For the Future of Food, The Sky is the Limit

In countries with limited arable land and increasing populations, vertical farming has the potential to be an important driver of societal impact.

By Xische Editorial, July 23, 2018

Source: Good Studio/ Shutterstock

Source: Good Studio/Shutterstock

Gulf countries face a number of grim forecasts: acute water shortages by 2040, a struggle to feed growing populations by 2050, and severe waves of heat and humidity intolerable for humans by 2070.

But these scenarios are not preordained: The UAE, in particular, is investing heavily in game-changing innovations to mitigate many of these challenges, including, most recently, to tackle food security and sustainability.

The UAE’s obstacles to ensuring food security are rooted in its geography: As a result of limited arable land, desertification, and soil salinity, the country relies on imports—and is subsequently subject to import price volatility and import disruption—to feed its growing population. Currently, the country imports 85% of its food, which is expected to rise to $400bn by 2025, up from $100bn in 2014. Coupled with a population projected to grow to 10.5mn by 2025, officials recognise food security is a vital issue.

Enter vertical farming. Last month, the UAE announced plans to build the world’s largest vertical farm in Dubai to grow pesticide- and herbicide-free hydroponic produce—the farm would yield the same amount of fruits and vegetables as 900 acres of farmland using just 130,000 sq ft. Last week, the announcement was followed up with plans for an additional twelve vertical farms in Dubai. In a country with limited arable land and an increasing population, innovative technology such as vertical farming is not only sorely needed, but it has the potential to be an important driver of societal impact. This challenge provides the perfect opportunity for the UAE to deploy pioneering technology to positively influence the lives of citizens, residents, and tourists alike.

Vertical farm exhibition in Milan, 2015. Source: IIP Campaigns & Initiatives/ Flickr

Vertical farm exhibition in Milan, 2015. Source: IIP Campaigns & Initiatives/Flickr

Driven by increased demand for natural and organic foods and the accessibility of Internet of Things sensor technology, the exploding vertical farming market is expected to reach $9.9bn globally by 2025. While the concept is not new, the UAE has positioned itself as a regional test case with the opening of the Gulf’s first facility earlier this year.  

As vertical farming projects pick up speed, another game-changing innovation is playing a pivotal role: desalination. Since the 1950s, the process of purifying salt water and wastewater has transformed Middle Eastern states from Saudi Arabia to Israel. Israel progressed from one of the driest countries on Earth to one with a surplus of water within ten years. The UAE introduced its first modern desalination plant in 1977—the country now contributes 14% of the world’s desalinated water. Agriculture accounts for approximately 80% of water usage in the region. Local efforts to increase the efficiency of water production plants coupled with new technology from MIT are important steps towards ensuring sustainability as vertical farming seeks to address one of the region’s most pressing issues.

The Gulf is in a race against the clock. Investing in innovative technologies now could delay threats like water shortages and shrinking arable land from wreaking havoc later. The UAE vertical farming experiment has the potential to not only yield a positive societal impact within its own borders but could provide a framework for countries dealing with similar threats to food security in the future.