The UAE’s economic vision: Knowledge is power
May 5, 2023

How technology is helping secure the future of food in the UAE

As the UAE gears up to host the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), one crucial issue is sure to be included on the agenda: transformation of the global food system.

The current global food system accounts for around 30% of all greenhouse gases and is a primary driver in biodiversity loss. Current ways of producing, distributing and consuming food are not sustainable.

Global food security is reaching a crisis point. The main challenges are poor management of food supplies to feed an ever-growing world population, the impact of agriculture on climate change, and food loss and waste.

At COP27, the Food4Climate pavilion highlighted the growing urgency to find solutions to the crisis and adopt a more sustainable food system – solutions that will act on climate change while ensuring food security.

In a proactive response to food security issues, the UAE has set up a National Food Security Strategy. The aim is to increase home-grown food production by 30% – 40% in 10 years and become a world-leading hub of innovation-driven food security by 2051.

So, what exactly is the UAE doing to help achieve food self-sufficiency and future food security?

In the run-up to COP28, the UAE is setting a global example in food system transformation through initiatives, programmes, and Food and AgriTech innovations. Let’s look at these initiatives one by one.

Food for Future Summit

In 2022, the UAE Ministry of Climate Change & Environment, in association with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Committee on World Food Security, hosted the inaugural Food for Future Summit in Dubai.

The landmark gathering in the MENA region united 100+ global leaders and innovation experts from more than 60 countries with the common aim of addressing global food security.

The summit also provided a unique opportunity for FoodTech and AgriTech startups to showcase their innovative ideas in the food and agriculture value chain.

In its own words, the Future for Food Summit is the ‘Ground Zero for the world’s most advanced technologies shaping the future of food security’.

The UAE is fast becoming a leading example of how AgriTech innovations can shape the future of food. The forthcoming 2023 summit will be an occasion to show the country’s commitment and determination regarding technology and food security ahead of the COP28 conference later this year.

Food Tech Valley

Food Tech Valley is a first-of-its-kind, global food innovation centre created to support the achievement of the objectives of the National Food Security 2051. The underlying idea involves a holistic approach to food security, uniting the entire food and agriculture ecosystem.

Food Tech Valley comprises four main zones: Food Production, Smart logistics, a business park, and an innovation and R&D centre.

The ambitious government-led initiative aims to:

  • Become a global hub for FoodTech startups and industry experts
  • Provide an integrated agri-business ecosystem to support startups and entrepreneurs
  • Host research and development facilities
  • Further develop vertical farming, water systems and AgriTech
  • Triple the UAE’s food production
  • Accelerate the UAE’s journey towards food self-sufficiency

Food Tech Challenge

The FoodTech Challenge is an annual government-led global food security competition that seeks agriculture technology solutions from innovative FoodTech startups.

The US$2-million competition offers startups from across the world the opportunity to develop food systems and transform traditional agricultural practices efficiently and sustainably. The two main exploration areas are food production and food loss and waste.

Previous winning innovations include:

  • An online platform to streamline food imports into the UAE
  • An omega-3 and protein-rich algae-based superfood
  • A light-based solution to aid sustainable fishing practices
  • A saltwater irrigation solution for greenhouses

Vertical farming

Vertical farming is a type of Controlled-Environment Agriculture (CEA) that could be the answer to UAE’s food security challenges.

Vertical farming utilises soilless methods such as hydroponics and aquaponics that use 95% less water than traditional farming methods. Crops are grown in vertical stacks to maximise space and yields, so they can easily be housed in urban areas, helping reduce transportation emissions.

The modular design of vertical farms means that producers can grow 100 times more produce per square foot than traditional farms. The controlled indoor environment allows the production of pesticide-free, organic produce, resulting in safer, healthier, tastier food.

Water scarcity and lack of useable arable land mean that 90% of the UAE’s food is currently imported. Vertical farming could help slash these imports, replacing them with home-grown produce that can be grown all year round.

Food security is a top priority in the government’s development goals, as outlined in the National Food Security Strategy 2051 and the Water Security Strategy 2036. So, it’s no wonder the UAE is investing heavily in vertical farming technologies. The potential to grow anything, anywhere, without having to rely on seasons or global supply chains is a major driver of food independence and security for the UAE and the entire GCC region.

As a result, the vertical farming market is steadily growing. The MENA region’s AgriTech market size is projected to be worth close to US$5 billion by 2029.

Major players in UAE AgriTech include:

  • Emirates Crop One – the 300,000 sq ft facility set up by Dubai’s Emirates Flight Catering and US company Crop One is the world’s largest hydroponic farm. The US$40 million facility uses an AI-powered closed-loop water system to produce more than 900,000 kg of fresh produce annually for Emirate in-flight meals and selected stores under the Bustanica brand.
  • Pure Harvest Smart Farms – the Abu Dhabi-based AgriTech business produces over 17 million fruits and vegetables a year in high-tech, climate-controlled greenhouses. With UAE supermarket chain Spinney’s onboard as a major partner, Pure Harvest recently secured US$180 million in funding from global investors to expand into GCC and Asian markets.
  • Uns Farms – one of the biggest hydroponic vertical farms in the UAE, Dubai-based Uns Farms uses LED lighting technology and hydroponic irrigation techniques to produce farm-fresh quality fruit and vegetables. Based in the heart of Dubai, Uns Farms provides an urban farm-to-fork solution for hotels, restaurants, airlines, hospitals, schools, and supermarkets in the city.
  • iFarm – this Finnish tech startup is a new arrival to the UAE vertical farm market. A provider of bespoke vertical farming systems enabled with software and automation, iFarm recently moved its international headquarters to the UAE. With technologies already used in an industrial farm in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, iFarm also plans to set up a Dubai facility in partnership with AgriTech company Spacefarm.
  • Right Farm – the UAE AgriTech startup uses predictive technology to source fresh produce for the food and retail sector, providing a seamless end-to-end supply chain process from farm to table.

The way forward is smart!

“‘Smart farming is the way forward to achieving food security

– Mariam Al Mheiri, the UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment and Minister of State for Food Security.

As well as hydroponics and vertical farms, the UAE is also exploring the potential of other AgriTech solutions, including:

  • Alternative crops – including sea asparagus, which is rich in nutrients and can be easily grown in the country.
  • Green deserts – Dubai-based startup Desert Control is creating a liquid natural clay technology that can transform deserts into fertile land.
  • Alternative proteins – research and investment are taking place in the development of plant-based alternatives to meat and other alternative proteins.

By prioritising food security with a focus on food and agricultural technologies, the UAE offers incredible opportunities for businesses in the region. In 2021, UAE-based companies received more than US$50 billion in investments – that’s around 1.1% of the global capital invested in AgriTech. With such an urgent need to address food security, investments in the Food and AgriTech sectors are only set to grow.