How UAE is growing its own food in a sustainable way


Abu Dhabi authorities recently said they were tapping latest technology to grow crops locally as part of the food security strategy.

As the UAE is striving to achieve and sustain the highest levels of national food security, there is a transformation taking place across the country’s agricultural sector. Since agriculture often places a significant pressure on natural resources and the environment, the UAE is developing sustainable and integrated food security systems that employ latest technologies to innovate solutions to the challenges of securing food sources.

In other words, the country is now encouraging and widely adopting sustainable agricultural practices that aim to protect the environment, expand Earth’s natural resource base and maintain and improve soil fertility. It also seeks to sustain farmers, resources and communities by promoting farming practices that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities.

Some of the practices under sustainable agriculture include vertical farming, hydroponics, organic farming and controlled environment agriculture to grow local fruits and vegetables with minimal resources. Abu Dhabi authorities recently said they were tapping latest technology to grow crops locally as part of the food security strategy.

Saeed Al Bahari Salem Al Ameri, Director of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), said the authority is working on an ambitious plan to achieve agricultural sustainability, as well as to support the overall scientific research efforts to enhance food security mechanisms. “The authority is keen to invest in future technologies and create innovative and sustainable solutions to overcome environmental and climate challenges, with the aim of identifying the best technologies and the most suitable agricultural methods for the local environment and local farmers and private sector companies, to achieve sustainability in these areas,” said Al Ameri.

Last year, a Smart Home Farming Showcase called ‘Bustani’- which means ‘garden’ in Arabic – was launched at Masdar City’s Eco-Villa prototype to demonstrate emerging farming solutions. It featured innovative solutions to encourage people to cultivate and grow their own food at home to help provide sustainable solutions and manage food security.

Revolutionising agriculture

Using cutting-edge technology to produce zero pesticide, zero herbicide and more water efficient produce, UAE-based Unsfarms is growing food for a better future by revolutionising agriculture. Mustafa Moiz, managing director of Unsfarms, a local indoor hydroponic farm growing fresh, locally produced leafy greens with no chemicals or preservatives, said vertical farming is the future of sustainable agriculture in the UAE. “By growing vertically, we are able to produce 40 times more on the same footprint of land, bringing the farm-to-fork concept to your homes. With one-third of the global population going hungry and two-third of food produce going to waste due to logistical inefficiencies, growing locally in urban areas can play a key role in tackling these issues. And with the global population expected to reach almost 10 billion in 2050, the simplest answer is vertical farming where products are free of pesticides and herbicides, with year-round consistent production with environmentally sustainable methodologies. In addition to sustainability, our approach to indoor farming will also improve the flavour and quality of the produce, which gives the brand and retailers a competitive edge.”

Talking about the varieties of crops they produce through vertical farming, he said: “For example, we grow heirloom varieties and types of products that people don’t typically find, such as wasabi mustard, red-veined sorrel and gourmet lettuces that burst with flavour even when consumed raw. We are into growing different varieties of salad leaves, mixes and microgreens such as Kale, gourmet baby lettuce, mustards and herbs.”

Controlled environment farming

Abu Dhabi-based Madar Farms, one of the local farms that has been operating for four years now, provides a holistic approach to sustainability to help tackle food and water security challenges in the region. Kyle Wagner, head of operations at Madar Farms, said they use different methods to make sure that their produce is sustainably grown. One is through enclosed and controlled systems that provide optimal conditions and protect plants from external factors, allowing consistent food supply year-round. “In this controlled environment agriculture, we use a technology-based approach towards food production within an enclosed growing system where environmental variables can be maintained and optimised,” he said.

Wagner said the farm also employs a two-pronged approach, combining hydroponics and vertical farming methods to unlock synergistic benefits. Madar Farms currently grows a variety of leafy greens and microgreens and their new multi-million-dirham farming facility – the world’s first commercial-scale indoor tomato farm using only LED lights to grow fresh tomatoes will begin operation in Abu Dhabi later this year. The 5,000 square metre facility currently under construction at Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (Kizad) will also grow microgreens and will triple the amount of microgreens grown by Madar Farms currently. All grown produce will be distributed locally across the UAE.

Wagnar explained that in general, crops grown in controlled environment agriculture using hydroponics grow a little faster than ordinary crops because they are provided with the ideal environmental conditions necessary to thrive.

“Sustainable agriculture the way we practice combines technology with farming. As such it requires sensors, software, filters, LED lights, air conditioning and strict hygiene protocols,” he said.

Connecting customers and farmers

PC Kabeer and wife Semy Kabeer, who founded FarmChimp, an SME that connects consumers directly to the farmers who use organic farming for their crops, said:

“We work on traceability concept so that our customers can connect to their farmers and understand what ways were used by the farmer to get that produce.

We bring the face of the farmer and connect him to the customers so that they can understand their products better. And we aim to give life to the soil by encouraging farmers to using organic manure, feritlisers and also to do multi-cropping to enrich the soil.”

Darshan Murali, a 16-year-old student volunteer who focuses on organic farming, along with a team of students, spreads awareness on sustainable farming by holding activities where they involve children in organic farming. “The products required for the garden we use are completely free of chemicals. This process starts from late October and ends with a successful harvest during March. The first step is to prepare the soil using cow dung and peat moss. After a couple of weeks, the plants require fertilisers and for that we use neem cake, fish amino acid and cow dung again along with vegetable compost. To get rid of the pests and insects, we use garlic and chilly mix diluted with water and then spray it to the leaves. The entire process is done by volunteers from our team of volunteers called #teamUFK.”

Murali said they use organic farming at their school at GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah and have grown vegetables like tomato, chilli, cauliflower, brinjal, cucumber, snake gourd, and other leafy vegetables. “Growing plants by yourself organically will ensure that you stay free from lifestyle diseases and also organic farming ensures that the ecosystem is well balanced.”