Can indoor vertical farming solve the Gulf’s food security challenge?

18 Oct 2020

Recent investments in vertical farms could make Gulf countries less reliant on food imports, say the companies involved.

This year has seen some big Gulf region investments in vertical farming. National Abu Dhabi Investment Office (Adio) invested $100 million in four agriculture technology companies in the United Arab Emirates, including Madar Farms, which produces tomatoes under LED light and US vertical farm firm, AeroFarms. Meanwhile, German company &ever opened an automated indoor vertical farm that can produce 550 kg a day in Kuwait.

Can indoor vertical farming solve the Gulf’s food security challenge?

A joint venture with Kuwaiti-headquartered food and beverage investment company NOX Management, the &ever factory grows produce using a patented dryponics method, which keeps the plant alive right up until consumption.

CEO of &ever, Henner Schwarz, told the Ingredients Network: “Food supply chain and security is a high priority for countries such as Kuwait and we feel that &ever not only benefits but also supports Kuwait in achieving this. Furthermore, Kuwait is a very attractive market for indoor vertical farming given a sophisticated customer base as well as good access to energy.”

“We try to use the most sustainable energy source without compromising the economic viability of the farm,” Schwarz added.

The Munich-headquartered company, formerly known as Farmers Cut, will initially grow baby leaves, microgreens and herbs before expanding its portfolio to cover plants. The produce will be sold under the &ever brand across retail stores in Kuwait, but Schwarz said the firm had plans to expand to other Gulf State countries.

Unlike conventionally grown salads, which tend to be washed in chlorine, chilled, packed, and stored in warehouses before being transported to the retailer, &ever’s dryponics method keeps the roots of the plant dry and in-tact up until the last minute, which helps retain a maximum amount of nutrients, it said.

The Gulf region’s food security challenge

Kuwait has three main challenges that require immediate strategic assistance, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): an extreme shortage of land and water resources for food production, changing patterns of consumption, and the consequent major reliance on imported food.

According to &ever, the newly-opened factory will help Kuwait go some way to reducing its reliance on imports, by allowing it to grow up to 250 varieties of greens and herbs locally. Indoor vertical farming allows for up to 13 growth cycles per year compared to one or two annual harvests with traditional farming.

However, not everyone is convinced agri-tech investments in vertical farming can provide the yields needed to solve the Gulf region’s food security challenge.

Josef Schmidhuber, a senior official at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told the Financial Times: “As an investment idea it’s interesting, but as a food security idea it doesn’t even exist.”

Nevertheless, achieving food security is a key objective that has been brought into even sharper focus since the outbreak of COVID-19, which has caused major disruptions to food distribution, logistics and imports across the globe.

Efforts to improve food security may be bearing fruit. In 2019, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Kuwait 27th out of 113 countries in its Global Food Security Index, and fourth out of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s 15 countries. It also named Kuwait, along with Qatar and Malawi, as one of the world’s most improved countries, attributing this to improvements in agricultural infrastructure, notably public injections into building new grain silos and expanding crop storage at a major port.

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