the GCC. According to Satvik Jaitly, Consultant for Food & Nutrition at Frost & Sullivan in a special report to SME10x, the volatility in oil demand and trade disruptions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns about the current status quo and the future outlook of food security in the GCC. No product or commodity carries the immediacy or political sensitivity of food.

Chandra Dake, Executive Chairman and Group CEO at Dake Group, agrees with Jaitly. “If the recent pandemic has showed us anything, it is that such dependencies are not as sustainable as previously presumed. As circumstances change so do requirements, and as populations rise, producers and exporters may prioritize internal markets, logistics could get disrupted and prices could fluctuate, anytime. Therefore, going forward, food security has to take a strong self-sufficiency focus.”

Dake feels that the region needs to acknowledge that conventional, intensive farming is not feasible in the Gulf. “We need cost-effective, eco-friendly and sustainable means to enhance domestic production, by addressing soil and climatic deterrents. In countries like the UAE, where hardly one percent of land area is considered arable, we have to enhance agricultural yield per square foot, besides increasing overall production.”

Technology, says Mohamed El Khateb, CPG Segment leader Middle East & Africa at Schneider Electric, is going to transform farming and provide the UAE with food security. In May 2020, the UAE harvested 1,700 kilograms of rice in the emirate of Sharjah. They did this through technology. And given that the UAE imports over 90 percent of its food, like much of the rest of the Gulf, the country’s leadership want to address the issue of food security, of having access to more food staples locally rather than having to rely on imports.

In Dake’s opinion, a holistic approach involving favourable FDI policies, subsidies, strategic push for agritech, supporting talent etc is needed. Subsidies and grants can entice many entrepreneurs into the agricultural sector. Creation of such an ecosystem requires multi-stakeholder engagement and participation to drive micro sustainability and self-sufficiency. “However, since each economy in the GCC differs in size and capabilities, the transition will require extensive location-specific analysis, followed by strategy and effective on-ground implementation,” he added.

Schneider’s Khateb said, “Policies are one part of the solution. The other will be technology. The Gulf is primarily desert, lacking in water and arable land. Populations are growing, as is consumption. Many of the firms who have joined with the government to look into how to best grow food locally have one thing in common – they’re using agrotech, technology adapted to the agriculture sector, to find the best way to increase harvest yields.”

One area of promise is plant factories. These are facilities that don’t need access to natural sunlight. They use high intensity lighting and vertical rows to fit as much produce into as small a space as possible, making them incredibly efficient. Plant farms require 95 percent less water and 99 percent less land than conventional farms. The farms are monitored by software and don’t use pesticides. Given that they require a smaller space than your traditional farm, plant farms can also be developed closer to or even in cities, cutting down on transportation to the retailer and consumer.

While there are major advantages to plant farming, they do need energy, lots of it. Lights need to be run for two-thirds of the day, and plant factories require heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) to regulate temperature. In fact, plant farms can consume more energy per square foot than a data center. Energy loads will vary based on the plant farm’s size and operations, but the power needs could vary from as little as 500 kilowatts to 15 megawatts.

“We believe that indoor agriculture is going to be one of the four major drivers of electricity consumption over the coming decade,” added Schneider’s Khateb. “What we are looking to do is develop innovative solutions to support this industry. One concept which is proving effective in the United States, which is pioneering plant farms, is the creation of on-site micro-grids.”

The thinking behind using microgrids is simple. Plant farms need power. And they’re often based in urban settings, where electrical distribution is constrained. By setting up a microgrid, which is basically a stand-alone set of energy sources and loads that can operate independently of the main energy network, plant farms can be energy self-reliant, operate at reduced costs, and rely on energy that’s clean.

Schneider is working with a number of plant farms in the US whose microgrids are powered by low-carbon energy through a mix of solar and natural gas. The company is looking at how it can develop feasible ways to have zero carbon microgrids, and work through the constraint of space (plant farms are designed to be small, and the amount of surface area needed for solar panelling isn’t feasible in some cases). The energy requirements needed to power all of those lights and HVAC systems is sizable, and the cost of that energy can account for as much as 50 percent of the operations at a plant factory based on studies in the US. Micro grids can give plant farm owners longer-term visibility over their costs (they’ll be able to calculate costs years in advance).

What’s most exciting for food security is that plant farms can produce significantly higher yields of crops throughout the year, thanks to the technology used to control the lighting, temperature, water and nutrients delivered to the plants. The flexibility of these setups is that the “daytime” for the plants can be in the middle of our night, when electricity loads are lower. They can close the lights and simulate “night” for the plants during our daytime when the power loads are higher. In theory, a combination of power fed in from the grid can supplement a plant farm’s microgrid, allowing for even lower costs.

Khateb said, “Plant farms can help reduce the region’s food insecurity and tackle other big issues such as industrial agricultural pollution. Just as importantly right now, an effective food security response will create tens of thousands of jobs and result in economic gains worth billions of dollars for the country. Technology will both transform our farming for the better and create value for our society and the economy.”

Contrary to the connotation of a hi-tech solution, Dake Rechsand’s value proposition hinges on sustainability. The company’s products and solutions are employable by practitioners across the socio-economic spectrum, from individuals to institutions alike. Dake Rechsand has developed sand technology-based solutions for water-efficient desert farming, aimed at redefining the definition of "arable land", in the UAE and larger Gulf region.

Dake added, “Scarcity of water is a critical determinant of agricultural productivity. This is why Dake Rechsand has focused on innovations that harvest rain and reduce the water required to grow plants, as the path to achieve self-sufficiency in food production in the GCC. But creating these macro-outcomes requires both top-down initiatives from governments and bottom-up interest from individuals, communities, and corporates. So, we have positioned ourselves uniquely, between both ends of that spectrum, and tailored our offerings accordingly. We are actively onboarding sustainability advocates, administrations and farming communities, through awareness-based action and demonstrable positive impact. And the enthusiastic response our products has validated our strategy, for a self-sufficient and food secure GCC.”

The UAE has employed multiple strategies across the food value chain, focusing on enhancing domestic production, high-tech agriculture policies, research and development policies, import policies, foreign investment strategies, subsidization policies, stockpiling strategies, and food loss strategies, among others. These strategies contribute to addressing issues of food security self-sufficiency, trade, resilience, and sustainability in various degrees. These initiatives are gaining considerable traction due to enhanced public outreach campaigns and continued stakeholder engagements between the government and the private sector.