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


Khartoum airport will reopen on Wednesday: Head of Sudan civil aviation

Khartoum airport will reopen on Wednesday: Head of Sudan civil aviation
Updated 7 sec ago

Khartoum airport will reopen on Wednesday: Head of Sudan civil aviation

Khartoum airport will reopen on Wednesday: Head of Sudan civil aviation
  • The airport was closed from Monday following the ousting of Sudan's government by the military

KHARTOUM: Khartoum International Airport will reopen on Wednesday at 1400 GMT, the head of Sudanese civil aviation told Reuters.
The airport was closed from Monday following the ousting of Sudan's government by the military.


Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media
Updated 41 min 39 sec ago

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media
  • Details of the attack and its source are under investigation

DUBAI: Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported on Wednesday that gasoline distribution is returning to normal a day after a cyberattack which affected 4,300 gas stations across the country.
The details of the attack and its source are under investigation, Abul-Hassan Firouzabadi, the Secretary of the Supreme Council to Regulate Virtual Space, told the news agency.


Lebanon PM says minister’s criticism of Saudi is not government position

Lebanon PM says minister’s criticism of Saudi is not government position
Updated 27 October 2021

Lebanon PM says minister’s criticism of Saudi is not government position

Lebanon PM says minister’s criticism of Saudi is not government position
  • The Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council said in a statement he rejected Kordahi’s comments

CAIRO: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati said late on Tuesday that comments made by a member of his cabinet who criticized the Saudi military intervention in Yemen did not reflect the cabinet’s position.
“Lebanon is keen on having the best relations with Saudi Arabia and condemns any interference in its internal affairs,” Mikati said.
Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi said late on Tuesday that comments he made around the Yemen war, which started circulating on social media on Tuesday, were made in an August interview before he joined Mikati’s cabinet.
Saudi and Lebanese relations were tested earlier this year when former Lebanese foreign minister Cherbel Wehbe made comments in a television interview about how Gulf states were to blame for the rise of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Wehbe resigned over the comments in May.
In April, Saudi Arabia banned the imports of fruit and vegetables from Lebanon claiming shipments were used for drug smuggling. The ban weighed heavily on a Lebanese economy struggling with the worst financial crises in modern times.
Late on Tuesday, Interior Minister Bassem Mawlawi also made a statement, after the controversy over Kordahi’s comments, emphasizing the strong relations between the two countries followed by a statement by the foreign minister, who also supported Saudi ties.
The Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council said in a statement on Wednesday he rejected Kordahi’s comments adding they reflected little understanding and a superficial reading of the events in Yemen.
Gulf monarchies, who have traditionally channeled funds into Lebanon, have been loathe to come to its rescue amidst its economic meltdown so far, alarmed by the rising influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group.


Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case

Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case
Updated 27 October 2021

Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case

Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case
  • Politicians denounce intelligence office’s decision to summon Geagea in connection with October violence
  • Lebanon’s grand mufti thanks Saudi Arabia for message of solidarity as factions continue to bicker and issue threats

BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Bukhari told Lebanese religious figures on Tuesday that the Kingdom “cares for Lebanon’s security, stability, institutions and co-existence between Christians and Muslims.”

The Saudi embassy’s media office said: “There is no legitimacy for the discourse of strife, nor for one that goes against Lebanon’s Arab identity.”

This was the first Saudi statement since the bloody clashes in Tayouneh on Oct. 14.

At least seven people were killed in the violence in Beirut amid a protest organized by Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s blast at the city’s port.

The protestors, gathered by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, demanded the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar from the investigation.

According to the embassy’s statement, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian “expressed his appreciation for the Kingdom, led by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for never abandoning Lebanon and its people, despite the unfair stances against the Kingdom by some Lebanese parties that only represent themselves.”

Sheikh Derian added that “the Saudi-Lebanese relations have always been and will remain solid regardless of any offensive speeches because our relations are above these speeches and Saudi Arabia will always see Lebanon as an Arab brotherly country.”

The statement comes after the Intelligence Directorate summoned the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, to the Defense Ministry on Wednesday as part of the investigation into the bloodshed in Tayouneh.

The summoning was the motivation for Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi’s spontaneous visits on Tuesday to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Aoun.

Al-Rahi denounced “the summoning of Geagea only by the Intelligence Directorate to testify.”

Charles Jabbour from the Lebanese Forces party told Arab News that “Geagea will not appear at the Defense Ministry on Wednesday.

“They should start with summoning Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah. All parties should give testimonies, beginning with the party that called for the demonstration. Only when a judge dares to summon Nasrallah, will we be able to talk about a state and a judiciary in Lebanon.”

The move to summon Geagea was condemned by several political figures.

Former Premier Saad Hariri refused “to engage in an absurd conflict and the frontlines of a civil war and sectarian divisions.”

He added: “Announcing that Dr. Geagea was informed to appear before the Intelligence Directorate via a plastered notification is absurd and leads the country into further division along with using state machinery for revenge politics.”

Former Premier Fouad Siniora also denounced “the bias of the judicial authorities in the military court over the deplorable Tayouneh events and the continuing violations of the constitutions by those who were entrusted with the task of preserving and protecting it.”

Siniora rejected “the practices seeking to use the judiciary for reprisals against political opponents, and not for its main mission: To seek the truth and achieve justice.”

Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat criticized the “selectivity instead of a transparent and just investigation for a comprehensive justice.”

He said: “All those who fired shots in the Tayouneh events should be arrested, without discrimination, and this destructive and futile political dispute must be ended.”

Samy Gemayel, head of the Lebanese Kataeb Party, announced his rejection to “all the means Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have resorted to in hampering the investigation into the Beirut port blast.”

Hezbollah accused Geagea of firing the first shot on Oct. 14 at the demonstrators who penetrated the anti-Hezbollah and Christian-majority Ain Remaneh area.

Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is also a defendant in the Beirut port explosion investigation, visited Sheikh Derian on Tuesday, reiterating his demand “to either lift immunity from everyone without exception, or adopt the legal and constitutional mechanisms in force in the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.”

So far, all the politicians who have been accused of being involved in the Beirut port blast have declined to appear before Judge Bitar.

Amal Movement and Hezbollah ministers have refused to attend Cabinet sessions unless Judge Bitar is removed and the investigations into Tayouneh are halted, causing a governmental paralysis at a time when Lebanon is in desperate need of reforms to unblock the international aid that would lessen its dire economic situation.

Prime Minister Mikati hoped on Tuesday that “Cabinet meetings will resume as soon as possible to make the decisions required to activate the work of commissions and committees and do what is needed from the government.”

Mikati added that he hoped his government would supervise “the parliamentary elections with full integrity, to enable these elections to renew the political life in Lebanon.”

The joint parliamentary committees held a session on Tuesday and voted to keep the electoral law as it was, thus rejecting Aoun’s proposal to make amendments.

Aoun had objected to holding the elections on March 27 and to the proposals to change the expatriate voting formula by canceling the six seats allocated for Lebanese voters who live abroad.


Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture

Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture
Updated 27 October 2021

Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture

Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture
  • Damascus boasted an abundance of busy bookshops and publishing houses printing and distributing original and translated works

DAMASCUS: The Damascus bookshops and publishing houses that once stood as beacons of Syria’s intellectual life are being replaced with shoe shops and money changers, as culture falls casualty to crisis.

Syria is home to some of the Arab world’s literary giants, and Damascus boasted an abundance of busy bookshops and publishing houses printing and distributing original and translated works. But the city’s literary flare has faded.

A decade-old civil war, a chronic economic crisis and a creative brain drain that has deprived Syria of some of its best writers and many of their readers, have compounded worldwide problems facing the industry, such as the growing popularity of e-books. “People can’t afford to read and bookstores can’t cover the expenses of staying open,” said Muhammad Salem Al-Nouri, 71, who inherited one of the capital’s oldest bookshops from his father.

Last month, the iconic Nobel bookshop in Damascus, founded in 1970, closed its doors.

The Al-Yaqza bookshop, founded in 1939, shut seven years ago, with a shoe store now taking its place.

A money exchange office has replaced the Maysalun bookshop which was open for four decades.

The Al-Nouri bookstore, founded in 1930, is at risk of meeting the same fate.

“We wanted it to remain for our children and grandchildren,” Nouri told AFP. “But the Al-Nouri bookshop is threatened with closure, as are other bookstores.”

The Nouri family currently runs two bookshops in central Damascus.

Three years ago, the family was forced to close a third bookshop they had opened in the capital in 2000 because of poor sales and growing costs.

Its stock remains in place, gathering dust on fully stacked shelves.

On a wooden desk, old photos of celebrity customers, including politicians, artists and poets, are placed on display.

For Sami Hamdan, 40, the cultural heyday of the 1950s and 1960s is long gone. “The war has destroyed what was left” of a cultural scene that was already in retreat, said the former owner of the Al-Yaqza bookstore.

With 90 percent of the population living below the poverty line and prices skyrocketing in the face of the plummeting value of the Syrian pound, “no one is going to invest in a bookshop during conflict,” Hamdan told AFP.

For Khalil Haddad of the Dar Oussama publishing house, books have become a “luxury” for Syrians.

Surging printing costs and logistical difficulties linked to power cuts have combined to make books too expensive for most, the 70-year-old told AFP.

“People’s priorities are food and housing,” he said.