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Sustainability in Agtech

19 January 2020

At the heart of The FoodTech Challenge is the UAE’s commitment to cultivating sustainability in the country’s relationship with food. Water and energy are food’s main ingredients; without it, food production will suffer. This is what the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls the water, energy, and food (WEF) nexus, and sustaining all three within this nexus is important in establishing long-term food security. Strong submissions in The FoodTech Challenge, therefore, make improved use of natural resources that protect the WEF nexus. The technology and commercial plan behind your idea will drive the overall sustainability of your project. Let’s revisit the example of aeroponic farms from our previous agtips on technology. These farms use sensors, IoT, and AI technology to accelerate growth. Together, these technologies determine optimal amounts of water, nutrients, and energy for their plants to grow in speed and abundance. Meanwhile, from a commercial perspective, these farms can improve sustainability by finding sources for water, nutrients, and energy that are renewable and local. Installing technology can limit reliance on electricity typically drawn from non-renewable gas power plants. Finding local suppliers of equipment and fertilizers can limit the carbon footprint that transportation has on the environment. In other words, these farms leverage technology and business strategies to sustain the planet while generating profits for the company. You can demonstrate sustainability in your project in a similar way. International organizations have developed many indicators to assess sustainability of food security projects. FAO has published a paper that explains the WEF nexus further, breaks down the components of a nexus assessment, and offers six case studies to illustrate the framework in action. We invite you to explore how these indicators and case studies can apply in enhancing sustainability in your FoodTech Challenge submission.

Meet Our Judges: Cinar Kurra

30 November 2019

We are proud to announce that we have partnered with an incredible panel of experts to judge The FoodTech Challenge submissions. Our panel is comprised of local and international experts on agriculture from academia, private sector, and policy circles. We spoke with Cinar Kurra, CEO of Catalyst, to talk about his thoughts about food technology trends in the UAE and abroad. What is your favorite memory related to food? Grandma’s cooking – both were marvelous, my grandma and her cooking! What makes you excited about food technology? Food, if organically produced, is an innovative way of minimizing hunger and obesity. In your opinion, what key technologies have promising applications for UAE food security challenges? Food monitoring when importing, in order to give the best deals to consumers before expiration, are so far the best ideas that I have witnessed. The FoodTech Challenge will certainly discover great startups utilizing new tech ideas. Surveys have shown that youth are increasingly disengaged from food and agriculture work. How do we renew youth engagement in this area? Perhaps gamification of cultivating and reward mechanism for production could engage youth in a positive way. What are books, papers, and/or articles that you’re reading about food security that you would recommend? The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.

What's the "tech" in "agtech"?

15 November 2019

The UAE’s food security challenges have several environmental, policy and economic elements that make them complex to tackle. Technology is the vehicle to address these challenges, but what is technology, exactly? In our modern world, technology is everywhere around us, and its potential applications to food security are equally diverse. “Technologically-driven” solutions have a clear grasp of what methods currently exist to solve food security issues and propose a way forward to achieve better results. Below are a few examples of technology applications to get you thinking into how this works in practice. Sensors What is it? A device that gathers information about its environment and sends the information to other electronic devices. How is it applied? Aeroponic farms install sensors to monitor nutrient uptake for different kinds of plants Internet of Things What is it? The system of interrelated computers and devices with the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human interaction. How is it applied? These sensors transmit information about plant growth rates to computers that house data for the entire farm. Artificial Intelligence What is it? The simulation of human intelligence processes by machines through the process of learning, reasoning, and self-correction. How is it applied? These computers can be taught to adjust levels of light and water to maximize agricultural output, tailored for each kind of plant. Strong ideas use a combination of the technologies above to maximize the benefits of each. An example of a company leveraging multiple technologies is Winnow Vision. Through cloud technology, vision-enabled artificial intelligence, and data analytics, Winnow Vision helps chefs track food items routinely wasted and adjust their production to slash cost. As a result, Winnow Vision was able to cut food waste by half and saved up to 20% of total food costs. Technology is an essential component in a strong application. If you are looking for a technical person to join your team, we encourage you to connect with other participants via our social media, where you will find a community who are passionate about food security just like you!

UAE Food Security Challenges

15 October 2019

The UAE faces significant challenges to producing food domestically. Only 0.5% of the land mass is arable, extreme heat limits the capacity to cultivate and store food, and the country receives very minimal rainfall. As a result, the UAE currently imports roughly 90% of its food supplies. 1. The UAE’s soil composition is predominantly made up of sandy soil, which is difficult to cultivate without additives and fertilizers Sandy soil (75%) has low nutrient retention and requires large quantities of irrigation water to cultivate Salty soil (8%) affects the plant’s uptake of nutrients and has reduced microbiological activity important for plant growth compared to other types of soil The remaining 10% are other types of soil not suited for agriculture 2. Only 7% of soil (~490k hectares) is rich in gypsum and lime and has suitable properties for agriculture use Total agricultural area in the UAE has decreased by 3% annually over the last 14 years as a result of steady desertification and soil degradation caused by natural and manmade causes: Natural causes: Wind erosion: Major cause behind irreversible land degradation (1.1m hectares in total lost to-date) Natural salinization: Increasing salt content in soil due to seawater infiltration in marine sediments, degrading soil in coastal areas mainly in Abu Dhabi Harsh climate conditions: High temperatures and low rainfall leads to low soil moisture and accelerated desertification Manmade causes: Irrigation malpractice: Overwatering of plants or use of saline groundwater for irrigation, increases vulnerability to pests, diseases, and root degradation Excessive use of additives: Fertilizers containing excessive nitrogen dehydrates soil and leads to high emissions of greenhouse gases Overgrazing: Plants are exposed to intensive grazing for extended periods without sufficient recovery periods, reducing land productivity and increasing desertification 3. The majority of UAE’s water supply is from groundwater and desalinated water , resources that are becoming increasingly scarce or costly to produce: Groundwater (44%) is being extracted 25x faster than the natural recharge rate due to hot climatic conditions, inefficient irrigation techniques, overpumping, and cultivation of high water use crops such as date palms and Rhode grass Desalinated water (42%) is increasing as a substitute for UAE’s depleting groundwater; however, producing desalinated water increases greenhouse gas emissions, soil salinity, and contaminates groundwater if production and disposal is not done properly Treated wastewater (14%) is an alternative source of water for agriculture purposes; however, only 52% of water is currently being recycled due to an underdeveloped transmission and distribution system The UAE Ministry of Energy & Industry launched the UAE Water Security Strategy 2036, which aims to reduce total demand for water resources by 21% 4. Pests continue to spread and reduce post-harvest yields, and chemical pesticides have exacerbated the stress on agricultural land Pests in the UAE (e.g., red palm weevils, locusts, beetles, moths, and rats) feed on crops, contaminate stored food, and sometimes even damage infrastructure, resulting in the overall reduction of post-harvest yields Common pesticides contain toxic chemicals that harm crops and humans as well, while also breeding pesticide-immune pests that are more difficult to exterminate The pesticide consumption in agriculture is much higher in the UAE than other parts of the world: 9.86kg/ha in the UAE, 1.9kg/ha in Europe, 1.5kg/ha in the US, 0.5kg/ha in India To reduce chemical pesticide use, the UAE is increasing its regulation and developing environmentally-friendly pest control techniques, such as pheromone traps , light traps , and drone technology 5. Production of plant and animal products has limited complementarity with domestic consumption patterns: Plant production: Field crops comprise 60% of UAE’s overall production Staple crops such as wheat, which is responsible for a third of calorie consumption, is not commercially cultivated in the UAE due to its water-intensive requirements Animal production: – While livestock supply has increased steadily since 2012, only a small share is used for commercial meat production due to preference for personal use Production of fisheries has been relatively stagnant; less than 2% is produced through aquaculture due to lack of awareness, regulation, and incentives to shift technologies 6. Farmers and investors are hesitant to integrate production technology due to limited training and advisory services The majority of youth are disengaged with the agriculture industry; in a recent survey of 141 farm owners in the UAE, 90% of them were 41 years old and above The study showed that willingness to adopt technology into their agricultural production is positively correlated with three main factors: farm income, level of education, and water salinity; however, only 50% of farmers introduced to hydroponic technology incorporate this into their operations UAE University (UAEU) is the only university with a dedicated faculty for food and agriculture innovation, limiting the country’s capacity to train its next generation of farmers 7. There are gaps in food handling throughout the supply chain, leading to food waste in all stages of production Production: Pests infest farmland and storage facilities, contaminating the supply Distribution: Hot weather, especially during the summer, causes food to spoil quickly, adding stress to distributors to keep food cool and clean Consumption: Food is not consumed by the customer often due to oversupply, but artificial intelligence technology is helping accelerate food waste reduction efforts. “Winnow Vision”, an AI-powered food technology company, installs smart cameras at hotels and restaurants that detect unpopular dishes being thrown away to inform future food purchases. Waste management: Converting food waste into commercial opportunities such as biofuels and fertilizers remains an emerging market with a few players (e.g., Dubai Carbon, Imdaad, and Etihad) 8. Adoption of food waste management policy and technology has been slow Despite strong policy interventions, the UAE is consistently ranked as one of the top producers of food waste Federal and emirate-level laws and regulations focus on agricultural operations, food safety, water use, and food standards; whereas food waste laws and regulations are limited

Meet Our Judges: Penny McBride

13 January 2020

We spoke with Penny McBride, Vice-Chairwoman of Farmtech Society, to talk about her thoughts about food technology trends in the UAE and abroad. What is your favorite memory related to food? My parents are Japanese and my mother was a terrific cook, she put a lot of care into everything that she made, including cutting vegetables into fun shapes when we were kids. Even when we went on family picnics, everything was tasty and well presented. I think that this sense of deliberate preparation gave me an appreciation for both food quality and how it can bring people together. I love to travel and have so many fond memories of exploring the cuisine of the great places that I have been fortunate to visit over the years. Food is a great way of connecting with the local culture and should never be dismissed as a great understanding of history and present conditions. What makes you excited about food technology? As we face the many challenges of bringing fresh and nutritious food to people, I think that food technology plays such an important role in not only offering nutritious food options but also has the possibility of connecting people to the food that they eat in a way that hasn’t been available for some time. We’re at a unique point in time where people want to understand food systems and the impact that it has on their mental and physical health. Food technology can offer a platform for people to create a new outcome. In your opinion, what key technologies have promising applications for UAE food security challenges? It is not one sole technology at this time that will be brought to the forefront of the UAE Security Challenge but rather an entire host of solutions that can be used to answer some key questions not only for the UAE but the entire world. There are solutions that will be more fitting for communities that may not have the financial resources, to those that have all of the resources that they need at their fingertips. There are many amazing systems, ranging from new labor-saving devices to reconfigured growing systems that will be revealed. Surveys have shown that youth are increasingly disengaged from food and agriculture work. How do we renew youth engagement in this area? Throughout the globe, there is a serious decline of new farmers in this area of work. But I believe that it comes from empowering youth to understand the need for healthy food and the need to create food security within the UAE. Now it is not just lettuce that can be grown but also fruits and proteins that have the potential to be grown indoors. It’s an exciting time to be at the forefront of creating systems of technology that can take what has been used in other parts of the world for some time and make it better for the UAE. When young people see that they hold many of the answers to our critical environmental concerns and realize a system such as CEA – which can be a part of the solution, I believe that they will become engaged. It is necessary to set up educational programs incorporated into existing science curriculum and there are both primary and secondary schools that are offering themselves up as good examples. What are books, papers, and/or articles that you’re reading about food security that you would recommend? In order to understand food security, you also need to understand why and how food is grown. These may not directly address food security but give a good picture of what is happening with food systems in general: Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester Brown, and The Omnivores Dilemma and In Defense of Food by Michel Pollen.