Frankly Speaking: Food crisis will have ‘huge impact’ on Middle East, says agritech entrepreneur David Meszaros

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Updated 19 June 2022

Frankly Speaking: Food crisis will have ‘huge impact’ on Middle East, says agritech entrepreneur David Meszaros

Frankly Speaking: Food crisis will have ‘huge impact’ on Middle East, says agritech entrepreneur David Meszaros
  • CEO of Dutch company SmartKas plans to build “mega smart farm” that can provide food for the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia using renewable energy and water sources
  • Meszaros believes planet can feed 10 billion people by 2050 but not with current system as it will run out of food “within the next decade or so”

DUBAI: The brewing global food crisis will have a “huge impact” on the Middle East and North Africa, whose populations and economies have suffered “a critical blow” owing to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

That is according to Dr. David Meszaros, a technology entrepreneur and CEO of SmartKas, an agritech company that is building the largest smart farm in the Netherlands using artificial intelligence, drones and robotics.

“If we’re talking about today, if we’re talking about the next few weeks, there’s a huge impact for them,” he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking,” the video interview show featuring leading regional and international policymakers and business leaders.

Meszaros also revealed plans to build a “mega smart farm” — run completely sustainably, completely autonomously, using only renewable sources of energy and water — to provide food for the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Speaking more broadly, he said the world can feed 10 billion people by 2050 but not with the current food system. “We’re going to run out of food within the next decade or so,” he said.

The comments come as the UN warns that global hunger levels are at a new record, with food prices about 30 percent higher since the outbreak of the war, food exports dropping significantly worldwide, and inflation soaring in many countries.

In the interview, Meszaros also offered his take on the real reasons for the food crisis, who will suffer most, why new technologies could be the solution and whether can they materialize quickly enough.

Referring to the MENA countries currently facing food insecurity, he said: “Their strong reliance on imported wheat, imported rice, all kinds of grains (and fertilizers) … is completely disrupting their economy, especially the agro-economy. And there is no other choice for the government than to buy food at an increased price to try to meet the demand for food.”

On the upside, according to Meszaros, it is not too late yet as the critical moment will come in another five to 10 years. “If they make the conscious decision to switch now, as in really now,” he said, “then within the next 6-12 months we could see the appearance of smart farms powered by whatever natural resources they have and producing their own food.”

Charles Michel, the EU president, has accused Russia of using food supplies as a “stealth missile” against developing countries, but Meszaros believes the causes of the crisis go deeper than just the war in Ukraine.

“I would say it’s a bit of a stretch to say that (the Russians) are solely to blame. We can all recall that we just had a supply-chain crisis the years prior, as well as an ongoing pandemic — and there are rumors of another wave reaching Europe and the MENA region soon,” he said.




A sunken Ukrainian warship is seen near the pier with the grain storage in Mariupol, scene of heavy destruction in the past weeks amid Russian missile and artillery strikes. (AP Photo) 

“We can actually turn back the clock all the way to the 1960s (as) the whole issue started back then. The world’s population is now two and a half times what it was in the 1960s.”

The global food crisis is “an ongoing, long-expected problem that has been brewing and brewing and brewing” which was “never taken seriously,” Meszaros said. As a case in point, he cited the use of fertilizers, which he said has increased by eight times since the 1960s “but because of diminishing returns, its effectiveness has dropped by about 95 percent.”

He likened the situation to running a business without having insurance. “You just hope for the best that nothing goes awry, but then it did,” he said, “and the frequency of these catastrophic events is just increasing.”

Having said that, Meszaros did not play down the importance of Russia’s role as the world’s largest exporter of fertilizers, or that of Russia and Ukraine jointly as the supplier of 30 percent of the world’s wheat supplies and 70 percent of its sunflower oil. Global food supplies are “under extreme stress (which) has been a huge blow not only to the regional, but global food supply as well,” he said. 




Fertilizers are stored at a factory compound in Moscow. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilizers. (Shutterstock)

“The problem is that we have increasingly relied on an outdated, very, very old, obsolete food system. This food system positions itself on field farming, and, because of that, there is a non-renewable aspect to it,” Meszaros said.

“There is a continuous new need for fertilizers — whether that’s phosphorus, or nitrogen, or potassium-based fertilizers. There is still a need for (such fertilizers) and you cannot just expect the food system to switch in a matter of weeks or months.

“This is why people are seeing (the Russia-Ukraine) war as a massive trigger that finally made us realize that the current, unsustainable and non-renewable system just cannot continue.”

Meszaros is known for being a big advocate of the autonomous smart farm, having created the biggest of its kind in the Netherlands. But how exactly does it work?

He put it this way: “Imagine you have a farm field. You try to grow strawberries on it. Usually, you have a yield of 10 to 15 metric tons on one hectare. But on the same amount of land, when a 10 or 12-layer vertical farm is built by SmartKas, you can grow above 2,000 metric tons — that is, approximately 200 times more high-quality, pesticide-free and sustainably grown fresh strawberries. 




The Food and Agriculture Organization is advocating the adoption of smart farming to meet the world's food needs amid worsening climate change. (Courtesy: FAO.org)

“Not only that, but those are grown 24/7 — so from Jan. 1 until Dec. 31 — and they are grown right next to the city where they are sold.

“We are recirculating the water, we are using solar or wind or whatever energy is possible for us — and this is grown all pesticide-free and sold locally. So, we are cutting out the middleman, there’s no import, there’s no export and, by orders of magnitude, higher amounts. I am here in the Amsterdam location, but we also have a location in London, we have a R&D facility in Hungary and we are building a massive greenhouse in Brazil.”

Elaborating on his plans for creating a “mega farm” for several Gulf Cooperation Council countries, he said discussions are underway with government officials as well as individuals in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“What we believe in, is that, especially for the GCC countries, we could build one massive mega facility that — running completely sustainably, autonomously and using only renewable sources of energy and water — could feed the three countries,” he said.




Discussions are under way to create a “mega farm” for several Gulf Cooperation Council countries, says SmartKas CEO David Meszaros. (AN photo)

Meszaros envisions “a triangle format, where one equal piece of the triangle would be in one of the three countries,” supplemented by the introduction of “autonomous electric vehicles — trucks, essentially — for supplying fresh fruits and vegetables to the largest cities of these three countries.”

With regard to the location of the project, he said: “We can pick the most ideal position from a climate perspective, from a power-line perspective, from a water perspective etc.”

As for the total cost, he believes it would be between $900 million and $1.1 billion, with a capacity for producing “about 50,000 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, which, according to our studies, would be more than enough for the fresh fruit and vegetable supply for these countries.”

Meszaros hopes to rely heavily on solar because, as he put it, “the sun is not in short supply in these countries, land is available and you can utilize it, and there are newer and newer technologies in photovoltaic, or PV, panels — some elevated, some transparent.”

 

 

He said SmartKas is experimenting with transparent PVs “which allow for even more energy generation per target area,” adding that “we have automated robots, strings, drones that can clean (dust and sand) from the panels regularly without human intervention.”

With regard to water supplies, he said there are some potential solutions. “Number one, because the systems themselves are hermetically closed, anything we can recycle. The recycling will not be perfect, we will have some losses. So, we would introduce two water-capture units,” he said.

“One would be a desalination plant and the other one would be an atmospheric water-generation unit that captures the humidity from the air. And, alongside the coastline, we have already done on-site studies on this. There’s just enough humidity in the air to capture between four to six thousand liters of water per unit per day.”

Meszaros said SmartKas “already has investors signed on … in all three countries,” and is talking to European investors and European public entities as well.

 

 

“We expect to finish the early-stage development pre-engineering and designs in the next two years, and then afterwards we can talk about construction,” he said. “Definitely not in the next two years. Probably three, four years (from now) is when we will see signs of this project.”

On a final note, Meszaros outlined some steps that he thinks should be put in place if the world is to feed a projected population of 10 billion by 2050.

“The first is to cut the reliance on fertilizers and inefficient farming methods,” he said.

“Not every country needs to have an autonomous AI-run farm. You can start small. You can use drones to better divide the pesticides, then you can use certain foil technologies, polytunnel technologies — what Spain uses, what Morocco uses — to protect the crops and then slowly every single country can transition.

“But, in essence, using technology and innovative solutions is the key towards providing food security in the world.”

 


Iraq’s Sadr tells judiciary to dissolve parliament in a week

Iraq’s Sadr tells judiciary to dissolve parliament in a week
Updated 14 sec ago

Iraq’s Sadr tells judiciary to dissolve parliament in a week

Iraq’s Sadr tells judiciary to dissolve parliament in a week
  • Muqtada Al-Sadr said on Twitter that the judiciary has one week to dissolve the legislature

BAGHDAD: Powerful Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr on Wednesday called on the country’s judiciary to dissolve parliament by end of next week, threatening unspecific consequences if it does not do what he says.
The populist leader has helped inflame tensions in Iraq over the last two weeks by commanding thousands of followers to storm and occupy parliament, preventing the formation of a government nearly 10 months after elections.
His political opponents, mostly fellow Shiites backed by Iran, have refused to accede to Sadr’s demands, raising fears of fresh unrest and violence in a conflict-weary Iraq.
The judiciary “must dissolve parliament by the end of next week... if not, the revolutionaries will take another stance,” Sadr said in a statement on his Twitter account, without elaborating.
Sadr has called for early elections and unspecified changes to the constitution after withdrawing his lawmakers from parliament in June.
The withdrawal was a protest against his failure to form a government despite holding nearly a quarter of parliament and having enough allies to make up more than half the chamber.
Sadr blames Iran-aligned parties for the failed government formation and accuses them of corruption, but his followers also control some of the worst-managed government departments.
Experts are divided on whether Al-Sadr has any legal basis for his demands. He won the largest share of seats in the election last October, but failed to form a majority government that excluded his Iran-aligned rivals.
Al-Sadr called his followers “revolutionaries” and said “they will take another position” if his demands were not met, hinting at possibly escalating the protest.
The judiciary stated previously it does not have the constitutional right to dissolve parliament and that only lawmakers can vote to dissolve the legislature. Because the parliament has exceeded the constitutional timeline for forming a government following the October elections, what happens next is not clear.
Al-Sadr’s political rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Iran-backed parties, said earlier that the parliament would have to convene to dissolve itself.
Last week, thousands of Al-Sadr’s followers stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses Iraq’s parliament, government buildings and foreign embassies. They overran and occupied the parliament, after which all sessions of the assembly were canceled until further notice. The takeover also effectively halted efforts by the Coordination Framework to try and form the next government after Al-Sadr failed to do so.
Iraq’s political impasse, now in its tenth month, is the longest in the country since the 2003 US-led invasion reset the political order.
In their takeover of parliament, Al-Sadr’s followers stopped short of overrunning the Judicial Council building next door — an act that many consider a coup as the judiciary is the highest legal authority in the country.
(With Reuters and AP)


New buyer sought for first grain to leave Ukraine under deal

New buyer sought for first grain to leave Ukraine under deal
Updated 10 August 2022

New buyer sought for first grain to leave Ukraine under deal

New buyer sought for first grain to leave Ukraine under deal
  • The Sierra Leone-flagged vessel Razoni left the Ukrainian port of Odessa on August 1
  • A five-month delay after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “prompted the buyer and the shipping agent to reach agreement on the cancelation of the order”

BEIRUT: A new buyer is being sought for the first grain shipment to leave Ukraine under a hard-won deal with Russia after the original Lebanese buyer canceled its order, the Ukrainian embassy said.
The Sierra Leone-flagged vessel Razoni left the Ukrainian port of Odessa on August 1 carrying 26,000 tons of maize and had been expected to dock in the Lebanese port of Tripoli at the weekend.
But now the keenly anticipated shipment is looking for a buyer after the shipping agent agreed to a request to cancel the original order in the light of the long delay in delivery.
A five-month delay after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “prompted the buyer and the shipping agent to reach agreement on the cancelation of the order,” the Ukraine embassy said in a statement late Tuesday.
The agent is now studying alternative bids for the maize before deciding on its destination, the embassy added.
The Razoni is currently anchored off the Turkish port of Mersin, according to the Marine Traffic website.
Another ship docked in Turkey Monday with a cargo of 12,000 tons of Ukrainian maize, becoming the first to reach its destination under the deal with Russia brokered by the United Nations and Turkey.
The agreement lifted a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports and established safe corridors through the naval mines laid by Kyiv to ward off any amphibious assault by Moscow on its coast.
Ukraine said Monday it was “optimistic” that the millions of tons of wheat and other grain that had been trapped in its silos and ports could now be exported, in a major boost for world food supplies.


Iraq launches Mosul airport reconstruction

Iraq launches Mosul airport reconstruction
Updated 10 August 2022

Iraq launches Mosul airport reconstruction

Iraq launches Mosul airport reconstruction
  • The airport, which was heavily damaged in the battle, had been disused since the extremists seized Mosul and adjacent areas in 2014

MOSUL: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi on Wednesday inaugurated the reconstruction of Mosul international airport, still in disrepair five years after the battle that expelled Daesh from the city.
Entire sectors of the northern metropolis have remained in ruins since the July 2017 recapture of Mosul by Iraqi forces backed by a US-led multinational coalition.
The airport, which was heavily damaged in the battle, has been disused since the extremists seized Mosul and adjacent areas in 2014.
Kadhemi, in an official ceremony at the airport on the southern outskirts of Mosul, laid the foundation stone for its renovation.
Airport director Haider Ali told AFP that the reconstruction has been assigned to two Turkish companies and is expected to take 24 months.
Despite the slow pace of reconstruction, the city of 1.5 million inhabitants has regained a semblance of normality: shops have reopened, traffic jams are back and international agencies have been funding restoration projects for historic sites.
But huge challenges remain.
At the end of 2021, the Red Cross estimated that 35 percent of west Mosul residents and less than 15 percent in east Mosul, which bore the brunt of the fighting, have enough water to meet their daily needs.
Kadhemi, quoted in a statement issued by his office, said that “huge efforts” were being made to rebuild the city.
In January, a provincial official spoke of a $266-million budget for major reconstruction projects, notably in the health, education and transport sectors for 2021-2022, according to the state news agency INA.


Iran scoffs at claims Russia-launched satellite for ‘spying’

Iran scoffs at claims Russia-launched satellite for ‘spying’
Updated 10 August 2022

Iran scoffs at claims Russia-launched satellite for ‘spying’

Iran scoffs at claims Russia-launched satellite for ‘spying’
  • The satellite, called Khayyam, was launched into space from the Russian-controlled Baikonur Cosmodrome
  • Iran insists its space program is for civilian and defense purposes only, and does not breach the 2015 nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Iran dismissed as “childish” Wednesday claims by the United States that an Iranian satellite launched by Russia is intended for spying.
The satellite, called Khayyam, was launched into space on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the Russian-controlled Baikonur Cosmodrome in neighboring Kazakhstan on Tuesday.
Responding to the launch, Washington said Russia’s growing cooperation with Iran should be viewed as a “profound threat.”
“We are aware of reports that Russia launched a satellite with significant spying capabilities on Iran’s behalf,” a US State Department spokesperson said.
The head of Iran’s Space Agency, Hassan Salarieh, told reporters Wednesday that the spying allegation was “basically childish.”
“Sometimes, some comments are made to incite tensions; saying that we want to spy with the Khayyam satellite... is basically childish,” he said.
“The Khayyam satellite is entirely designed and built to meet the needs of the country in crisis and urban management, natural resources, mines, agriculture and so on.”
Ahead of the launch, there was speculation that Russia might borrow Iran’s satellite temporarily to boost its surveillance of military targets in Ukraine.
Last week, The Washington Post quoted anonymous Western intelligence officials as saying that Russia “plans to use the satellite for several months or longer” to assist its war effort before allowing Iran to take control.
Iran’s space agency stressed on Sunday that it would control the satellite “from day one” in an apparent reaction to the Post’s report.
The purpose of Khayyam is to “monitor the country’s borders,” enhance agricultural productivity and monitor water resources and natural disasters, according to the space agency.
Khayyam is not the first Iranian satellite that Russia has put into space.
In 2005, Iran’s Sina-1 satellite was deployed from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome.
Iran insists its space program is for civilian and defense purposes only, and does not breach the 2015 nuclear deal, or any other international agreement.
Western governments worry that satellite launch systems incorporate technologies interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, something Iran has always denied wanting to build.
Iran successfully put its first military satellite into orbit in April 2020, drawing a sharp rebuke from the United States.


Death and destruction: Israel’s strike on Palestine Tower

Death and destruction: Israel’s strike on Palestine Tower
Updated 10 August 2022

Death and destruction: Israel’s strike on Palestine Tower

Death and destruction: Israel’s strike on Palestine Tower
  • ‘There were screams and we heard explosions from every direction,’ survivor tells Daily Telegraph
  • 3-day bombing of Gaza last week killed 44 Palestinians, including 15 children, and injured hundreds

LONDON: An Israeli missile strike on a block of offices and apartments in Gaza City destroyed homes and killed innocents, the Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday.

The newspaper’s on-the-ground correspondents James Rothwell and Siham Shamalakh reported from Palestine Tower, where residents were forced to “move in darkness” following an Israeli airstrike on Friday that left death and destruction.

The reporters found “clothes, sofas and other fragments of their lives … buried under collapsed walls.”

They added: “In one room, which belonged to a family of eight, blood is smeared across a wall. The air is heavy with smoke and an acrid, chemical smell which residents suspect was left by the missiles.”

The destruction came as Israel launched its biggest attack on the Palestinian territory since May 2021. The missile strike on Friday assassinated Tayseer Al-Jabari, a commander with Islamic Jihad.

Khalil Kanoon, who lives in the tower, told the Telegraph that he and his family were sitting down for lunch when the missiles hit. He reported seven missiles slamming into the building, where he lives with his family.

“My mother, my wife and I were in the kitchen and my children were playing in the bedroom,” said Kanoon.

“I was telling my wife that it seemed Israel was about to strike Gaza, and before I finished the sentence we heard a very big explosion and the windows blew out. There were screams and we heard explosions from every direction.”

Kanoon told the Telegraph that he and his family escaped the destruction, running through shattered glass barefoot, but his mother was wounded in the hand.

He added that the residents, left homeless and with little hope of urgent rehousing, were unaware that Al-Jabari was in the tower and were not pre-warned of the attack.

The airstrike on the tower was the opening attack in a three-day bombardment that killed 44 Palestinians, including 15 children, and injured hundreds.

Israel said it had intelligence of imminent attacks so had to launch the airstrike to stop Islamic Jihad from assaulting Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip.

The ceasefire, introduced on Sunday night, has done little to calm the frayed nerves of the tower’s residents.

Kanoon told the Telegraph: “We condemn this unjustified Israeli strike with so many bombs targeting civilians on a weekend, where they were not pre-warned. We are calling for the buildings to be rebuilt so we can go back to our apartments.”

He added: “The situation is very hard, some families will have to rent (elsewhere), some are staying with relatives and some have nowhere to go. We also want psychological support.”

The Telegraph also visited Shifa hospital in Gaza City, where doctors told the reporters that they were mostly treating lower-limb wounds and head injuries.

“The healthcare system is exposed to collapse, even if there had been no aggression. Every year it is worse,” said Dr. Hani Sami Al-Haytham, chairman of Shifa’s accident and emergency department.

He added: “The ultrasound was donated by the Red Cross, but it is out of order and we have no alternative because of the repeated power cuts ... If the power keeps going off this causes malfunctions.”

The Telegraph said several children had been left with life-changing injuries, including 11-year-old Rahaf Suleiman, whose feet and arm had to be amputated.

Ghassan Abu Ramadan, a 65-year-old retired engineer who was injured in the strikes, said: “You can’t imagine the explosion. We can’t believe we survived.”