UAE Food Security Challenges

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 Finalists: Pure Harvest Smart Farms

31 August 2020

Pure Harvest Farms is a greenhouse system that allows year-round production of affordable, quality fresh fruits and vegetables. They are 1 of our 12 Finalist Teams who will compete in the upcoming FoodTech Challenge Awards Ceremony. Read more about them below. What makes your team excited about your idea and food technology?: We are excited by the opportunity to contribute towards solving one of the major food security challenges in The Middle East region and globally. The UN projects that the global human population is set to reach 10B by 2050, requiring us collectively to produce 70% more food. With climate change making it more difficult to grow food using traditional open-field methods of farming, technology-driven solutions are needed to meet the challenge of feeding 10B human mouths. In addition, consumer preferences are shifting towards more organic, locally grown products which, along with urbanization, are making it more difficult to deliver food supplies to populations. This sheer challenge presents us with an exciting opportunity to drive change, through innovative food-tech enabled solutions. What is the biggest source of motivation for your team to work on this project?: We as a team are motivated by the prospect of making a significant impact on solving major regional food supply challenges. Since our team began working in the agribusiness sector, we have been approached by senior political leadership from around the region. The opportunity to not only deliver a tangible food product to grateful local consumers but also to advise governments on food security strategy is greatly fulfilling. Could you tell us something unique about your team that makes you a strong contender to be in the Top 4 winners?: Our team has managed to successfully design and deploy an IoT- enabled growing system which is the first to demonstrate year-round production of fresh fruits and vegetables in the UAE. Compared to other more traditional startups in the software or internet sectors, we have collectively overcome huge challenges in constructing an asset-intensive, hardware technology for food production in the Middle East. This has included not only design and engineering work, but also construction, operations, sales, and fundraising (we raised the largest agro-tech seed round in the Middle East history). Lastly, if you are selected as one of the four winners, how does your team plan to use the prize money? Our team will use the prize proceeds to fund much-needed research & development activities on our farm. Among the priorities we are working on include the design of a new automatic roof washer, desert-friendly artificial LED lighting systems, and also a pilot commercial farm to produce algae for Omega-3 fatty acids production.



Meet Our Finalists: Everfresh Biocoating Technology

31 August 2020

Everfresh Biocating Technology provides nature-based edible food coating to extend shelf-life and reduce food waste. They are 1 of our 12 Finalist Teams who will compete in the upcoming FoodTech Challenge Awards Ceremony. Read more about them below. What makes your team excited about your idea and food technology?: Everfresh addresses two challenges, post-harvest food loss and seafood waste disposal. These represent an economic and environmental burden to the UAE and to the rest of the world. Everfresh’s technology uses a sprayable chitosan-based formulation, which provides a protective, edible coating for agriculture produce while recycling seafood waste. In Everfresh, we utilize the main building block that nature has developed as protective barrier against a multitude of organisms. What makes us excited about our idea is that the application of Everfresh ensures that sustainable objectives will be met. These includes reduction of food waste, reduction of greenhouse gas emission, and positive economic impact. Reduction of food waste equates directly to increased revenue for distributors and retailers, and end consumers will find fruits and vegetables with improved freshness and extended shelf-life. The fact we can reduce food waste, and protect agriculture produce while recycling seafood waste is a win-win situation from a sustainable and economic point of view, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, when the food security and nutrition of millions of people around the world are affected. In Everfresh, we believe that now more than ever it’s important to join efforts using science alongside nature to secure food supply and minimize food loss and waste. We are excited to start doing our part to make this world a better place, where there is more food for everyone and less waste. A better place for the present and future generations and for the environment. What is the biggest source of motivation for your team to work on this project?: Our biggest motivation is to join the fight against food loss and waste. We aim to promote sustainability practices through the application of our technology to agriculture produce. Our goal is to minimize food loss and waste using natural compounds for both retailers and consumers, and to make the fruits and vegetables last longer, resulting in better-quality and more food available for everyone. The sustainable approach we adopt in Everfresh rely on the use of the seafood industry waste as the main source of the raw material used for our innovative product. Could you tell us something unique about your team that makes you a strong contender to be in the Top 4 winners?: We all come from different academic backgrounds, have expertise in the field of biotechnology, chemical engineering, and sales & marketing. Most importantly, we share the passion and strategic vision of the company to make this business successful and achieve great performance, promoting economic sustainability, and bringing cutting-edge technology to the UAE. Lastly, if you are selected as one of the four winners, how does your team plan to use the prize money? If we are selected as one of the four winners, we plan to join the Catalyst Accelerator Program, and relocate to Abu Dhabi to establish our business. Patent application is among our first priorities once fund is secured as the technology used in Everfresh is novel. The initial investment will be mainly used to rent the facility, acquire equipment, pay operating expenses, conduct further R&D. Everfresh is seeking seed funding to build a pilot production line for the purpose of proof of concept, entering the market, building the brand awareness and attracting potential customers, and preparing its commercial launch. Everfresh team also seeks to contribute a specific percentage of the award money for charity purposes, particularly helping cancer patients.



Meet Our Finalists: Jones Food Company

31 August 2020

Jones Food Company is an automated sustainable vertical farm driven by AI. They are 1 of our 12 Finalist Teams who will compete in the upcoming FoodTech Challenge Awards Ceremony. Read more about them below. What makes your team excited about your idea and food technology?: Vertical farming technology brings agriculture and food production to locations and areas which were previously limited by a number of factors including; climate, space, and resources. At Jones Food Company we are on a mission to be the World’s Farm, producing food for everyone, everywhere such that we are never limited in what we want to eat and how we feed our society. JFC’s idea so exciting because we bring this technology – and its huge potential – to the masses by constructing farms at affordable prices both for builders but also for the end customer. We believe we are unique in the vertical farming industry in this regard. What is the biggest source of motivation for your team to work on this project?: To achieve our vision; building reliable vertical farms – at scale – around the world in order to improve the ways we farm and consume food. Could you tell us something unique about your team that makes you a strong contender to be in the Top 4 winners?: Our team brings a hugely diverse set of experiences and achievements to one common goal. We also bring a huge range of corporate experience from the likes of Jaguar Land Rover and Gazprom to owning and operating our own consumer businesses and across functions such as strategy, finance, operations, recruitment, construction, and consumer retail. This combination of experience alongside our clarity of vision has created a truly dynamic team. We truly believe our technology is solving a problem that we can implement effectively. Lastly, if you are selected as one of the four winners, how does your team plan to use the prize money? Construction. Expanding into international markets carries plenty of risks so JFC plans to use this prize money to reduce risks associated with entering the U.A.E market, kick-starting the construction of a new vertical farm growing leafy greens within miles of the end consumer and harvesting on the very same day the produce is eaten.