Why the Future of Agriculture Lies in Desert in Middle East region?
By 2050, the global population is anticipated to reach approximately 10 billion, and the gap between the number of agricultural goods produced and the foods required is gradually increasing. Due to growing urbanization activities and extreme climatic degradation, land degradation results in lesser arable lands and water scarcity, leading to low crop production and constrained supply chain issues. Middle East regions remain largely dependent on imports to meet the population’s food needs due to extreme weather conditions, arid climate, and unavailability of natural resources that make agriculture production difficult. The highly vulnerable fluctuations in international commodity markets, global food trade imbalances, increasing risk of food security issues have created a necessity for the Middle East countries to become self-sufficient.
Accommodating increased demands on agriculture with existing farming practices and short-term fixes could lead to further land degradation, increased gas emissions, and intensified competition for natural resources. For instance, half of Iran’s farmland is on “poor quality” land, which led to farmers resorting to investment in groundwater pumping systems, which has been contributing to increased soil salinity and endangering the renewal of natural resources. However, over the last decade, the development of new technologies has helped to address agriculture’s longstanding structural problems in the Middle East region. These technologies are designed to increase the output of the agricultural sector while using less energy, water, and more sustainable methods. Adopting an innovation-driven approach in vertical farming could provide greater access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food, create thousands of jobs, abundant investment opportunities, and environmental gains.
The Middle East is at the forefront of agriculture innovation, revolutionizing how agriculture is traditionally practiced. The region is predominantly employing advanced technological solutions such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificialintelligence (AI), among other things, as a part of the AgriTech movement. The government is investing heavily in public-private partnerships and collaborations for sustainable agricultural practices. As a part of the National Food Security Strategy, United Arab Emirates has made the largest investment worth USD100 million. The country has planned to cut food loss by building an ecosystem to support vertical farming, where fruits, vegetables, and crops are grown in controlled environments. Besides, UAE is utilizing a revolutionary new technology in transitioning unproductive desert land to fertile soil utilizing non-intrusive soil reclamation based on Liquid NanoClay (LNC) technology.
Liquid NanoClay (LNC) to Turn Desert into Fertile Land
The sandy soil in arid regions is useless for agricultural applications and requires advanced treatments to reach a valuable state over which crops can be yielded. Improvement and manipulation of soil towards the desired qualities can support good agricultural production and decrease water consumption. Clay is a good candidate for soil enrichment due to its nutrient-rich nature and water-retaining properties. Thus, the development of Liquid NanoClay with layered silicates and several different minerals in their structures at different amounts can help to turn a barren land fertile. Developed with nanotechnology, the Liquid NanoClay is a dispersion obtained by dispersion of clay nanoflakes in aqueous media with a turbulent homogenization method. The secret to Liquid NanoClay lies in the suspended fine clay particles to create a homogenous nutrient-rich environment. Liquid NanoClay can reduce water consumption by 50-60% and increase yield by 400% compared to untreated plots with the same quantity of seeds and fertilizers. It can penetrate the sandy soil in about 7 hours and create a nourishing environment for plants to flourish, while the natural process of regeneration from dry to arable lands can take around 7 to 15 hours. In March 2020, UAE conducted the trial of Liquid NanoClay technology on a plot of the desert where watermelon, zucchini, and pearl millet were planted for five months. After finding success, Liquid NanoClay technology has been set on the path to commercial scaling to produce crops, vegetables, and fruits.
Indoor Vertical Farms for Soilless Farming
Badia Farms emerged as the Gulf’s first indoor vertical farm, which uses 90% less water than open fields. Indoor vertical farming includes vertically stacked layers in a controlled environment for growing crops unsuitable to the local climatic conditions. Since crops are grown indoors, they are not subjected to seasons and can be grown throughout the year, which results in greater yield. Most vertical farms utilize hydroponics or aeroponics, in which nutrients are dissolved in water for plants to proliferate. This type of farming is often associated with the city and urban farming since setups require limited space for growing. Vertical farming allows one to control variables such as light, humidity, water to increase yield while optimizing energy conservation. Besides, indoor vertical farming can also solve the problem of labor shortages since most of the processes are automated, and manual intervention is not needed. Abu Dhabi has planned to invest USD41 million with other companies to develop technologies that focus on growing fruits and vegetables in arid conditions. Abu Dhabi’s agritech and fresh produce company have signed an agreement with Red Sea Farms to employ advanced agricultural solutions to grow crops in greenhouses.
Remote-controlled Drones to Plant Seeds
UAE is one of the first countries to integrate technology in food security and environmental protection on an expansive scale. Remote-controlled drones have proven to be a cost-effective and faster alternative to conventional farming practices in UAE. In 2019, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, along with Falcon Eye Drones Services (FEDS), undertook a massive drone seeding initiative to plant 250,000 seeds and 6 million Samar seeds across 150 sq. km. of land in a few days, a process which could have taken decades with conventional practices. Besides seeding, drones can be utilized for land surveying initiatives, capture aerial imagery to assess plant health, weeds, and assets, boost mobilization in a short span, and increase local production at an accelerated rate. The agricultural drones market is poised to reach a value of USD8 billion by 2026 with the growth of AgTech. Drone systems are expected to become as common as tractors and unlock the benefits of precision agriculture to boost farming.
Agriculture Hydrogels Solve Irrigation Problems
Middle East nations are the most water-stressed in the world, receiving annual rainfall of 400-600 mm, 85% of which is used for crop cultivation. However, the convenient and eco-friendly hydrogel can prove to be a feasible option for achieving the goal of crop productivity across water-scarce regions. These are designed to hold rainwater and irrigation water to reduce deep percolation and maintain physico-chemical properties like bulk density, porosity, temperature, etc. Hydrogel also acts as a soil conditioner to increase sustainable agriculture production in a moisture-stressed environment and thus improve yield. With the polymer holding water at its base, the requirement of water by the plant reduces by half. Besides, the constant access of water to the plant removes the risk of water stress associated with standard irrigation practices. Thus, the technology is beneficial to produce nutritionally superior and safe food without the use of harmful chemicals. The technology has already been adopted throughout Japan since its launch. Besides underground vegetables like potatoes, ginger, and onions, all kinds of crops can be grown using hydrogels. Optimizing irrigation with modern technologies can help reduce water consumption.
Growing Use of Sensors for Automation
Sensors are the most prevalent form of AgTech being incorporated in the UAE’s agricultural sectors. Sensor-based accelerators, gyroscopes, and GPS monitors are increasingly being employed for greater yields in large-scale agricultural projects and small organic farms. Some of the key sensors used for smart agricultural practices include
pH sensors optimize plants’ growth potential and yield high productive harvests by obtaining critical feedback regarding soil nutrient deficiencies or unwanted chemicals. These sensors can be for daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly monitoring.
Highly accurate agricultural temperature sensors and humidity sensors are crucial to maintaining ambient condition monitoring and mechanical asset monitoring.
Asset monitoring sensors are used for various applications, including predictive and reactive maintenance, to provide alerts for protection against overheating.
Accelerometer sensors are widely used on moving components and motors that detect slight variations in movement. Autonomous drones rely on accelerometer sensors to track motion, speed, crash events, and positions in space.
Remote sensors enable farmers to interpret a field’s environment, predict a range of outcomes, and make better decisions. Modern farms will get significant advantages from the ever-evolving digital infrastructure, such as reduced water consumption, lesser negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem, reduced chemical runoff into local groundwater, and more.
The growing use of technology for enhancing agricultural operations, maximizing yield, and reducing energy usage will help to ensure good husbandry of resources. Automation combined with artificial intelligence can help to contend the structural challenges that make feeding a growing population difficult. Abu Dhabi authority has also urged farmers to shift towards organic farming to avoid land degradation with the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.