New technologies nurture agricultural revolution in the Middle East – Gulf News

Advanced tech allow farmers to overcome critical challenges in the arid areas
Between 60 and 70 years ago, comprehensive technological developments greened large swathes of Mexico, India, the Philippines and several other countries. By raising crop yields and agricultural production, it helped reduce widespread poverty and averted hunger for millions of people. William S. Gaud, an administrator of the US Agency for International Development called it a Green Revolution, noting that it was unlike the other violent revolutions of the last century.
Now, a clutch of new technologies could trigger a new agricultural revolution – the fourth in the planet’s history – with the Middle East’s arid countries likely to reap its greatest benefits. Many of these are being displayed at Gulfood this week.
“Advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), allow us to produce economically at scale and overcome water scarcity and lack of arable land that limits local production,” says Dr Walid Saad, CEO, World of Farming, an Abu Dhabi-based agricultural technology (AgTech) start-up that aims to grow fodder for the region’s meat and dairy farmers.

“We use advanced vertical farming techniques that allow us to use 90 per cent less water and increase our yield by over 200 times by growing hydroponically in a controlled environment,” he tells GN Focus. Besides the now-widespread farm management software, the company uses AI tools to optimise growing process conditions and help detect the onset of disease. “The ROI with this approach is 30 per cent,” he says.
New AgTech start-ups are mushrooming across the region as countries look to diversify primarily hydrocarbon economies, insulate themselves from supply chains shocks and improve their food security outlook at a time when world will need to feed a population expected to grow to 9.7 billion people by 2050.
The UAE imports approximately 85 per cent of its food, official figures show. At the same time, advances in food production saw F&B exports and re-exports between 2011 and 2020 grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively.
Drip irrigation has been used across the region for several years, but farmers and entrepreneurs are now turning to additional techniques. With enclosed cultivation, for example, crops grow indoors, often on vertically stacked farms in controlled environments. Hydroponics, on the other hand, sees the use of a water-based nutrient solution instead of soil. Aeroponics sees roots suspended in the air and irrigated with a dense mist of nutrients. Farms may use just one technique, but many use a combination.
Last July, Dubai’s Emirates airline launched the world’s largest hydroponics farm to supply leafy greens for in-flight meals. In November, AgTech firm VeggiTech reported the UAE’s first saffron harvest on a vertical farm.
The US sustainable agriculture company AeroFarms is trialling an aeroponic system using its own proprietary technology platform that incorporates plant genetics, mechanical design, a controlled environment, data science, and operations at scale for fully connected indoor vertical farms.
Last week, AeroFarms AgX, the company’s wholly owned subsidiary in the UAE, opened a new research and development centre in Abu Dhabi, in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office. “AeroFarms AgX brings innovative research and development to the UAE and the Middle East to advance sustainable controlled environment agriculture and helps address broader global agriculture supply chain issues.
“AeroFarms AgX will employ highly skilled engineers, horticulturists and scientists and houses high-tech laboratories conducting organoleptic research and precision phenotyping, phytochemical analysis, advanced speed breeding, as well as next-generation machine vision, machine learning, robotics, and automation,” says David Rosenberg, AeroFarms CEO and Co-Founder.

“The global food system accounts for 34 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 research paper published in Nature Food. The Middle East, especially the GCC, can answer this challenge, and produce healthy, low-emissions foods,” says Dr Yahya Anouti, Partner with consulting firm Strategy& Middle East and its environment, sustainability and governance (ESG) leader in the region.
“The GCC is uniquely positioned for success in pursuing energy-to-food because it possesses the world’s lowest levelised cost of renewables. Energy makes up 40- 60 per cent of the expense of producing energy-to-food proteins. Assuming GCC producers incur non-energy-related costs similar to the global average, their energy-to-food proteins will be significantly cheaper than those created anywhere else in the world,” he adds.
Research from his firm shows the viability of a type of precision fermentation that converts energy and a few ingredients into food. The technique uses atmospheric gases, including CO2, and water as the sources of carbon and oxygen, converting energy and a handful of ingredients to a range of proteins and other food ingredients. The environmental impact is minimal, as it requires very little land or water compared with traditional agriculture, such as animal- and plant-based proteins. It also emits fewer GHG emissions, the firm says.
The temptation to see technology as a panacea for all our problems notwithstanding, these emerging developments could provide further raise in yields while minimising pressure on land, water and air resources.
Yet, they have their disadvantages. A December 2022 review of hydroponics and conventional agriculture published in Energies magazine listed zero-soil cultivation, land-use efficiency, planting environment cleanliness, fertiliser and resource savings, water consumption reduction, and conservation among the advantages of hydroponics over conventional cultivation. Disadvantages included high investment costs, technical know-how requirements, and higher amounts of demanded energy, the researchers said.
Some of those are assets many Middle Eastern countries have in abundance. Could the UAE and its neighbours trigger a fourth agricultural revolution in the very region where agriculture was born?
Alternative meats are already available in the region, but one company hopes to widen the offering with a new kind of cultivated seafood protein.
Food technology (FoodTech) start-up ForSea Foods is using organoids, a kind of stem cell-derived, three-dimensional tissue structures, to target supply gaps in the seafood market.
“Forsea’s system is different because it takes its cue from nature. We create an ideal environment for fish cells to spontaneously organise and form natural three-dimensional tissue structures. This is the same way cells grow in a living fish,” says CEO Roee Nir. The Israeli company will initially focus on eel meat, and hopes to launch its first product in 2025.

“Currently, less than 7 per cent of the fisheries are being fished at levels below sustainable limits. At the same time, the global demand for seafood is expected to double by 2050. Cultivated fish and seafood is forecasted to account for 7.5 per cent of the global consumption in the next decade,” he says. The company does not have any supply deals with the UAE yet, but is open to discuss partnerships that will extend beyond supply agreement, Nir says.
The market for alternative proteins could be worth $1.4 trillion globally by 2050, according to statistics from Credit Suisse.
The market for alternative proteins could be worth $1.4 trillion globally by 2050, according to statistics from Credit Suisse.
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