Middle East weighs agri-tech solutions as pandemic underscores urgency of food security

With unused desert land and sandy soils, the Middle East — and Saudi Arabia — is being touted as ideal destinations for a radical new low-energy start-up that is set to revolutionize how the region gets its food. (AFP)
1 / 5
With unused desert land and sandy soils, the Middle East — and Saudi Arabia — is being touted as ideal destinations for a radical new low-energy start-up that is set to revolutionize how the region gets its food. (AFP)
Famine is a realistic concern, as food production struggles to keep up with population growth. (AFP)
2 / 5
Famine is a realistic concern, as food production struggles to keep up with population growth. (AFP)
LNC is aiming to help bridge the gap in food production and population growth. (Supplied)
3 / 5
LNC is aiming to help bridge the gap in food production and population growth. (Supplied)
A technician injects a palm tree with a serum to combat the red weevil insect in a palm field in the desert oasis of Al-Ain, UAE. (Photo by KARIM SAHIB / AFP)
4 / 5
A technician injects a palm tree with a serum to combat the red weevil insect in a palm field in the desert oasis of Al-Ain, UAE. (Photo by KARIM SAHIB / AFP)
A cooled fruit and vegetable warehouse is pictured in Dubai on July 21, 2020. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP)
5 / 5
A cooled fruit and vegetable warehouse is pictured in Dubai on July 21, 2020. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP)
Short Url
Updated 29 March 2021

Middle East weighs agri-tech solutions as pandemic underscores urgency of food security

Middle East weighs agri-tech solutions as pandemic underscores urgency of food security
  • GCC countries avoided nightmare scenario of mass food shortages during the peak of the coronavirus crisis 
  • Challenges loom as farming methods and climate change deplete freshwater stocks and turn soil to dust 

DUBAI: In an age of plentiful food, it is often easy to forget just how fragile supply chains are until disaster strikes. One bloc taking stock of its pantry is the GCC, whose members import some 90 percent of their food.

Although the GCC countries managed to avoid the nightmare scenario of mass shortages during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, the crisis has certainly given Arab capitals plenty to chew over concerning their long-term food security.

“Ministries really got a wake-up call during this time of distress and are trying to escalate their own initiatives, being able to have more local produce and be more food secure in the years to come,” Atle Idland, general manager of Desert Control Middle East, told Arab News.

“The pandemic has been a catalyst for many countries and governments to get their plans up from the table and into action.”

Desert Control is among a crop of agri-tech firms that will showcase their innovations at Expo 2020 Dubai in October this year.

The Norwegian start-up has patented Liquid NanoClay (LNC), an agri-technology that binds a mineral-rich solution to grains of desert sand, converting once unusable land into arable soil, reducing water irrigation by 50 percent and radically improving crop yields.




Famine is a realistic concern, as food production struggles to keep up with population growth. (AFP)

“The region has been producing a very limited number of agricultural crops, due to the climate itself, and also due to the water scarcity in the region,” Idland said.

“Give that both Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are running low on their aquifers of fresh water, and that agriculture is using 75 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, this is not a sustainable process. It cannot continue.”

According to the UN, some 135 million people could lose their homes and livelihoods to creeping desertification by 2030. Inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa are more vulnerable than most.

Unless societies change their farming practices, Idland warns, the world has just 60 years of agricultural opportunities left before fresh water runs dry and desertification claims the last of its fertile soils.

“Adopting new technologies for agriculture and food security is definitely something that is on the table right now and is being implemented as we speak,” he said.




Atle Idland, general manager of Desert Control Middle East

Growing food at a local level has the added benefit of reducing the industry’s carbon footprint by cutting the amount of air freight needed to meet demand.

Idland claims LNC is radical in the sense that it is a low energy and purely mineral-based product containing zero chemical agents. “It’s only clay, water and oxygen that is mixed together to produce a Liquid NanoClay solution,” he said.

The Middle East is described by Idland as a major potential marketplace for LNC to lay down roots. “We are one, and not the only one, that can be a catalyst for utilizing unused desert land and sandy soils to do large scale agriculture,” he said.

In its initial commercial trials in the UAE, according to Idland, Desert Control’s product was found to produce 20 percent more watermelons and 60 percent more pearl millet compared with traditional means, while using just half the water.

Saudi Arabia is next in line.

“I came back from the Kingdom in early February and we are having some interesting discussions there, both within the agricultural sector and the sporting field sector,” Idland told Arab News.

“Everybody has the need to go greener, more sustainable and with water savings. Water scarcity is really the main driver for this trend.”

INNUMBERS

75% - Proportion of global freshwater used by agriculture.

135 million - Livelihoods imperiled by desertification by 2030.

10 billion - Projected global population by the year 2050.

On the downside, agri-technologies such as vertical farming and greenhouse cultivation, which allow non-native crops to grow closer to sources of demand, are known to consume a lot of energy for lighting and warmth and to desalinate water for irrigation.

Scientists believe desertification and climate change are intricately connected, although human mismanagement is also responsible. Increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations reduce the amount of heat radiation escaping to space and thus lead to a gradual increase in global temperatures.

Rising temperatures, coupled with changing precipitation patterns, are expected in turn to increase the rates of dryland degradation and desertification. Already, every year the world’s deserts encroach upon an area roughly 20 times the size of Denmark, swallowing up the rich biodiversity that lives in the soil.

“We will be in big trouble,” Idland said. “Based on research, knowledge, intent and visions, everybody now is putting serious effort into this. We are glad to be part of that journey and, hopefully, to be a part of that solution. Making Earth green again — that’s our slogan.”

By 2050, the world’s food systems will need to feed an estimated 10 billion people. But at the current rate of production, only half that number will be fed. Widespread famine is a real possibility.

At the same time, outmoded agricultural practices are a significant emitter of greenhouse gases.

“With climate change affecting food production, it’s not hard to see that we are in a vicious cycle,” said Mariam Almheiri, UAE minister of state for food security, while taking part in a recent pre-Expo 2020 Dubai Thematic Week session.

“In short, nothing short of an entire paradigm shift in how we produce food and deliver it from farm to fork is needed if we are to create sustainable food systems, no hunger, and food security for the world.”

The concerns were echoed by Reem Al-Hashimy, UAE minister of state for international cooperation and managing director of the Expo 2020 Dubai bid committee.

“Today, food security stands as a hallowed and unassailable tenet of true human dignity,” she said. “The capacity of all nations was tested in the early weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed the vulnerability of our global food value chain.

“Yet in the wake of that harsh examination, now we are presented with an opportunity to reimagine our chain and learn to eat and earn cleaner and smarter, and in a more sustainable fashion.”

Later this year, Expo 2020 Dubai will bring together stakeholders from every part of the chain, from producers to facilitators to consumers.

“Expo will be a marketplace for ideas and innovation, a chance to absorb best practice from more than 190 countries, and take it home with you, and apply it into pastures — learning global and practicing local, overcoming shared challenges through intelligent and transferable solutions,” Al-Hashimy said.

Another challenge is food waste, whereby one in three mouthfuls is wasted by producers, retailers and consumers. Poor farming practices are also responsible for deforestation, land degradation and pollution.


ALSO READ:  How the Arab region can catch up with the future of food


“We know we must do better,” Al-Hashimy said. “We will actively seek fertile alternatives to antiquated practices that strip larger and larger stretches of arable land, while reaping ever decreasing economic benefits.

“We are already paying the price for encroaching too vigorously on the natural world, in the form of the zoonotic disease COVID-19 that has decimated lives and economies around the world.”

Future economic models must work for the benefit of billions of people whose quality of life depends on an equitable system that rewards responsible and productive practices and protects the land these communities call home, said Al-Hashimy.

“This is a moment in which meaningful and effective international cooperation can entirely recast antiquated structures founded on centuries-old imbalances — imbalances we can no longer sustain and under which we will never truly thrive.”

_____________

Twitter: @CalineMalek


Egypt receives 546,400 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine

Egypt receives 546,400 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine
Updated 23 sec ago

Egypt receives 546,400 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine

Egypt receives 546,400 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine
  • Health minister said total number of registered infected people in Egypt is 296,929, with 16,970 deaths

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Health and Population Hala Zayed announced that 546,400 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been received from the French government.

The minister explained that the doses are part of the COVAX agreement, in cooperation with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF, within the framework of the state’s plan to diversify and expand the provision of vaccines to citizens.

Dr. Khaled Mujahid, assistant minister of health and population and the official spokesman for the ministry, said that this shipment was received in two batches, one of which arrived last Friday and the other yesterday at Cairo International Airport. He stressed that the Egyptian state was sparing no effort in providing free vaccines to citizens.

Mujahid explained that the shipment would be subject to analysis in the laboratories of the Egyptian Drug Authority and that the AstraZeneca vaccine would be distributed to the 781 vaccination centers throughout the governorates of the country.

He said that the AstraZeneca vaccine has proven to be effective in preventing infection with coronavirus virus disease (COVID-19) and explained that it is to be taken in two doses 28 days apart.

Mujahid said that centers designated to vaccinate people who wish to travel are equipped with all the requirements for data registration and the issuance of documented vaccine certificates with QR codes.

In recent days, Egypt has witnessed a noticeable increase in the number of people infected with the virus, as part of what officials consider the fourth wave. The Ministry of Health recorded on Monday 653 new cases and 19 deaths. 

Mujahid stated that the total number of registered infected people in Egypt is 296,929, with 16,970 deaths.

Zayed announced in previous statements that Egypt has manufactured 5 million vaccine doses within the country and has so far vaccinated 13 million people. 

She added that the ministry aims to vaccinate from 7 to 8 million citizens per month and hopes to have 40 million people vaccinated by December. 

An additional production line is being prepared at a factory in Giza with production starting Nov. 1. The production capacity will be 300,000 doses per day. 

Egypt owns two vaccine manufacturing factories, with one focusing on national needs and the other on production and distribution to Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.


Protesters against Sudan peace deal block roads, close key port

Protesters against Sudan peace deal block roads, close key port
Updated 53 min 12 sec ago

Protesters against Sudan peace deal block roads, close key port

Protesters against Sudan peace deal block roads, close key port
  • Last year, several rebel groups signed a landmark accord with the transitional government
  • Beja tribes people in eastern Sudan have criticised the fragile peace deal saying it does not represent them

KHARTOUM: Dozens of demonstrators in Sudan have blocked key roads and a crucial port in the country’s east in protest at parts of a peace deal with rebel groups, a protest leader said Monday.
Last year, several rebel groups signed a landmark accord with the transitional government which came to power shortly after the April 2019 ouster of long-time autocrat Omar Al-Bashir.
“We’ve blocked the (main) road connecting Port Sudan with the rest of the country since Friday as well as the main container and oil export terminals,” protest leader Sayed Abuamnah told AFP.
Beja tribes people in eastern Sudan have criticized the fragile peace deal saying it does not represent them.
Port Sudan in the Red Sea state is the country’s main seaport and a vital trade hub for its crippled economy dependent on exports.
The protests come as Sudan grapples with deep economic woes left in the wake of Bashir’s ouster, whose three-decade iron-fisted rule was marked by prolonged US sanctions.
“The closure will not be lifted until our demands to nullify the parts about east Sudan in the peace deal are met,” Abuamnah added.
Aboud Sherbini, a port worker, confirmed the “port has completely shut down and the flow of imports and exports has stopped.”
Other witnesses from the restive eastern Qedaref state also told AFP that roads were blocked.
Abuamnah said protesters have called for the government’s dissolution and the formation of a non-partisan administration to lead the transition.
Similar protests in and around the port broke out last year over the October 2020 peace deal.
The government has yet to make a comment on the latest closure.


Pfizer COVID-19 jab safe for children aged 5-11, clinical trial results show

Pfizer COVID-19 jab safe for children aged 5-11, clinical trial results show
Updated 20 September 2021

Pfizer COVID-19 jab safe for children aged 5-11, clinical trial results show

Pfizer COVID-19 jab safe for children aged 5-11, clinical trial results show
  • The vaccine would be administered at a lower dosage than for people 12 and over

FRANKFURT: Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday said clinical trial results showed their coronavirus vaccine was “safe, well tolerated” and produced a “robust” immune response in children aged five to 11, adding that they would seek regulatory approval shortly.
The vaccine would be administered at a lower dosage than for people 12 and over, the companies said in a statement. They said they would submit their data to regulatory bodies in the European Union, the United States and around the world “as soon as possible.”


Lebanese lawmakers convene to approve Cabinet after power delay

Lebanese lawmakers convene to approve Cabinet after power delay
Updated 20 September 2021

Lebanese lawmakers convene to approve Cabinet after power delay

Lebanese lawmakers convene to approve Cabinet after power delay
  • Lebanon’s worsening fuel shortages translating into few or any hours of state-backed power a day

BEIRUT: Lebanese lawmakers convened Monday to confirm the country’s new government following a power outage and a broken generator that briefly delayed the start of the parliament session.
It took some 40 minutes before electricity came back on. The incident, which underscored the deep crisis roiling the small Mediterranean country amid an unprecedented economic meltdown, was derided on social media.
Lebanese have been suffering electricity blackouts and severe shortages in fuel, diesel and medicine for months, threatening to shut down hospitals, bakeries and schools. Lines stretching several kilometers (miles) of people waiting to fill up their tanks are a daily occurrence at gas stations across the country.
The economic crisis, unfolding since 2019, has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst in the world in the last 150 years. Within months, it had impoverished more than half of the population and left the national currency in freefall, driving inflation and unemployment to previously unseen levels.
A new government headed by billionaire businessman Najib Mikati was finally formed earlier this month after a 13-month delay, as politicians bickered about government portfolios at a time when the country was sliding deeper into financial chaos and poverty.
The new government is expected to undertake critically needed reforms, as well as manage public anger and tensions resulting from the planned lifting of fuel subsidies by the end of the month. Lebanon’s foreign reserves have been running dangerously low, and the central bank in the import-dependent country has said it was no longer able to support its $6 billion subsidy program.
The government is also expected to oversee a financial audit of the Central Bank and resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package.
Few believe that can be done with a government that leaves power in the hands of the same political parties that the public blames for corruption and mismanagement of Lebanon’s resources.
Lawmakers are to debate the new government’s policy statement before a vote of confidence is held on Monday evening — a vote which Mikati's proposed Cabinet expects to win with the support from majority legislators.
Mikati, one of Lebanon’s richest businessmen who is returning to the post of prime minister for the third time, pledged to get to work immediately to ease the day-to-day suffering of the Lebanese.
“What happened here today with the electricity outage pales in comparison to what the Lebanese people have been suffering for months,” Mikati told lawmakers after power returned and the session got underway.
The session is being held at a Beirut theater known as the UNESCO palace so that parliament members could observe social distancing measures imposed over the coronavirus pandemic.
“What can I say, it’s a farce,” lawmaker Taymour Jumblatt, the son of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, said when asked about the electricity outage.
“It is not a good sign,” said lawmaker Faisal Sayegh. “We need to light up this hall, to say to people that we can light up the country.”


Guilt-riven Lebanon expats ship aid as crisis bites at home

Guilt-riven Lebanon expats ship aid as crisis bites at home
Updated 20 September 2021

Guilt-riven Lebanon expats ship aid as crisis bites at home

Guilt-riven Lebanon expats ship aid as crisis bites at home
  • Lebanon’s economy has collapsed under a long-running political class accused of incompetence and corruption
  • Lebanon is running out of fuel and gas to medicine and bread

DUBAI: Lebanese expats in the wealthy UAE, many of them riven with guilt, are scrambling to ship essential goods and medicine to family and friends in their crisis-stricken home country.
“How can I sit in the comfort of my home in air-conditioning and a full fridge knowing that my people, my friends and family, are struggling back home?” asked Jennifer Houchaime.
“Oh, the guilt is very, very real,” said the 33-year-old resident of Dubai, a member of the United Arab Emirates which is home to tens of thousands of Lebanese.
“It’s guilt, shame and nostalgia.”
Lebanon’s economy has collapsed under a long-running political class accused of incompetence and corruption.
Its currency has plunged to an all-time low, sparking inflation and eroding the purchasing power of a population denied free access to their own savings by stringent banking controls.
Lebanon is running out of everything, from fuel and gas to medicine and bread, and more than three-quarters of its population is now considered to be living under the poverty line.
Social media platforms are filled with posts by Lebanese appealing for contacts abroad to send basic goods such as baby formula, diapers, painkillers, coffee and sanitary pads.

Aya Majzoub, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said trust in the Lebanese government is at an all-time low.
“It is unsurprising that local and grassroots initiatives have sprung up to fill this gap while bypassing the government that they view as corrupt, inefficient and incompetent,” she told AFP.
With no faith in the Lebanese authorities, expats have taken it upon themselves to transport aid.
Houchaime and a number of her Lebanese friends fill their bags with over-the-counter medication and food items every time they travel home.
The Dubai-based airline Emirates is allowing an extra 10 kilos (22 pounds) of baggage for passengers to Beirut from certain destinations until the end of this month.
For Dima Hage Hassan, 33, a trip to Lebanon opened her eyes to the unfolding disaster.
“I was in Lebanon, and I had money, and I had a car with fuel, and I went around from pharmacy to pharmacy unable to find medicine for my mother’s ear infection,” she said.

A fellow Lebanese, Sarah Hassan, packed for her second trip home in less than two months, taking only a few personal items while the rest was supplies for family and friends.
This time, the 26-year-old was taking a couple of battery-operated fans, painkillers, sanitary pads, skin creams, and cold and flu medication.
“A couple of my friends are going as well to Lebanon, so all of us are doing our part.”
It’s the same story in other parts of the Gulf, where Lebanese have long resided, fleeing from decades of conflict and instability in their own country.
“It’s hard not to feel guilty. When I went to Lebanon a month ago, I hadn’t been for two years. When I stepped out into the city, I was so shocked,” said Hassan.
“Then you come back here to the comfort of your home and everything is at your fingertips... it’s such an overwhelming feeling of guilt.”