Critical Solutions

The inaugural Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA), and World Food Security Summit, recently held in Abu Dhabi, delivered a much-needed boost for growers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Middle East, as well as African nations coming to grips with water scarcity and food security issues. A key issue facing  UAE farmers in the development of a modern hydroponic/greenhouse industry is the lack of training, which is also manifest in other dry, arid regions of the world.

According to the technical director at the Farmers’ Services Centre—responsible for modernising Abu Dhabi farms—existing funds to promote agricultural schemes were being wasted because of a lack of support and education for hydroponic systems. He was pointing to government financial aid to encourage farmers to adopt these water-conserving systems. The government has been promoting hydroponics for a few years now, but has been hampered by a lack of understanding among farmers about these systems. Of the 24,000 farmers in the UAE, only 87 use hydroponic systems.

Throwing money at farmers by  providing hydroponics systems, fertilisers and other supplies at half the market price, is not the solution,  nor will R&D research create substantial results. What’s needed most is a training and extension service to upskill farmers in these technologies. Our report on the GFIA forum is both critical and controversial, which we hope leads to some positive outcomes in the future.

It’s easy to get carried away with the ‘marketing hype’ of hydroponics technology; no less so than in commercial developments of plant factories and vertical gardens in urban environments. Are they the answer to local food production, a way forward to rejuvenate communities and reduce food miles and carbon footprint? They seem a sensible solution in urban spaces, but Louis Albright, an emeritus professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, warns that these”high in the sky” concepts may be “pie in the sky” with detrimental impacts on the environment.

Albright, who helped pioneer controlled-environment agriculture, argues that closed system urban farming based on electrically generated photosynthetic light will result in high cost food production, large energy use, a giant carbon footprint, and incompatibility with some forms of renewable energy. Albright estimates that around eight pounds (3.62kg) of carbon dioxide would be generated at the power plant to produce one pound (453g) of lettuce in such systems. He says growing a crop of 4000 heads of lettuce  would be equivalent to the annual emissions of a passenger car.

Albright argues that other crops would be even less sustainable. The carbon footprint of tomatoes grown in a food factory would be more than double that of lettuce; a loaf of bread would cost US$23 (at 10 cents per kilowatt) for wheat grown in a warehouse farm. Prof. Albright says a better solution would be more traditional horizontal greenhouses in peri-urban areas that reap the benefits of urban infrastructure such as water, power, high-speed roads and other transportation options; thus, avoiding the phytotoxic effects of urban air pollution. Greenhouses, he says, would capture the most effective source of energy for plants —the sun.

In this issue we report on two plant factories located on opposite sides of the world, which adopt familiar marketing concepts. Ω

1 March 2014