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KARACHI: It’s not easy to imagine agriculture and fresh produce growing in the UAE given much of it is desert, but there has been a boom in local farming thanks to techniques like hydroponics and vertical farming – and the country’s gastronomy sector is set to benefit.

Traditionally, the UAE’s population depended mainly on local fisheries, livestock and wheat. In 2019 its food trade value (imports, exports, and re-exports) was $24.7 billion, with the country importing a whopping 80% to 90% of the food it consumes.

More recently, the country is adopting hydroponics and aeroponics (cultivating plants without soil) plus vertical and smart farming as part of its National Food Security Strategy 2051, which it launched in 2018.

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One of the many goals of the strategy is to implement resilient agricultural practices to increase production. The ongoing pandemic, which led to supply chain disruptions, has made this strategy even more important as it became apparent that the UAE’s reliance on imports is unsustainable.

Last year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched The Food Tech Valley, which focuses on agricultural technology and engineering, and has a food innovation centre plus an advanced smart food logistics hub. The idea is to encourage innovative, technology-enabled food production methods.

The farms

The UAE has more than 177 farms that use modern agricultural technologies and hydroponics, and over 100 entities that implement organic farming.

Mohamed Aissaoui, a fifth generation farmer from France who left his engineering career to pursue farming, is the owner of Myfarm Dubai, a self-sustaining eco-farm.

“We are here in the desert with limited resources, water is precious and we use technology to control the irrigation system and give water only where a plant is growing,” he told Business Recorder.

“The success at Myfarm for me is not about what we grow in the desert even if we are proud of that. In Dubai we have a big demand to connect with nature, find the real taste of fruits and vegetables,” he said, adding that he was not prepared for how many people were interested in his work.

I believe that if we use technology in agriculture, we need to be sure 100% it’s not disturbing the ecosystem and use the technology to support organic farming: Mohamed Aissaoui, owner of Myfarm Dubai

Myfarm works closely with chefs, hotels and restaurants and makes use of vertical farming – “a concept used to optimise space, usually in greenhouses”.

“The best thing one can do in the desert is to work on soil improvement - we manage to create soil very quickly at Myfarm,” said Aissaoui. “I believe in the whole ecosystem, it’s about the soil, the seeds, the irrigation system ... all have to be balanced to grow the best local quality in the desert.

“I believe that if we use technology in agriculture, we need to be sure 100% it’s not disturbing the ecosystem and use the technology to support organic farming.”

Another example is Emirates Bio Farm, the largest organic farm in the country, which grows crops like onions, potatoes, and carrots. It builds and preserves arable soil and produces over 60 varieties of products in the middle of the desert using crop rotation, companion planting and natural pest repellents.

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Meanwhile, Mary Anne’s Fresh Produce lies just outside Dubai. Its owner picked up the technique of aquaponics – where ammonia and waste secreted by fish is broken down to become valuable nutrients for plants – when visiting a local farm in Egypt. The farm partners with chefs to help them “bring their dishes to the next level”.

Its products range from edible flowers, to microgreens and specialty leaves and it ensures “every product that reaches a restaurant was only harvested hours before”.

Issam Kazim, CEO at Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing, told Business Recorder: “What’s great is the system and the environment that Dubai has to support the gastronomic industry.”

For instance, “You’ve got vertical farms in Dubai so you get great produce … its organic and the quality of the produce itself is amazing what u can find locally sourced.”

As for what’s not available locally he said: “At the same time the connectivity of Dubai – whether you look at it from the airlines perspective, the airport, customs, we are so central geographically we can get the best produce from around the world delivered in the best way possible to ensure quality is not jeopardised”.

The restaurants

Saira Ahmed, owner of Pakistani restaurant Little Lahore, agrees that Dubai has made it very easy for eateries to source fresh produce.

“The biggest challenge restaurant owners face in Dubai is the transit time for fresh food items to move from farm to table as a large proportion is being imported by air and sea. But the logistics provided by Dubai to reduce clearance time is phenomenal,” she told Business Recorder.

But she added that the UAE importing almost all its food, “is a major challenge for restaurants as it impacts the supply chain and the cost of procurement can be exorbitantly high”.

Commenting on the UAE’s ambition to increase local produce growth, Ahmed said: “This is a great initiative, given that largely the country is dependent on imports of key raw materials consumed by the restaurant industry. Growing produce domestically will be a game changer totally.”

“To address the situation, tremendous steps have been taken, a lot of vegetable crops are being grown in various emirates right now – cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, leafy greens – which is a huge step towards making the industry more self-sustainable.”

There are tons of other restaurants taking advantage of this, and advocating the ‘farm to table’ concept – serving fresh food from local farms.

Boca Dubai, which serves Spanish influenced Modern European food, states on its website that it “has consistently showcased the UAE as being far from a barren land - The Hajar mountains of the North are biologically rich habitats, while the Central Region’s oases are home to modern hydroponic, organic, and traditional farms, and the bounty from the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean is plentiful.”

General manager Omar Shihab told The National News: “We were blown away by how much can be done here using new technology and techniques with absolute efficiency and minimum impact on the environment.”

Then there is Alif Café - a popup restaurant launched by husband and wife Humaid Alremethi and Jessica Queitsch as part of their ‘farm2table’ initiative - at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Mobility Pavilion. “We source sustainable and organic produce from local farms and showcase the incredible range and quality that the UAE has to offer,” it states on its website.

There are many other such examples, like Cassette in Dubai, which has a bi-weekly special menu “dictated by nature and creativity,” using seasonally available ingredients. It works with farms like New Leaf and Uns.

The more produce the UAE is able to grow locally, the more these eateries will benefit and become sustainable, and add to an already vibrant gastronomy scene.

As Kazim says: Dubai “has always had an amazing selection of restaurants – we have 200 nationalities that call Dubai home and a lot of these people have played an important role in creating the gastronomy scene when it comes to the quality and authenticity of the food on offer”.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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