MENA digi-conference: How agtech can enhance food security for the region

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Government and ministry delegations from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Lebanon, Oman, Jordan, Egypt, South Africa, Finland, and New Zealand attend new video conference exploring the potential of agtech to overcome the region’s arid climate

Anthony James

Challenged by both an unforgiving climate and rapidly growing population, governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region home to 70% of the world’s extremely poor, continue to strive to develop more robust food security strategies to deliver greater access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient produce, all year round.

Meanwhile, current restrictions to travel and trade due to COVID-19 have only further emphasised the need for the region to rapidly reform its approach to agriculture and ensure its food security by becoming more self-dependent.

Hence, the first ever MENA Food Security Digi-Conference: Agriculture, which took place 29 and 30 June, 2020, couldn’t have been better timed. The two-day online forum, which was organised by GM Events, based in Dubai, brought together around 200 attendees from a mix of government, non-government, private sector and consumer organisations to discuss the latest trends and technologies in agriculture, and highlight the opportunities to improve the quality and quantity of domestic produce across the region.

The conference began with a keynote presentation from Fatema AlMulla, senior research analyst, Food Security Office, Ministry of Cabinet Affairs & The Future, Prime Minister’s Office, UAE. AlMulla revealed how the UAE is working towards a more secure food delivery future, as evidenced by the country’s recent climb up the Global Food Security Index rankings by ten places, moving from 31st in 2018 to 21st in 2019.

The drastic improvement is a direct result from the efforts and funding allocated from the government into ensuring the UAE continues to drive technology and innovation, according to AlMulla.

Technology focus

A number of dedicated technology innovation sessions then followed AlMulla’s introduction, with the speakers in each session highlighting some of the key, emerging technologies that specifically cater to the MENA agriculture sector. Innovative solutions already being studied and implemented in the region include everything from AI, aeroponics and automation, through to hydroponics and vertical farms.

A notable case study on The Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park was presented by H.E. Hussain Mohammed Al Mahmoudi, CEO of the facility. Established in 2016, the park has been mandated to develop and manage an innovation ecosystem that promotes research and development and supports enterprise activities and collaboration between industry, government, and academia.

A panel discussion was also held to discuss some of the initiatives the region already has in place to support the continued growth of the sector, including the Ag-Tech Building Code, Unified Agriculture License, Agriculture Loan Guarantee and Food Security Data Platform. The panel was led by industry leaders including Sheikh Dr. Majid Sultan Al Qassimi, adviser to the Minister, Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, UAE; Mariam Eid, head of agro industries development, Ministry of Agriculture, Lebanon; Dr. Naufal H Rasheed, advisor of agriculture policy and investment, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Oman; and Salvatore Stephen Lavallo, project manager, Abu Dhabi Investment Office.

Climate-resilient crops

A presentation by Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), which is based in Dubai, reinforced how vulnerable the region’s farmers are to the impact of climate change, and how they need more affordable and innovative solutions to increase productivity and combat drought, water scarcity and salinity.

Every day about 2,000 hectares of irrigated land in some 75 countries are degraded due to salinization, resulting in more marginal environments, noted Elouafi, who also warned of rising temperatures, changes in evapotranspiration and rainfall, changes in heat waves, sea level rises and the effect of rainfall decrease on the frequency and intensity of sand storms.

To better cope with such conditions, Elouafi made the case for more climate‐resilient plants such as quinoa, pearl millet, and barley as alternatives to traditional staple crops. She also pressed for more use of halophytic crops such as salicornia, salt grass, blue panicum and buffel grass for food, feed and biofuels; and for greater exploitation of alternative water sources, including brackish water, sea water, treated wastewater and produced water.

The harsh biophysical conditions of the MENA region from water scarcity, poor soil conditions and harsh climates have hindered the expansion of profitable and sustainable agriculture,” noted Elouafi’s colleague, Seta Tutundjian, ICBA’s director of programs, and moderator of one of the conference’s technology sessions. “But we currently live in exciting times when advances in science, information technology and logistics offer unimaginable prospects to advance our food system.”

Indoor farming

Valoya, a Finnish company specialising in LED grow lights, spoke on the second day of the conference to share how it has already helped some of the region’s producers establish profitable vertical farms.

It’s very well known that the MENA region is challenged by a lack of arable land and is thus heavily dependent on imported foods,” noted Nemanja Rodic, Valoya’s marketing director. “Coupled with the COVID-19 circumstances that place an even greater burden on international logistics, the region’s need for food security is more relevant than ever.”

Although indoor farming represents a clear solution to a growing global population and food security threats, Rodic admits it isn’t without its challenges: “The technology needed to set it up is maturing, however we still see a number of farms struggling,” he says.

What we have observed is that the farms that incorporate the highest degree of automation reach profitability the quickest. Naturally, all of the equipment used in farms should be put together in a way that the end product is of high quality and reaches end customers efficiently. Lighting plays a key role in that. It is not enough to produce a lot of biomass quickly. Plants need to have a good taste. The main way to stimulate the production of secondary metabolites which in simple terms are flavour and nutritional quality of the plants, is through a light spectrum that has been tested and proven to do just that.”

Unsurprisingly, Rodic argues lighting is not where farmers should look to cut corners when first establishing indoor facilities, pointing out that LED lighting such as Valoya’s has matured enough to have an attractive price point and has been tested thoroughly enough to be enable quick deployment and offer guaranteed results.

Hydroponics

However, with natural sunlight in plentiful supply, MENA farmers are generally more concerned with the challenges posed by the dry climate – in particular, how to ensure appropriate irrigation without wasting water.

Hydroponics is very efficient on water use and is therefore the best solution for the desert,” argues Lior Hessel, CEO at Growponics Ltd, a UK-based company boasting years of experience of establishing hydroponic systems in dry conditions, including facilities in the south of Israel, south of Spain and Oman.

The company designs and builds automated greenhouses featuring a unique, shallow-bed, rotating system in combination with hydroponic growing methods to deliver significantly greater yields and lower costs than farming arable land. The company says its greenhouses can be installed in any climate, enabling high-quality local produce to be grown anywhere in the world.

Growponics can build massive hydroponics greenhouse projects and have them in production within six months,” says Hessel, when asked just how quickly the region could implement change with the necessary levels of investment and government support. “We can use waste water after we treat it and solid waste as a source of energy,” he continues. “We have zero carbon emissions.”

Dedicated focus

In total, MENA Food Security Digi-Conference: Agriculture hosted more than 200 attendees, along with 30 regional and international speakers, as well as 11 sponsors across two days. The conference is the first of a series of virtual events focusing on food security to be organised by DigiConnect, a division of Great Minds Event Management. Both speakers and attendees praised its timeliness and dedicated focus.

Mariam Eid, Ministry of Agriculture, Lebanon

Mariam Eid, Ministry of Agriculture, Lebanon

This conference comes at a critical moment when the world in general and the MENA countries in particular are trying to go through a difficult period where all countries return to agriculture and food security to survive”, said Mariam Eid, head of agro industries department, Ministry of Agriculture, Lebanon. “The conference presented many ideas for innovative solution and drew together experts from various aspects related to agriculture and food,  both from the public and private sectors, to contribute to decision making that could make life easier.

Noel Greenway, managing partner of Great Minds Event Management,

Noel Greenway, managing partner of Great Minds Event Management,

Noel Greenway, managing partner of Great Minds Event Management, concluded: “The objective of hosting MENA Food Security Digi-Conference was to support the UAE’s requirements to increase local agricultural production. With the government formulating plans and policies to support local food production, there was a real need for the industry to get together and share their knowledge, insights and experiences on how they can achieve these goals by utilising the latest in technological advances and innovations.”

 

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With over 20 years experience in editorial management and content creation for a broad spectrum of market-leading B2B magazines and websites in the transport and technology sectors, Anthony has written news and features covering everything from airport security to autonomous vehicles, and stadium design to sustainable energy.

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