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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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A cooled fruit and vegetable warehouse is pictured in Dubai on July 21, 2020. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP)
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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.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Egypt will strive to help Africa recover from COVID-19: FM

Egypt will strive to help Africa recover from COVID-19: FM
Updated 29 sec ago

Egypt will strive to help Africa recover from COVID-19: FM

Egypt will strive to help Africa recover from COVID-19: FM
  • Egypt has started locally producing China’s Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine in preparation for exporting surpluses to African countries
  • FM Shoukry handed a letter to Senegalese President Macky Sall from his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El-Sisi that discussed ways to strengthen bilateral ties

CAIRO: Egypt will spare no effort to help African states recover from the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said at the seventh session of the Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa.

Egypt has started locally producing China’s Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine in preparation for exporting surpluses to African countries.

Shoukry said the pandemic has impeded efforts to achieve peace and stability on the continent, and has exacerbated humanitarian crises.

It has become impossible to deal with the pandemic solely as a global health crisis, as it has affected all aspects of life, he added. 

Shoukry highlighted issues that Africa should prioritize, including developing a common vision to address shortcomings in the continent’s medical infrastructure, such as dependence on foreign medicines and vaccines.

He also noted the importance of addressing the root causes of terrorism and armed conflicts in Africa by rebuilding societies that have suffered from the scourge of war and conflict.

He praised the selection of Senegal for the African Union presidency from February 2022, and expressed Cairo’s readiness to provide all forms of support to the country in light of Egypt’s experience as president of the bloc in 2019.

Shoukry handed a letter to Senegalese President Macky Sall from his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El-Sisi that discussed ways to strengthen bilateral ties, as well as issues of common concern.


Egyptian, Russian navies launch joint exercise

Egyptian, Russian navies launch joint exercise
Updated 07 December 2021

Egyptian, Russian navies launch joint exercise

Egyptian, Russian navies launch joint exercise
  • Friendship Bridge 4 is part of Egypt’s plan to carry out joint military training with friendly countries

CAIRO: The Egyptian and Russian navies have launched the joint exercise Friendship Bridge 4, which will last for several days in the Mediterranean.

It began with a ceremony welcoming Russian forces at the Alexandria Naval Base in the presence of Lt. Gen. Ahmed Khaled Hassan Saeed, who delivered a speech in which he stressed the importance of cooperation between the two countries’ navies.

Friendship Bridge 4 is part of Egypt’s plan to carry out joint military training with friendly countries.

 Meanwhile, the armed forces of Egypt and Jordan concluded their joint exercise Aqaba-6. The training, which took place in Jordan, included a joint operation to eliminate an armed terrorist outpost inside a border village, and the interception of a merchant ship.


Beirut blast probe judge cleared to continue investigation

Beirut blast probe judge cleared to continue investigation
Updated 07 December 2021

Beirut blast probe judge cleared to continue investigation

Beirut blast probe judge cleared to continue investigation
  • A Beirut court rejected the last of the suits preventing Tarek Bitar from questioning top officials

BEIRUT: The probe into last year’s deadly Beirut port blast has been cleared to resume after being suspended for more than a month on legal claims against its lead investigator, judge Tarek Bitar, a judicial source said.
A Beirut court rejected the last of the suits preventing Bitar from questioning top officials on Tuesday.
“They have reversed the decision that had led to the suspension of the probe and he can now resume his work for sure,” Nizar Saghieh, head of the Legal Agenda, a research and advocacy organization, told Reuters.
The resumption could be temporary should further legal complaints be filed, he said.
The investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020, blast that killed more than 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed large swathes of the city has made little headway amid pushback from powerful factions, some of whom lead smear campaigns and filed multiple suits against Bitar.
The leader of the Iranian-backed, armed Shiite Muslim political movement Hezbollah has repeatedly said he wanted Bitar removed from the case and the row over him has spilled over into government, with Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s cabinet unable to meet since Oct. 12.
Many Lebanese are angry that more than one year on from the blast no senior official has been held accountable for the country’s worst peace-time disaster as it slips into political and economic meltdown.
Bitar has sought to question senior politicians, including former ministers and members of parliament, since July but nearly all have spurned him.
He is the second judge to take charge of the investigation after a legal complaint against the partiality of his predecessor Fady Sawan saw him removed in February.


Motorcycle explosion in southern Iraqi city kills at least 4

Motorcycle explosion in southern Iraqi city kills at least 4
Updated 07 December 2021

Motorcycle explosion in southern Iraqi city kills at least 4

Motorcycle explosion in southern Iraqi city kills at least 4

BASRA: At least four people were killed and 20 wounded in an explosion in Iraq's southern city of Basra, police and hospital sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
Police are still investigating the cause of the blast, which took place in the city centre, near a main hospital. The explosion set fire to at least one vehicle and damaged a minibus.
One police source said that an initial investigation showed that a motorcycle rigged with explosives could have been the cause of the blast. 


UAE’s new 50-dirham banknote features Sheikh Zayed

UAE’s new 50-dirham banknote features Sheikh Zayed
Updated 07 December 2021

UAE’s new 50-dirham banknote features Sheikh Zayed

UAE’s new 50-dirham banknote features Sheikh Zayed
  • It is the first polymer banknote to be circulated in the country
  • The current 50- dirham note will continue to be used

DUBAI: UAE rulers witnessed the launch of a new 50-dirham banknote on Tuesday, in celebration of the country’s 50th National Day. 
The initiative comes in honor of the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, and the country’s first generation of rulers to commemorate their dedication and historical role in uniting the country.
It is the first polymer banknote to be circulated in the country.
“We see in this issuance the new phase that UAE will enter, and a renewed pledge to continue its growth path. The occasion also allowed us to express our appreciation and gratitude to our founding fathers by issuing a new AED50 banknote to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the UAE,” said Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Central Bank of the UAE. 
The front of the new banknote features a portrait of the late Sheikh Zayed on the right, and the memorial picture of the founding fathers after signing the union document. 
Meanwhile, the back side includes a picture of the late Sheikh Zayed signing the union agreement as well as illustration of the Etihad Museum, which witnessed the establishment of the union and the raising of the UAE flag for the first time.
According to state news agency WAM, the new banknote will be available in Central Bank branches and ATMs ‘in the near future’.
The current 50- dirham note will continue to be used.
Polymer banknotes are said to be more durable and sustainable than traditional cotton paper banknotes, lasting two or more times longer in circulation. They can also be completely recycled, thus reducing their environmental footprint.