Agriculture is blooming in the desert
Agtech in the UAE
The UAE typically imports 85% of their food

Mainly produce and fruit, the UAE must import food because the arid environment is not conducive to growing a variety of leafy plants. While importing food ensures the population does not go hungry, it often results in more expensive, less fresh food, with a lower nutrient density. And, as we saw with covid-19 last year, food supply chains are fragile. Relying on other countries to grow your food is no longer always reliable.

Controlled environment agriculture, like greenhouses and vertical farming, offers a hyper-local alternative to importing food by making agriculture accessible in harsh environments. With the use of new technologies, companies can capitalize on the sprawling desert and sunshine. The UAE's three deserts offer a massive amount of real estate for building warehouses for vertical farms and an almost unlimited solar power supply. Although water is scarce, vertical farming uses over 90% less water than traditional farming.

Photo: an indoor vertical farm growing greens
Both the government and the private sector are funding an agricultural revolution

In 2018, the UAE government announced plans to be the top country in food security (measured by the Global Security Index) globally by 2051 and in the top ten by 2021--as of last year; it ranked 42. Like Singapore’s “30 by 30” plan, the government has since aggressively funded food startups and partnered with larger companies, including those from other agtech centers of excellence like the Netherlands and Korea.

In 2020, the Abu Dhabi Investment Office invested $100 million in agtech firms, including local vertical farm Madar Farms, US-based vertical farm AeroFarms, an irrigation company RDI, and a local fertilizer company called RNZ. The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) teamed up with Shalimar Biotech Industries to build twelve vertical farms. The MOCCAE and partnered with the Majid Al Futtaim group to build vertical farms in their malls. And it’s not all controlled environment agriculture. The Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority (ADAFSA) approved five investment projects, worth $142 million, to establish fish, vegetable, fruit, cattle, and poultry farms on a total land and sea area of approximately 43 million square feet.

Just this month, His Royal Highness Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Ali Al Nuaimi, aka the “Green Sheikh,” flew to the US to visit Gotham Greens and the Green Bronx Machine--a Bronx-based organization that brings urban agriculture into school. In the past, he partnered with Stephen Ritz, founder of the Green Bronx Machine, to bring agricultural education and plant science initiatives to Dubai. Longtime friends with shared values on education and wellness, the two will partner on building farms in the UAE and developing culturally specific educational materials for children.
The 'Green Sheikh' collaborates with the founder of the Green Bronx Machine to educate kids in Dubai about farming in the desert.

In the private sector, Dubai is home to many different agtech companies. Badia farms produces lettuce, herbs, and microgreens for chefs, caterers, and restaurants. Madar farms is experimenting with other agtech solutions like container farms and indoor “kitchen gardens” for chefs. Crop one is planning to build the largest vertical farm in the world and partner with Emirates airlines. Green Factory Emirates partnered with veteran indoor growing experts from the Netherlands, GrowGroup IFS, to develop the world’s largest indoor farm (including vertical farming and traditional farming techniques) that will yield 10,000 tons of food annually. & Ever is not building a farm in Dubai yet, but their headquarters is based there. In Abu Dhabi, Pure Harvest opened a ‘smart’ hydroponic tomato farm that utilizes bees in its greenhouses. Another excellent use of indoor growing, Al Aliyo Hydrofarms is a hydroponic farm growing organic fodder for livestock.

Aquaculture is also present. Fish Farm boasts the largest fish farm in the UAE, with three fish hatcheries providing a local, sustainable source of shrimp, hammour, sea bass, and sea bream.

The future is bright and green
Given its large swaths of desert and government commitment to food security, it is no surprise that agtech is becoming a booming sector in the United Arab Emirates. Vertical farming and other local food initiatives have the potential to bring fresher, more nutrient-rich food to the region, provide jobs, educate the youth and continue to show the world that the UAE is always on the cutting edge of new technologies.
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