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.”

 


Student killed, 15 injured in Egypt’s school fence collapse as authorities vow action

Student killed, 15 injured in Egypt’s school fence collapse as authorities vow action
Updated 03 October 2022

Student killed, 15 injured in Egypt’s school fence collapse as authorities vow action

Student killed, 15 injured in Egypt’s school fence collapse as authorities vow action
  • Section of a concrete stair fence collapsed as students rushed upstairs to their classrooms.

CAIRO: Egypt’s Minister of Education Reda Hegazy ordered an investigation into the collapse of a stair fence in a girls’ preparatory school in Giza, killing one student and injuring 15 more.

According to reports, the police was notified that a section of a concrete stair fence collapsed as students rushed upstairs to their classrooms.

In an official statement published on Sunday, Hegazy paid condolences to the family of the deceased student and ordered a probe into the incident.

The head of the educational directorate, school principal, and supervisors of the school building were referred to the relevant authorities for further investigation as the minister vowed “firm and urgent action against those responsible,” read the ministry’s statement.

Hegazy also ordered a review into all the school buildings nationwide to ensure safety of the students. A report will be submitted to the ministry with the results of the review.


Israel military kills 2 Palestinians during West Bank raid: Ministry

Israel military kills 2 Palestinians during West Bank raid: Ministry
Updated 03 October 2022

Israel military kills 2 Palestinians during West Bank raid: Ministry

Israel military kills 2 Palestinians during West Bank raid: Ministry
  • The identities of the two men were not immediately known

TEL AVIV: The Israeli military shot and killed two Palestinians during a raid in the occupied West Bank early Monday, Palestinian officials said.
The military alleged that the men tried to ram their car into soldiers, a claim that could not be independently verified. Palestinians and rights group often accuse Israeli troops of using excessive force against Palestinians, who live under a 55-year military occupation with no end in sight. Israel says it follows strict rules of engagement and opens fire in life-threatening situations.
The military said soldiers were attempting to arrest a suspect in the Jalazone refugee camp near the city of Ramallah when the two Palestinians allegedly attempted to run over soldiers with their car. The soldiers opened fire on the car, the military said.
The Palestinian Civil Affairs Authority, which coordinates on civilian issues with Israel, said the military shot and killed the two men. Their identities were not immediately known.
Israel has been carrying out nightly arrest raids in the West Bank since the spring, when a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israelis killed 19 people. Israel says its operations are aimed at dismantling militant infrastructure and preventing future attacks. The Palestinians see the nightly incursions into their cities, villages and towns as Israel’s way of deepening its occupation of lands they want for their hoped-for state.
The Israeli raids have killed some 100 Palestinians, making this year the deadliest since 2016. Israel says most of those killed have been militants but local youths protesting the incursions as well as some civilians have also been killed in the violence. Hundreds have been rounded up, with many placed in so-called administrative detention, which allows Israel to hold them without trial or charge.
The raids have driven up tensions in the West Bank, with an uptick in Palestinian shooting attacks against Israelis. They have also drawn into focus the growing disillusionment among young Palestinians over the tight security coordination between Israeli and the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority, who work together to apprehend militants.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and 500,000 Jewish settlers now live in some 130 settlements and other outposts among nearly 3 Palestinians. The Palestinians want that territory, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for their future state.


Palestinian activists turn to TikTok amid Israeli anger over ‘propaganda videos’

Palestinian activists turn to TikTok amid Israeli anger over ‘propaganda videos’
Updated 02 October 2022

Palestinian activists turn to TikTok amid Israeli anger over ‘propaganda videos’

Palestinian activists turn to TikTok amid Israeli anger over ‘propaganda videos’
  • After Facebook, Instagram clamp down on content, Chinese-owned platform sees user surge

RAMALLAH: Palestinian activists are turning to TikTok to rally against activities by Israel, which accused the social media platform of igniting the security situation in the Middle East in recent weeks.

Israel had successfully pushed Meta to block thousands of Palestinian accounts and content from its social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, in addition to limiting Palestinian content through Twitter and Snapchat. However, TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has rejected the Israeli allegations and refused to change its policies.

Thousands of Palestinian social media activists switched to TikTok during the past few weeks to enjoy online freedom and bypass Facebook’s restrictions.

Amer Hamdan, a Palestinian political activist, told Arab News that he recently switched from Facebook to Tiktok after suffering from restrictions imposed by the former, which he said flags the use of words including martyr, resistance and occupation.

Hamdan, who had 200,000 followers on his Facebook page, added that his account was closed because he published a picture of Khalil Al-Wazir, the Palestinian leader who Israel assassinated in Tunisia in 1988.

“Because Facebook is no longer the ideal platform for the Palestinians to spread their cause, the alternative is TikTok, which provides an adequate and sufficient space for the dissemination of media covering armed parades of Palestinian military groups and pictures of Palestinian resistance fighters with their weapons,” said Hamdan.

TikTok previously ranked third in Palestine — after Facebook and Instagram — in social media app usage. However, it jumped to second place during recent weeks, with Palestinian social media experts telling Arab News that though 3 million Palestinian accounts are on Facebook, more than 1 million Palestinians are on TikTok, with the number rapidly increasing.

Palestinian activists also see more technical flexibility while publishing on Tiktok compared to Facebook, with the platform allowing three-minute clips for all users, and 15-minute videos for users who have 1,000 followers or more.

“Within a year, TikTok will be the number one social media platform used by Palestinians,” Hamdan said.

Sam Bahour, an expert in business development affairs, said that social media is gaining “exceptional importance” for Palestinians by enabling them to communicate and bypass Israeli restrictions across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, as well worldwide through the diaspora.

Ahmed Al-Qadi, from a center that specializes in researching social media activities, told Arab News that after the violent events in the Palestinian territories last May and after Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube removed Palestinian content, people switched to TikTok.

On the other hand, Israeli political analyst Yoni Ben-Menachem told Arab News that TikTok is a “tool of dangerous influence” and incites violence through videos glorifying attacks against Israelis.

Ben-Menachem added that TikTok content targets young people, who are particularly vulnerable to misinformation and propaganda.

Last May, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with senior officials from ByteDance, demanding that the company block Palestinian content. But Gantz’s appeal was denied, with the company only promising to pay more attention to published content.

Young Palestinians have filmed Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities and towns, house demolitions, arrests, killings, settler attacks and racist treatment, with the content going viral on TikTok.

Despite the Israeli government’s anger, officials do not expect TikTok to take any action against Palestinian accounts, whether based in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or abroad.

“Maybe TikTok will close a few Palestinian accounts, but thousands of accounts that incite against Israel will remain active, and whoever loses his account can open a new account under a pseudonym,” said Ben-Menachem, adding: “TikTok has become the most dangerous means of incitement against Israel.”


International community urges Yemeni parties to renew truce

International community urges Yemeni parties to renew truce
Updated 02 October 2022

International community urges Yemeni parties to renew truce

International community urges Yemeni parties to renew truce
  • Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Sunday urged the Houthis to “positively” comply with initiatives and efforts to renew the truce
  • Rashad Al-Alimi, president of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, expressed his government’s support for the UN Yemen envoy’s efforts to extend the truce

AL-MUKALLA: A six-month-old UN-brokered ceasefire in Yemen’s war between Iran-backed Houthis and the Arab coalition ended on Sunday with no word from the rivals on whether it would be extended.

The US, UK, China, other world powers and the secretary-general of the Arab League have all urged Yemen’s government and the Iran-backed Houthis to extend the UN-brokered truce.

Despite mounting pressure, only the Yemeni government had earlier agreed to extend the truce.

The US ambassador to Yemen, Steven H. Fagin, expressed concern about the various Yemeni parties’ hesitation to express their support for extending the truce.

“I call on the parties not to squander the progress of the last six months and to prioritize the Yemeni people by accepting an extension and expansion of the truce,” Fagin said in a brief statement. 

On Sunday, the UK Ambassador to Yemen Richard Oppenheim reissued the same call to the Houthis and other Yemeni parties to follow the UN envoy’s suggestions for extending the truce.

“I encourage the Houthis to work with the UN to extend the Truce. It’s the only route that will provide an opportunity for them to deliver benefits for ordinary Yemenis” he said on Twitter. 

The UN-brokered truce, which began on April 2 and has been extended twice, has dramatically reduced violence in Yemen, allowed flights to leave Sanaa airport, and eliminated fuel shortages throughout the country by allowing dozens of fuel ships to reach the port of Hodeidah.

The only term of the truce that has not been implemented is the opening of roads in besieged Taiz, as the Houthis have refused to open at least one main road leading into and out of the city, which is the main demand of the Yemeni government.

As the UN Yemen envoy, Hans Grundberg, shuttled between Muscat, Riyadh, and Sanaa to persuade Yemeni leaders to renew the truce, foreign diplomats and humanitarian organizations in Yemen sent last-minute appeals to both sides on Sunday.

“China emphasizes its support for the special envoy and is willing to make unremitting efforts with the international community to resolve the Yemen issue,” the Chinese Embassy in Yemen said in a statement. 

The EU’s mission in Yemen also demanded that the Yemeni government and the Houthis accept the UN envoy’s proposal, renew the truce, and implement its provisions.

“Time to consolidate and develop a truce, including opening roads and agreeing on the payment of salaries, that has delivered and can bring more benefits to the #Yemeni people,” the mission said in a statement on Twitter.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Sunday urged the Houthis to “positively” comply with initiatives and efforts to renew the truce and work to alleviate suffering.

The latest UN proposal includes a six-month cease-fire while the Houthis open only minor roads in Taiz, paying public employees in their territories, while the Yemeni government covers any shortfall in payments, allowing more fuel ships to enter Hodeidah port, and opening new routes from Sanaa to Muscat, Doha, and Mumbai. 

Rashad Al-Alimi, president of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, expressed his government’s support for the UN Yemen envoy’s efforts to extend the truce.

During a meeting with the UN envoy in Riyadh on Sunday, the Yemeni leader stated that he is committed to supporting any peace initiative to end the war in Yemen and alleviate the suffering of Yemenis, and he urged mounting pressure on the Houthis and their Iranian backers to stop undermining peace efforts.

In Sanaa, the Houthis rejected calls to renew the truce on Saturday night, threatening to resume military operations, including strikes on oil companies in government-controlled areas.


UN Yemen envoy expresses regret after truce expires without being extended

UN Yemen envoy expresses regret after truce expires without being extended
Updated 02 October 2022

UN Yemen envoy expresses regret after truce expires without being extended

UN Yemen envoy expresses regret after truce expires without being extended
  • The ceasefire has twice been renewed since April. 2 but expired on Sunday without being extended
  • Envoy said the extended and expanded truce would have provided critical benefits to Yemen’s population

RIYADH: The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg expressed regret on Sunday that an agreement to extend and expand the truce in the country had not been reached.

“The truce that began on April.2, 2022 has offered a truly historic opportunity for Yemen. Building on the positive outcomes of the past six months, I submitted another proposal to the parties on Oct.1 to extend the truce for another six months, with additional elements,” Grundberg said in a statement.

The ceasefire has twice been renewed since April. 2 but expired on Sunday without being extended.

The proposal included the payment of civil servant salaries and pensions, the opening of specific roads in Taiz and other governorates, additional destinations for flights to and from Sanaa airport, unhindered entry of fuel ships into Hodeidah port, strengthening deescalation mechanisms, and a commitment to urgently release detainees, the envoy said.

It also included the initiation of negotiations for a ceasefire, the resumption of an inclusive political process, and economic issues.

The envoy said that the extended and expanded truce would provide additional critical benefits to Yemen’s population.

He thanked the Yemeni government for engaging positively with his proposal and said he will continue to work with both sides to find solutions.

“I am grateful for the constructive engagement at the leadership level from both sides over the past weeks. And I appreciate the position of the government of Yemen on engaging positively with my proposal. I will continue to work with both sides to try and find solutions,” Grundberg said.

The envoy urged the parties to maintain calm and refrain from provocations or any actions that could lead to an escalation of violence in the war-torn country.

“I urge them to fulfil their obligation to the Yemeni people to pursue every avenue for peace. Ultimately, Yemenis need an end to the conflict through an inclusive political process and a negotiated settlement. I will continue my relentless efforts to engage with the parties to quickly reach an agreement on a way forward,” he said.