Innovations in Agriculture

After a 14-hour flight from Sydney, the Qantas Airbus 380 landed soon after midnight in Dubai.  Progress through the airport was rapid, and I was soon on a taxi heading for Abu Dhabi, the site for the ‘The Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA)’ meeting organised at the instigation of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC).

The 150km drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi was a shock to the system.  This was no desert road, but an 8-lane freeway, with a 120km/hour speed limit, and full street lighting all the way. By 3am I was in bed in my hotel adjoining the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) the venue for the meeting.

ADNEC is a huge conference centre on the outskirts of the city of Abu Dhabi, and even with 2000 delegates, over 150 innovation presentations, and 125 exhibitors, only about 1/3 of the facility was being used. The delegates were formally welcomed with by the Deputy Prime Minister of UAE (Sheikh MansourBin Zayed Al-Nahyan), and then it was the turn of the keynote speakers chaired by Stephen Sackur (the UK journalist who presents HARDtalk, the BBC World TV program). Bill Gates (Co-Founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) was unable to travel to the meeting and so addressed us by video link. His talk followed presentations by Dr Frank Rijsberman, the CEO of the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR), Dr Mark Post the scientist behind the ‘lab burger, and Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadows, a pioneer of ‘cultured leather’.

In a later discussion with Dr Roy Steiner (the Deputy Director of Agricultural Development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) regarding aquaponics, he explained to me that the foundation had made a policy decision not to get involved with any form of hydroponics, but to concentrate on other aspects of agricultural development. I personally found this an amazing decision, as other speakers emphasised the huge gains in productivity that good plant–water relations offered, and the immutable fact that agriculture currently uses 70% of the world’s fresh water, the rest being consumed by industry (22%) and for domestic use ( 8%).  Clearly, with the world population predicted to increase (from the current 7 billion to 11 billion by 2050), there will be major pressure on fresh water, and the efficient use of fresh water resources for crop production in order to feed the increased population.

It would be fair to say that Bill Gates’ presentation was less than impressive. His talk was clearly pre-recorded, and the efforts to make it appear spontaneous were a dismal failure. In any case, his acknowledged expertise is not in agricultural innovation.

Dr Mark Post presented a logical argument for removing animals from the human food chain. He showed that although meat provides the maximum amount of high quality food to man, it is at a cost, because every kilogram of meat requires the animal to consume a huge quantity of resources. For a beef animal to produce a single 120g hamburger patty requires some 3kg of animal feed, 200 litres of water, 300w of energy, 7 sq. metres of pastures space, and produces  some 6kg of carbon dioxide.

If (and he has shown that we can) it becomes possible to ‘manufacture’ true meat from raw materials derived from plants (using animal stem cells), then the need to produce animals for meat would disappear. Mind you, the so-called cost of the first lab burger was many millions of  dollars, so there is some way to go yet!

Andras Fourgacs had a similar theme in relation to leather production, with the prospect of producing leather of any specific type, quality and grade, by simply manipulating the process.

One of the panel discussions.

One of the panel discussions.

The meeting then broke up into a number of ‘Big Idea Power Sessions’, in four separate locations in which each innovator presented their idea in a 15-minute slot. I found this particularly frustrating as in many cases I would have liked to be in more than one presentation theatre at the same time. To be fair also, the quality (and content) of the presentations were rather like the ‘curate’s egg’.

From an Australian viewpoint, Elevated Gardens from Queensland had a nice neat stand, and Andrew Olley presented a neat and concise account in his presentation.

There were a number of presentations on plant factories; from Japan, USA, Germany, Mexico and Spain. Only the Japanese university researcher presented real information, and several of the speakers presented only ideas. A great disappointment. Dr Gene Giacomelli (from the University of Arizona) at least was able to present pictures of real live plants growing at the South Pole in their plant growth facility.

The ‘Evolve’ exhibit.

The ‘Evolve’ exhibit.

Philip Lee of Evolve Growing Systems provided some information on ETFE, a sustainable greenhouse glazing material. Evolve also had one of the more informative exhibition stands.

Dutch horticulture (and agriculture) was strongly represented, with a number of the major greenhouse manufacturers (e.g. Kubo, Bom Group).

One of the topics presented was the Sahara Forest Project. In simple terms, this may be described as a project to make the deserts bloom, by using solar radiation to desalinate sea water, by passing the sea water over a fan and pad system into a greenhouse, and then condensing the water vapour on a cool surface. This desalinated water can then be used to grow crops. The whole project can best be described as ‘think big’, and it will be interesting to see if it actually works in practice on the scale that is cited.

General view of the hall.

General view of the hall.

As one might anticipate, the main exhibitors were from Europe, but it was very much an international forum, with a particularly strong emphasis on Africa, although it was interesting to listen to the Minister of Agriculture from Zambia castigating the organisers for the absence of any Africans on a panel discussing ‘Africa: the frontier for arid farming’. He made the very relevant point that in some ways Africa was ahead of the developed world. He referred specifically to the use of cell phones as a business tool.

In much of Africa, communication by land lines is almost non-existent, and the development of cell phone networks  in rural areas has opened up to African farmers all the electronic tools previously restricted to farmers in developed countries, such as computer banking, extension services, etc., and that the use of cell phones in rural Africa by farmers is probably as advanced as in any developed country.

There were a total of 29 round-table discussion groups, but  as each session was of only 45 minutes, there was barely time to sit down and get introduced. Once again the range of topics was too large for the time available.

The final day was used for technical visits: in the morning, either to Al Dahra hi-tech greenhouses, or to the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture; and in the afternoon, either to Emirates AquaTech, or to the Zayed Centre for Development & Rehabilitation.

Some nice looking anthuriums.

Some nice looking anthuriums.

I chose to visit the Al Dahra greenhouses and the Zayed Centre for Development, primarily because these had the most protected cropping input. Emirates Aquatech is primarily aquaculture, while biosaline agriculture is getting the best productivity out of the existing environment. I approve of both concepts, but I consider that protected cropping has more to offer in this particularly testing environment for crop production, and food security.

Al Dahra is one of the largest agricultural firms in the Middle East. The company has more than 14 farms internationally (in Spain, Botswana, etc.) with over 2000 acres (809ha) of land near Al Ain alone. This includes a range of greenhouses supplying fresh produce to the local market.

Hi-tech greenhouse, with less than hi-tech growing systems.

Hi-tech greenhouse, with less than hi-tech growing systems.

The focus of this tour is to view the innovative US$1.9 million cooling systems that have been designed to reduce the amount of water used in greenhouses. The project has been handled by ICARDA, one of GFIA’s Foundation Partners.

Typically, in the Middle East, the amount of water used by evaporative cooling systems (that cools outdoor air by between 5°C and 10°C) can be much higher than the amount used to water the plants. If this project is successful, the three-year program will expand to other farms in the UAE and the region.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at Al Dahra, we were advised that due to our late arrival, if we wished to go on the afternoon tours, we would have to return soon to Abu Dhabi, or else stay the full afternoon for an extended tour of Al Dahra. I chose the latter so did not see the aquaponics operation at the Zayed Center. I am unable comment technically on the innovative greenhouses, but I can state that the philosophy in UAE appears to be, that provided the hardware (the hi-tech greenhouses) is correct, then crop production will be straightforward. Nothing is further from the truth, and without the appropriate software (horticultural knowledge), then the effective and efficient use of the hardware is simply not possible.

Some not so good looking parsley.

Some not so good looking parsley.

This was abundantly clear at the Al Dahra greenhouse complex, where we were shown a very low level of horticultural crop production in relation to the greenhouse structures. The tomatoes were grown predominantly in soil, without any consideration of grafting onto resistant rootstocks. When they were grown hydroponically in coir, it was with a very inefficient system. I was taken to see a greenhouse crop of rock melons, being trained up strings, without any knowledge of how to produce greenhouse melons. The plants had the growing points removed after a few leaves, and three or four laterals were then trained up the strings, with fruit setting whenever and wherever. As a melon fruit acts as a very strong sink, this can result in mix up of maturity.  There can also be a shortage of male flowers using this system, as male flowers are produced primarily on the main stem.

The modern technology milking shed.

The modern technology milking shed.

On the other hand, at Al Dahra we were shown a very modern (herringbone) milking shed for dairy cows, in which the milk yield, etc. from every cow was recorded, through computers and electronic ear tags. Here was one modern technology that was working!

Although I was unable to visit the Zayed Centre for Development, I spent some time with the initiator of the aquaponics system used at the centre, which is based on the   system developed at the University of Virgin Islands by Dr Jim Rakocy (who was the initial consultant). This means using Tilapia as the fish, and a floating raft system on which to grow the plants. I had a long argument with the originator of this Emirates system (Jaber Al Mazrouei) regarding the potential yields of tomatoes using a floating raft system, which other aquaponic specialist (such as Dr Nick Savidov) have been unable to produce. Jaber is no longer involved with the project, but strongly promotes aquaponics for the Emirates (see photograph of stand at the Exhibition).

One of the problems of aquaponics is the relatively low income return from the fish, compared with the plants. Choice of fish can be critical, and I was therefore intrigued to learn that sturgeon are a very good (and easy) fish to farm, being easy to breed, with good quality flesh, and also a source of the very expensive product caviar.

Was it a good meeting? Certainly it could have been improved, and the organisers (Turret Media) have considerable experience at managing conferences. I suspect, however, not very much experience at organising technical farm visits, which in my case (and some others) did not go as intended.

They plan to organise a similar agricultural global forum next year, and if they are to learn from this experience, should not try to be all things to all people. Certainly, the keynote presenters were excellent (as were the Chairs, particularly Stephan Sackur), but the speakers in the Big Ideas Power Sessions were too diversified in interests, and 15 minutes was totally inadequate to put forward a new concept. Perhaps it would be better to have either a plant or an animal-based forum, rather than such a broad-based, all-encompassing one?

Was it worthwhile from my viewpoint? Certainly, it was nice to touch base with earlier friends, and to make new ones, but as far as a learning experience is concerned there was insufficient time. Perhaps in another year, the meeting could be restricted in breadth and also extended to three full days, with a further day of carefully organised technical visits.

About the author
Dr Nichols is a retired University teacher from Massey University, New Zealand, and a regular contributor to Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine. Email:   Ω

(See article for full pictorial)

1 March 2014