The introduction of a new way of growing plants –using little water and no soil – could revolutionise the growing of vegetables in the UAE.
Browsing the aisles of any UAE supermarket, the variety of fruit and vegetables from all the over the world is clear to see. But just as organic products have edged their way shyly onto our supermarket shelves, these days, more space is being added for hydroponic vegetables, farmed right here in the UAE.
For those who are not familiar with the term, hydroponics is a method for growing certain plants, using mineral nutrient solutions, in water without soil. It’s also known as ‘soil-less culture’.
Nutrients and water are typically randomly placed in soil and this means that plants need to expand a great deal of energy by growing long roots in order to find water and nutrients. As a result, the plant’s growth is not as fast as it could be. With hydroponics however plants take up the same nutrients as those grown in the soil, but the content is more accurately controlled. Growth can be up to 50 per cent faster therefore and requires less water.
It’s a landmark scientific innovation which has far reaching consequences for countries with desert climates as it allows them the chance to boost their crop yields, while minimising irrigation and water use.
With a water footprint of 550 litres per UAE resident per day, almost three times that of the average European, the UAE authorities are aware of the possibility of water shortages here and as result every effort is being taken to preserve water in all sectors of industry in recent years.
And this is where hydroponics could be the way forward. What organics does without pesticides, hydroponics does with far less water than traditional farming. In fact reports show that this method saves up to 70 per cent of irrigation water. Cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, pepper, eggplants and carrots can all be grown by what is known as ‘vertical cultivation’ with their roots fully immersed in nutrient-rich water or water partly mixed with perlite, gravel, mineral wool, or coconut husks.
Despite the lack of rainfall, food has been grown in the UAE on a small scale for over 5,000 years in desert oases and mountain valleys, but hydroponics makes it possible for it to be grown on a much larger scale now.
Food production using hydroponic techniques goes back to the early 1970’s in the Emirates when it was introduced under the leadership of the late Sheikh Zayed, who was personally interested in the subject.
Back then, experimental farms were used to test a wide range of crops and innovative growing systems were established. Emiratis were given land to create their own farms, as well as substantial government assistance for this purpose. Date palm cultivation for example played a leading role in turning large portions of the desert into plantations. Over 40 million date palms, of which 16 million line the roads, were planted in the region at the time.
Hydroponic techniques were part of the experiment. A single farm was established in 1970 on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi by a team from the University of Arizona, invited by the late Sheikh Zayed. Greenhouses were built and lettuce, aubergines, tomatoes and peppers were hydroponically cultivated by feeding the roots with commercial grade fertiliser in distilled seawater. The greenhouses were cooled using fans to evaporate the seawater. So successful was the project that just three years into it, the vegetables were being exported to Lebanon.
Unfortunately the farm was dismantled however to make way for development on Saadiyat Island and the practise of hydroponic farming disappeared here until 2009 when the Ministry of the Environment and Water launched a major investment project to guard against food scarcity and conserve water.
The UAE government decided to expand greenhouse-based vertical cultivation and five farms were selected for pilot trials across the country, with the result that 20 hydroponic farms, containing 105 greenhouses exist today.
The first to convert to hydroponics was City Farm, located in Al Bahia, between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It was renamed the Emirates Hydroponics Farm in 2008. Then in November 2010, Dr Rashid Ahmed bin Fahd, the Minister for the Environment and Water, opened the most recent hydroponic farm in Ras Al Khaimah.
The farm’s first greenhouse was completed in 2005. It covered 1000-square-metres and was nine-metres high back then, but it has since been extended to cover approximately 10,000-square-metres.
It grows mainly European varieties of lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries. The greenhouse is fully enclosed, and the climate is computer-controlled to 18 degrees Celsius at night, rising to the mid-20’s during the day, with permanent humidity set at 65 per cent. The temperature can be regulated 24-hours a day and the air refreshed six times a day. Using greenhouses not only reduces the need for pesticides, it creates a more ambient temperature, making it possible to extend the growing season for local produce.
Today, with more than 100,000 hectares of cultivated land, thanks to modern irrigation techniques and water from deep artesian aquifers, the UAE is 100 per cent self-sufficient when it comes to growing dates.
It also produces 83 per cent of the milk consumed here and 39 per cent of the eggs. Meat and poultry production stands at a figure of 31 per cent and 27 per cent respectively and the country grows 58 per cent of the vegetables that it requires.
However, the toll on water reserves in the UAE has become too much and the focus has turned once again to hydroponics as a possible solution. An added benefit of hydroponics is the limited space needed. “To produce the same yield in traditional field farming you would need eight times this floor area,” according to hydroponics farm manager, Rudi Azzato.
While hydroponics is a relatively new concept in the UAE at commercial level, it has been the foundation of the Dutch greenhouse industry for many years with 80 per cent of Dutch vegetables produced hydroponically.
Nearly 350 gallons of water can be saved using hydroponics to grow 1 kilogram of tomatoes, compared to traditional farming; 310 gallons are saved per kilo of lettuce and 316 gallons per kilo of strawberries.
The only downside to hydroponic farming is the cost of the computerised greenhouses needed for it, which can go up to millions of dirhams, making it harder to achieve a positive return on investment. The annual cooling bill will also not help the UAE’s already very heavy carbon footprint.
Also supermarkets, keen to stock hydroponic vegetables, tend to price them cheaply as ‘local produce’, despite the fact that European seeds and expensive techniques have been used to grow them – making it harder for farmers to break even and providing little incentive to produce them. Let’s hope this improves in the future.