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The growing importance of innovation to solve food security

By Omar Al Jundi, Founder & CEO, Badia Farms / 30/10/2019

In 2016, I became fascinated with the advancements in plant science and agricultural technology, specifically how it enables the growth of all type of crops in the middle of the desert. Hence, I embarked on a journey to discover modern farming and find a solution to grow healthy crops all year round in our agriculturally challenged region. 
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, there was limited access to fresh and tasty fruits and vegetables. The country imports over 90 percent of its food requirements due to its harsh climate. In addition, water resources are being depleted at an alarmingly high rate. The rates of domestic water consumption in the GCC are some of the highest in the world, with an average per capita usage of 140 litres to 520 litres daily.

A friend introduced me to the concept of hydroponics; right away, a light bulb went off in my head. It seemed like the ideal solution to make farming viable in our region. Hydroponics is the method of growing plants without soil and with minimal water requirement.  If applied within a hi-tech climate-controlled environment, no pesticides are required. It is a revolutionary and logical solution for our region’s conditions and limited resources. 

As I delved deeper into the topic, I realized modern farming and hydroponics have been applied in many parts of the world for over 50 years! So why has it not been adapted to our region? The greenhouses that were being built in the Gulf were not being customized for local conditions, hence why they have failed in the past. Greenhouses in Europe and North America were built to take advantage of the sun (whenever it is out) to heat the farm and once the sun is out, water consumption increases, which is not an issue for these regions as they have ample water resources. In the GCC, it is the complete opposite – the sun is out 365 days a year and there are very limited water resources. 

Badia Farms was launched in 2016 as the first vertical farm in the region to grow leafy greens all year round without the use of pesticides and with 90 percent less water. The farm was set up in the UAE due to the support being offered to entrepreneurs, the inspiring culture that exists, and hunger for innovation. In addition, the UAE’s progressive government is giving serious attention to the subject of food security. 

In November 2015, the Mohammed bin Rashid Innovation Fund was initiated as a federally sponsored initiative conceived and sponsored by the Ministry of Finance to support local innovators in accessing affordable finance through the provision of a government-backed guarantee. The fund of AED 2 billion was announced during the UAE’s inaugural Innovation Week.
In the Cabinet reshuffle in October 2017, Her Excellency Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Muhairi was appointed as Minister of State for Food Security. Early January 2019, Her Excellency revealed key initiatives of the UAE’s National Food Security Strategy, one of which was the “Emirates Sustainability Agricultural Label”. The label tells the consumer that the product has been grown in a sustainable way, using innovative technologies, without chemicals or soil and in keeping with human and animal rights. This is the first national logo of its kind to be introduced anywhere in the world.

His Excellency Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, officially inaugurated Badia Farms on March 1, 2018. In July 2018, Badia Farms accompanied His Excellency as part of a delegation on the official visit to the Netherlands that aimed to explore new areas of cooperation and exchange expertise in environmental protection, agriculture and livestock breeding. 

On March 11, 2019, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, approved a series of incentive packages worth up to AED 1 billion for local and international agriculture technology (AgTech) and other companies to build and grow a presence in Abu Dhabi. The announcement aims to drive the development of the AgTech ecosystem and to establish Abu Dhabi as a global centre for desert environment and agriculture innovation.

To combat the topic of food security and provide a viable long-term solution that shall save humanity, no one entity can do this daunting task on its own. It will require all stakeholders to join forces to resolve this matter. Government entities, minsters, financiers, regulations, investors, and entrepreneurs have to work hand in hand to resolve the matter. The good news is, this has already started in the UAE.

 

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