Investment banker-turned-urban farmer in UAE says agritech is the way forward for food security
Abu Dhabi: The UAE’s agile policies, and its ambitious goals to become one of the most food-secure countries by 2051, can help the nation become a leader in agritech, seen as the future of the food industry, a top agritech expert has said.
Speaking at Mohamed Bin Zayed Majlis in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, Stuart Oda, an investment banker turned urban farmer, said it would only be fitting that a Middle Eastern country leads the next generation of innovation in agriculture, given that agriculture itself first began 12,000 years in the region, in an area of the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin known as the Fertile Crescent.
“In 2050, the global population is predicted to reach 10 billion, and we have to increase agricultural output by 70 per cent to feed this massive population. This means that over the next 30 to 40 years, the amount of food we must grow is more than the past 12,000 years combined, yet with less land, resources, and farmers,” Oda said.
“Agriculture today is a massive global industry controlled by a small handful of companies in five countries that are consuming enormous amounts of resources. But there has recently been a set of technological breakthroughs that are set to make the industry more productive, efficient, sustainable and affordable. And the UAE has already established itself as not only a hub of innovation but also a champion and leaders in agritech. [In fact], smaller and more agile countries like Singapore, Switzerland and the UAE have been [better able] to attract entrepreneurs, investors, and partners to lead the next wave of technical innovation and commercialisation,” he added.
The Majlis was attended by Lt. General Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, along with other officials, educators, entrepreneurs and industry experts.
Oda, who specialises in the development of indoor vertical farms and farm management software, said he foresees Emirati companies soon providing agritech solutions to the region.
“The UAE has a competitive education system to support the next generation of home-grown talent. It has launched numerous accelerator programmes and start-up contests to establish itself as an innovation hub. The UAE’s commitment to become the world’s most food-secure country by 2051, supported by a national strategy and roadmap, is also not only assuring residents but also inspiring the next generation of agritech innovators, who are flocking to the region,” Oda said.
The innovator himself received the first taste of the UAE’s penchant for entrepreneurship when he joined a start-up competition in 2016.
Over reliance on few
Oda went on to explain why agritech is the way forward for ensuring food security.
“Today, just five countries in the world are responsible for the majority of staple crops produced, as well as 30 types of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy, and food products. The pandemic exposed many vulnerabilities of this global agricultural supply chain, which is reliant on just a handful of countries,” he said.
The five countries, which include the United States, China and India, are blessed with abundant labour, arable land and natural resources. But these alone are not enough to support a rapidly growing global population, especially because of the demands of conventional agriculture on resources like water, and its large share of carbon emissions.
“The agricultural value chain consumes an enormous amount of resources, including 41 per cent of all habitable land on Earth, and 72 per cent of its fresh water reserves. In addition, 26 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture. As the global population increases and demand for agricultural products continues to rise, the industry must find more sustainable, climate-resilient methods of production, processing and logistics,” Oda said.
To that end, indoor vertical farms are seen as a promising solution because they can produce hundreds of crop varieties each year regardless of the amount of arable land available or the climactic conditions.
“Indoor vertical farms can grow 300 times more food per square metres compared to conventional farms, while using 100 times less water and no pesticides,” Oda said.
Additionally, biofermentation facilities are helping produce proteins and food additives in specialised tanks.
“Some companies are also looking into nature to develop plant-based meat alternatives that are much more sustainable to produce and healthier to consume, and the texture of these products is slowly becoming indistinguishable to animal-origin products. And massive insect farms are harnessing insects’ natural appetite and natural digestive process to upcycle organic waste, and to break down waste into nutrient-rich fertilisers,” Oda explained.
There is also another set of initiatives to develop mushroom and fungi products into natural plastics, leathers and packaging materials.
“There are so many incredible technologies that are developing unique solutions [for food security], and these technologies give every country an opportunities to ensure its own food and nutrition security. They are also more productive, produce much less waste, and offer dramatic cost reductions [over time],” Oda said.
The urban farmer said the food and agriculture industry is therefore at an exciting junction, and this opens up opportunities for flexible, innovative economies like the UAE.
“The UAE possesses many great ingredients to attract great talent and companies, and it has an opportunity to build vibrant ecosystems by supporting early and growth-stage companies,” Oda said.
He also called upon people to eat a more diverse diet that is not concentrated on meat and meat products, and to eat locally produced items to help support food security efforts.
“Changing our diets [to be less meat-intensive] can have a huge [positive] impact on the environment. And eating local helps ensure local and regional food security, while also minimising food waste,” Oda explained.