Cooked up for climate, UAE’s high-tech food plan pays off in pandemic

An ICBA scientist helps a farm-owner in the Al Wagan area near Al-Ain, UAE, December 6, 2018. HANDOUT/International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA)
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Updated 01 June 2020

Cooked up for climate, UAE’s high-tech food plan pays off in pandemic

  • UAE imports more than 80% of its food requirement
  • Success in growing food using innovations like vertical farming and climate-resilient crops add to Gulf state’s food security

ABU DHABI: In the past four years, the United Arab Emirates has grown a small but rising share of its own organic tomatoes, aiming to shore up food security in an import-dependent desert country.
The effort — part of a broader push to produce more home-grown food amid fears climate change could trigger instability in the global food trade — started after the country was hit by food export bans during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Today, the move to build up food resilience is paying off early in the face of another crisis: the coronavirus pandemic.
When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) went into lockdown in April to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, residents had the same reaction as millions of others around the world — they started panic-buying.
The instinct to stock up made sense in a country where more than 80% of food is imported, said Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA).
Nonetheless supermarket shelves have remained fully stocked, partly because the UAE has long had policies in place to ensure an uninterrupted supply of food from abroad, she noted.
But in the face of the pandemic, the UAE’s confidence that it will continue to have enough food is bolstered by its success in growing its own, using innovations like vertical farming and climate-resilient crops, she added.
“Thanks to the work being done to harness the benefits of innovation, agriculture is becoming possible and profitable in a country with harsh climatic conditions,” Elouafi said.
According to data from the World Bank, the contribution of agriculture to the country’s gross domestic product rose from $2.39 billion in 2012 to $3.06 billion in 2018.
The UAE’s Ministry of Food Security declined to respond to a request for comment.

Currently ranking 21 out of 113 countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index, the UAE aims to be in the top 10 by 2021 and number one by mid-century.
By then, the federal government hopes half the food Emiratis consume will be produced locally, compared to 20% today.
Under the UAE’s National Food Security Strategy — which was officially launched in 2018, but had already been woven into government policy for several years before — the country has worked to boost domestic food production.
It has built infrastructure, including complexes for cattle-breeding — and introduced financial measures, from exempting value-added tax on food produced on local farms to paying subsidies on fodder.
But traditional farming methods can only go so far in a country with limited supplies of fresh water and arable land.
Last year, the World Resources Institute classified the UAE as under “extremely high water stress,” meaning more than 80% of available surface and groundwater supply is withdrawn on average every year.
The bulk of that water is used by the agricultural sector. Combined with a warming climate and a growing population, this is causing available groundwater levels to drop by 0.5 cm (0.2 inches) per year.
To meet the country’s freshwater needs, the government is increasingly turning to energy-intensive desalination methods.
Another challenge is that less than 1% of the UAE’s land is arable, according to the World Bank.
The focus is on finding ways to farm with fewer resources — which is where technology and experimenting with new crops can help, said Sajid Maqsood, associate professor in the College of Food and Agriculture at United Arab Emirates University.
“Urban and vertical farming has to be an important part of the strategy,” he said by phone.

Farming in the UAE has been moving in a high-tech direction over the past decade.
In 2009, for example, the Middle Eastern country had 50 hydroponic farms, where plants are grown without soil using nutrient-infused water. Today, it has more than 1,000, according to the ICBA.
Most of the farming innovations gaining ground in the UAE involve growing crops indoors, in an attempt to tackle one of the main challenges facing the region’s farmers: the climate.
Global warming is expected to lead to less rainfall, fiercer droughts, higher sea levels and more storms in the UAE over the next 70 years, a group of climate experts said in a 2019 paper.
By 2050 the country’s average temperature will increase by about 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), they noted.
“At least four months of the year are not conducive to traditional agriculture — heat, humidity and dust are challenges to farming in the region,” explained Digant Raj Kapoor, people manager at Madar Farms, a local agriculture tech company.
“It means that yields and quality cannot be controlled or predicted. An indoor facility is able to tackle this by having as much control over growing conditions as possible.”
One project, Pure Harvest Smart Farms, has been producing a share of the UAE’s home-grown tomatoes since it launched in 2016, using the country’s first technology-enabled greenhouse.
With its climate-controlled system developed in the Netherlands, the Emirates-based start-up can grow year-round, producing about 2 metric tons of pesticide-free tomatoes each day on its 1-hectare (2.5-acre) proof-of-concept farm.
Pure Harvest plans to diversify into other fruits and vegetables, expanding to 30 hectares in the next few months.
In recent years, the UAE has also seen a rise in the number of vertical farms, in which crops are grown stacked under LED lighting and watered with mists or drip systems.
In Dubai, the country’s business and tourism hub, airline catering service Emirates Flight Catering and vertical farm operator Crop One Holdings have launched a $40-million joint venture to build the world’s largest vertical farm.
Crop One Holdings says the 130,000 square-foot (12,077 sq m) farm — due to be completed this year — will produce 6,000 pounds (2,721 kg) of pesticide- and herbicide-free fruits and vegetables daily, using 99% less water than traditional farms.
Branching out into new crops is key to the UAE’s quest to become self-sustaining, said the ICBA’s Elouafi.
The Dubai-based ICBA works with local ministries, farmers’ associations and businesses to introduce climate-resilient crops such as quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum to farmers, she added.
“The global food production system is currently dominated by just a few staple crops — this needs to change,” she said.
For Kapoor at Madar Farms, which has been growing leafy greens and microgreens in vertical systems since 2017, the move into tech-enabled agriculture is inevitable to deal with challenges like climate change and the novel coronavirus.
“The world will have to shift toward controlled-environment agriculture,” he said.
($1 = 3.6728 UAE dirham) (Reporting by Rabiya Jaffery; editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. 

Explosions in Iran: Isolated incidents or acts of sabotage?

Updated 20 min 7 sec ago

Explosions in Iran: Isolated incidents or acts of sabotage?

  • Regime finding it hard to explain away string of blasts at weapons facilities as coincidence
  • Incident in Natanz nuclear research facility may have set back Tehran’s nuclear ambitions by up to two years

LONDON: Explosions in western Tehran resulting in power outage. A fire at a ballistic-missile production facility. A deadly blast at a medical clinic in the Iranian capital’s north. Huge floods at one of the country’s most important shipping hubs.

These apparently isolated recent incidents, mainly at military, nuclear, and industrial facilities, have been either subjected to cover-ups by Tehran or explained away as unfortunate accidents.

But when a blast on July 2 crippled the Natanz nuclear research facility in Isfahan, Iran was forced to come clean and admit that the showpiece of its nuclear-enrichment program was the target of an act of sabotage.

Experts have told Arab News that this admission has thrown into question the whole series of events. They said that what initially could have been a string of ill-timed separate incidents was starting to look like a coordinated campaign of cyber and psychological warfare. The real questions, to them, were: How impactful has the campaign been, who is behind it, and how will the regime respond?

Olli Heinonen, a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center, said that whoever was responsible for the Natanz sabotage was sending Iran a message.

The attack, he added, would not have “been possible without detailed knowledge on the design and operations of the workshops.”

This handout photo provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via SEPAH News shows an Iranian military satellite -- dubbed the Nour -- which the Revolutionary Guards said on April 22, 2020 was launched. (AFP/Iran's Revolutionary Guard via SEPAH NEWS/File Photo)

This “sends a stern message to the nuclear and missile programs: Their operations and goals are not secret.”

Whoever was responsible, Heinonen said, may not be finished yet. “The hitting of the assembly plant of the advanced centrifuges is likely a warning shot only.”

As if on cue, electricity reportedly got cut off after a large explosion hit a suburb west of Tehran on Friday in a missile facility of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iranian officials denied the report. Another mysterious explosion had been reported just three days before, on July 7, at a factory south of Tehran.

While the full picture has yet to emerge of the damage caused by the blast at Natanz, it may have set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by up to two years.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

The 2015 nuclear deal, JCPOA (joint comprehensive plan of action), reached between Iran and six world powers allowed only enrichment of uranium at Natanz with just over 5,000 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, but Iran has installed new cascades of advanced centrifuges after US President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reinstated economic sanctions.

Iran, which said it would not negotiate as long as the sanctions remained in place, has repeatedly threatened to continue building up what it calls a defensive missile capability run by the IRGC.

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said: “It is difficult to interpret recent incidents at Iran’s nuclear facilities as anything but coherent and sustained acts of sabotage conducted by state actors.”

Referring to the Natanz blast and the other explosions and fires, he added: “There is a pattern.” This pattern stretched back years, and has used cyberattacks, sabotage, and targeting of scientists to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

This picture made available by the Iranian armed forces office on June 18, 2020 shows a missile being fired out to sea from a mobile launch vehicle reportedly on the southern coast of Iran along the Gulf of Oman during a military exercise. (AFP/File Photo)

As for the culprit, Alfoneh believes it “makes very good sense” that Tehran’s arch-nemesis Israel could be behind the attacks on nuclear and missile facilities. Israeli statements, he said, “give further credence to these allegations.”

Israel is just one of a number of enemies of the regime who may now be targeting Iran, Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, told Arab News.

His understanding of the situation, largely in line with Alfoneh’s assessment, is that the blast at the Natanz nuclear facility was most likely “a cyberattack by Israel.”

However, he said: “Were all of the attacks by Israel? That is the question we’re not clear on, and that’s where it gets interesting.”

Karasik pointed out that Tehran also had domestic adversaries with their own grouses. “There’s messaging that a group attached to the (Iranian ethnic minority) Baluch people could be responsible. With Baluch sentiments inflamed, the ethnic minority have at times been used by outside forces as another way to undermine Iran,” he added.

A number of attacks targeting the IRGC personnel and military infrastructure have been claimed by Baluch groups in the past few years. They have not, however, come forward to claim responsibility for the latest series of incidents in Iran.

“Overall, we can say someone is using various tactics — external cyberattacks, internal sabotage — to hit Iran right now, and it’s part of a larger pattern,” Karasik said.

Much of the discussion surrounding the series of attacks has revolved around cyber warfare. Karasik believes this is a central part of the campaign by whoever is targeting the Islamic Republic.

Someone is telling Iran: We know where you live, we know your weak spots, and if we need to hurt you, we can.

Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow at Chatham House

“To cause explosions, to make something stop operating — this is very sophisticated in terms of cyber warfare. It’s one thing to shut down a street or a factory; it’s another issue to actually detonate something,” he added.

The technological sophistication points to Israeli cyber sabotage. Israel has long employed cyberattacks as a means of targeting Iran’s nuclear and military capacity, famously unleashing the Stuxnet attack which set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by up to five years.

The emerging consensus among Iran watchers such as Karasik is that Israel was likely responsible for some, if not all, of the recent major disruptions that have struck Iran. The question then, is how Tehran will respond?

Tehran was patient and opportunistic, Karasik said, but “there is a danger that the tail may wag the dog.” As Tehran faced more domestic pressure and its legitimacy in the eyes of the people eroded further, the only way to prove its strength could be to lash out.

This handout satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows the Konarak support ship before the accident in the port of Konarak, Iran on April 30, 2020. (AFP/Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies/File Photo)

However, one of the advantages of using cyber warfare and other such clandestine means of undermining Iran, was that the attacks had plausible deniability, Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow at Chatham House, told Arab News.

“It’s hard to definitively prove who was behind the attacks, so it does not force Iran to respond to preserve its legitimacy and save face,” he added.

But he warned that it was a “highly volatile” situation. “There is a danger of miscalculation — you’re guessing other peoples’ thresholds for retaliation and it’s easy to miscalculate. It’s a risky game.”

The strategy being employed against Iran, Heinonen, Mekelberg, and Karasik all agreed, was a psychological one. An outside power — which many suspect to be Israel — was sending a message to Iran.

A handout picture released by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows shows the atomic enrichment facilities Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometres south of capital Tehran. (AFP/Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/File Photo)

Karasik said that someone had been “hammering away at specific targets related to Iran’s national security, creating an explosion here, a fire there. That has a psychological impact.”

Mekelberg added: “Someone is telling Iran: We know where you live, we know where your weak spots are, and if we need to hurt you, we can. It’s a show of force.”

Iran is upgrading its ballistic missile arsenal and investing heavily in obtaining nuclear weapons. It should come as no surprise then, that as its posture becomes ever more aggressive, its adversaries are sending a clear message that they will not stand for a nuclear-armed Iran.

The campaign of cyberattacks and sabotage is making that position abundantly clear.