Famous around the world for the dynamic, high-tech cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and vast deserts like the Rub’al Khali, sustainable agriculture is not a subject one readily associates with the UAE.
But in true forward-thinking fashion, the country is turning a long-standing problem on its head. Spurred by a rising population, growing consumption, an arid climate, a lack of water and arable land, and an annual food import bill estimated to hit USD8.4 billion by 2020 (around 85% of food is currently imported), the Emirates are now rethinking traditional farming methods.
Thanks to government initiatives like the Protected Agriculture Project, the world-renowned International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture at Dubai’s Zayed University, and a wealth of determined entrepreneurs, sustainable agriculture is taking root. Farmers are switching from desalinated to wastewater irrigation, and experimenting with salt-resistant crops like quinoa. Health-conscious consumers can now grow microgreens in their kitchens. Dubai will host the world’s largest ‘vertical farm’, using hydroponics to supply 2,700kg of greens daily to Emirates Airlines passengers at 35,000 feet.
Hydroponics is an exciting technology in a country with one of the world’s highest per capita water consumption rates, where agriculture uses the lion’s share. Vertical farms grows crops in controlled conditions indoors, using artificial light and nutrient solutions in place of soil. Such farms use up to 90% less water than traditional farming, with yields many times higher. Growing food locally cuts transport costs and related carbon emissions. Pilot vertical and home farming projects in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi are testing the latest technologies in the field, helping define guidelines for implementation across the country.
Having lived in the Emirates on and off for over 20 years, I have seen first-hand how enthusiastically the country is now embracing the sustainability agenda, including the latest agricultural innovations. It is part of what makes me proud to work here. The culture and values of Abu Dhabi – a combination of international influences, and a strong commitment to local heritage and sustainability – influenced Lombard Odier’s decision to open a branch in the capital earlier this year, our second location in the UAE. And like the dynamic UAE capital, with its world-renowned Sustainability Week, Lombard Odier is also leading the pack in sustainability. In March, we became the first global wealth and asset manager to achieve B Corp certification, one of the world’s most advanced corporate sustainability ratings.
Our investments in sustainable agriculture have spanned water management projects in 15 countries, and agricultural water efficiency projects in China’s Qinghai province. At this year’s Venice Biennale, our ‘LO Generations Summit’ brought together the next generation of thought leaders and entrepreneurs, to discuss how to build a more sustainable future. One of them was David Rosenberg, a World Economic Forum ‘Young Global Leader,’ serial entrepreneur, and the chief executive of Aerofarms, a US vertical farming specialist named one of Fast Company’s ‘2019’s Most Innovative Companies’.
For us, sustainability is a philosophy, which we are embedding into all our investment decisions, and all our clients’ portfolios. To do this we use a ‘three-pillar’ approach to analyse investments – one that assesses the sustainability of financial models, business practices and business models (those engaging with structural ‘megatrends’ like natural resources, climate change, demographics and inequality). Sustainable agriculture is a good example of engagement with these trends, and with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal No 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities.
Of course, the Islamic world has long recognised the importance of responsible investing, and Shariah principles dovetail well with a holistic, sustainable investment approach. Our own Shariah discretionary mandate was certified as “Shariah compliant” by the Shariah Supervisory Board of Amanie Advisors in 2018. In recent years, Islamic finance has been an important driver of sustainable agriculture projects across the Middle East and beyond. This looks set to continue amid powerful green ambitions from national governments, and rising interest from private sources of capital.
By 2030, the UAE could be generating a quarter of its energy from ‘clean’ sources such as solar power; a quarter of Dubai’s transport could be autonomous . Perhaps by this time, smart vertical farms will be growing the bulk of fresh produce consumed across the region, using robotics, automation and intelligent light control systems. At Lombard Odier, we are proud to see sustainable agriculture flourishing in the desert, and proud to be strengthening our own roots in this dynamic economy.