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

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Updated 19 June 2022
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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.”

 


Kuwaiti ruler names Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister

Updated 37 min 57 sec ago
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Kuwaiti ruler names Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister

DUBAI: Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah has appointed Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister, state news agency KUNA reported on Monday.

The Kuwaiti ruler also tasked the new prime minister to form a government.

The Kuwaiti ruler last week accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, after elections were held to choose new members of the National Assembly.

He also instructed the cabinet to act as caretakers until the formation of a new government.


Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

Updated 15 April 2024
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Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

  • Opposition leader: ‘Jewish terrorist violence’ against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank ‘out of control’
  • ‘If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us’

JERUSALEM: Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of leading to a “total loss of Israeli deterrence” in the wake of an unprecedented Iranian attack.
In a scathing criticism posted on X, former premier Lapid also said that under Netanyahu, “Jewish terrorist violence” against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank was “out of control.”
Netanyahu, who returned to power in late 2022 at the helm of a coalition with far-right parties, has brought “heaps of destruction from Beeri to Kiryat Shmona,” Lapid said, calling for early elections.
Beeri, a kibbutz community near the Gaza border, came under attack when Hamas militants stormed the area on October 7, triggering the ongoing war, while the northern town of Kiryat Shmona has suffered during months of cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Lapid’s remarks came two days after Iran — which backs both Hamas and Hezbollah — launched more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for a deadly strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus.
Israel, the United States and other allies intercepted nearly all launches in the late Saturday aerial attack — the first direct Iranian military action against arch foe Israel.
Netanyahu’s cabinet has weighed Israel’s response to the Iranian attack, but the prime minister has not made any public comments.
In the West Bank, where violence has soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Israeli settlers torched Palestinian homes and cars over the weekend, killing at least two people, after an Israeli teen was “murdered in a suspected terrorist attack,” according to the Israeli military.
Pointing to surging “terrorist” settler attacks, Lapid said: “If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us.”
The government, which includes hard-line settlers, has prioritized Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Netanyahu has faced in recent months mass protests over the fate of hostages held in Gaza and pressure from a resurgent anti-government movement.
The prime minister’s Likud party responded to Lapid in a statement stressing Netanyahu’s part in “the global campaign” to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons — which Tehran denies it is seeking.


UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

Updated 15 April 2024
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UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

  • Meetings held between Foreign Office, Rapid Support Forces in bid to end fighting, increase aid supply
  • News criticized by some experts as RSF accused of crimes against humanity

London: The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has revealed that it has held talks with Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which has been accused of committing ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.

The Guardian reported on Monday that a freedom of information request to the FCDO revealed that the UK government had opened diplomatic channels with the RSF, including a meeting on March 6.

The FCDO told the newspaper that the talks were aimed at increasing humanitarian aid flow and access in Sudan, as well as ending the fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces.

The RSF has been engaged in a civil war in Sudan for the past year, and has been accused of crimes against humanity by the US, including massacres, mass rape, looting and ethnic cleansing. The UN said the RSF’s activities in Geneina in West Darfur have left 15,000 people dead.

The war has claimed the lives of many thousands of Sudanese civilians, with around 8 million displaced by the fighting.

The UK’s willingness to meet with the RSF has drawn condemnation for what some say is a policy that could normalize a paramilitary group accused of crimes against humanity.

Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, co-director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University, told The Guardian that although talking to potentially unsavory groups is perceived as necessary in some diplomatic circles, “talking to the guys with the guns has been part of the perpetuation of violence and authoritarianism in Sudan for the last two, three decades.”

He added: “When (the RSF are) committing untold levels of targeted violence against ethnic groups, and women and children, at a scale that is absolutely horrific and was, even 20 years ago, (the UK is) putting a lot of moral credibility and decency on the line.”

Ahmed Soliman, a senior research fellow at international affairs think tank Chatham House, said the talks are justifiable as part of efforts to end the war and alleviate civilian suffering.

“How is aid going to get into western Sudan unless you engage with the Rapid Support Forces? They control 95 percent of Darfur,” he added.

“This is the dirty reality of the war. It shouldn’t negate engaging with civilians, but it has to be part of trying to ensure that there is a solution, both to ending the war in the near term, and then providing assistance for civilians.”

However, Maddy Crowther, co-director of the Waging Peace human rights group, described the talks as “a terrible move,” saying negotiating with the RSF could prove futile.

“These talks also assume that the RSF are good-faith actors,” she said. “Chatting to the RSF has never resulted in the outcomes that the UK says it wants to achieve in Sudan. I have no sense of why that would change at the moment.”

She added that “for the Sudanese, it will be experienced as a real slap in the face,” and that the diaspora will interpret the news as a “complete abuse of trust that people have placed in the UK and other powers to negotiate or advocate on their behalf.”

An FCDO spokesperson told The Guardian: “The UK continues to pursue all diplomatic avenues to end the violence — to prevent further atrocities from occurring, to press both parties into a permanent ceasefire, to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, to protect civilians, and to commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process.

“The SAF and RSF have dragged Sudan into an unjustified war, with an utter disregard for the Sudanese people. We will do all we can to ensure that they are both held accountable.”


Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

Updated 15 April 2024
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Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

  • Fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge
  • On Monday death toll in Gaza reached 33,797 during more than six months of war

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Israel struck war-battered Gaza overnight, Hamas and witnesses said Monday, as world leaders urged de-escalation awaiting Israel’s reaction to Iran’s unprecedented attack that heightened fears of wider conflict.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Monday that at least 33,797 people have been killed in the territory during more than six months of war between Israel and Palestinian militants.
The toll includes at least 68 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, adding that 76,465 people have been wounded in the Gaza Strip since the war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7.
World powers have urged restraint after Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel late Saturday, though the Israeli military has said nearly all were intercepted.
The Israeli military said it would not be distracted from its war against Tehran-backed Hamas in Gaza, triggered by the Palestinian armed group’s October 7 attack.
“Even while under attack from Iran, we have not lost sight... of our critical mission in Gaza to rescue our hostages from the hands of Iran’s proxy Hamas,” military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said late Sunday.
As mediators eye a deal to halt the fighting, fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge.
“Hamas is still holding our hostages in Gaza,” Hagari said of the roughly 130 people, including 34 presumed dead, who Israel says remain in the hands of Palestinian militants since the Hamas attack.
“We also have hostages in Rafah, and we will do everything we can to bring them back home,” the military spokesman told a briefing.
The army said it was calling up “two reserve brigades for operational activities,” about a week after withdrawing most ground troops from Gaza.
The Hamas government media office said Israeli aircraft and tanks launched “dozens” of strikes overnight on central Gaza, reporting several casualties.
Witnesses told AFP that strikes hit the Nuseirat refugee camp, with clashes also reported in other areas of central and northern Gaza.
Hamas’s attack that sparked the fighting resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,729 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday following the Iranian attack, where Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the region was “on the brink” of war.
“Neither the region nor the world can afford more war,” the UN chief said.
“Now is the time to defuse and de-escalate.”
More than six months of war have led to dire humanitarian conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Rumours of a reopened Israeli checkpoint on the coastal road from the territory’s south to Gaza City sent thousands of Palestinians heading north on Sunday, despite Israel denying it was open.
Attempting the journey back to northern Gaza, displaced resident Basma Salman said, “even if it (my house) was destroyed, I want to go there. I couldn’t stay in the south.”
“It’s overcrowded. We couldn’t even take a fresh breath of air there. It was completely terrible.”
In Khan Yunis, southern Gaza’s main city, civil defense teams said they had retrieved at least 18 bodies from under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Responding late Saturday to the latest truce plan presented by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Hamas said it insists on “a permanent ceasefire” and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.
Israel’s Mossad spy agency called this a “rejection” of the proposal, accusing Hamas of “continuing to exploit the tension with Iran.”
But the United States said mediation efforts continue.
“We’re not considering diplomacy dead there,” said the National Security Council’s Kirby.
“There’s a new deal on the table... It is a good deal” that would see some hostages released, fighting halted and more humanitarian relief into Gaza, he said.


Top Syrian officer faces war crimes charges in Swedish court

Updated 15 April 2024
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Top Syrian officer faces war crimes charges in Swedish court

  • Former brigadier general Mohammed Hamo, 65 who lives in Sweden, is accused of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and could get a life jail sentence

Stockholm: The highest-ranking Syrian military official to be tried in Europe on Monday appeared before a Stockholm court accused of war crimes during Syria’s civil war.
Former brigadier general Mohammed Hamo, 65 who lives in Sweden, is accused of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and could get a life jail sentence.
The war between President Bashar Assad’s regime and armed opposition groups, including Islamic State, erupted after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.
It has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions, and ravaged Syria’s economy and infrastructure.
Wearing a dark blue shirt, jeans and sneakers, Hamo listened carefully and took notes as prosecutor Karolina Wieslander read out the charges.
Wieslander said Hamo had contributed — through “advice and action” — to the Syrian army’s warfare, which “systematically included attacks carried out in violation of the principles of distinction, caution and proportionality.”
“The warfare was thus indiscriminate,” Wieslander told the court.
The charges concern the period of January 1 to July 20, 2012. The trial is expected to last until late May.
The prosecutor said the Syrian army’s “widespread air and ground attacks” caused damage “at a scale that was disproportionate in view of the concrete and immediate general military advantages that could be expected to be achieved.”
In his role as brigadier general and head of an armament division, Hamo allegedly helped coordinate and supply of arms to units.
Hamo’s lawyer, Mari Kilman, told the court her client denied criminal responsibility.
“In any case he has not had the intent toward the main charge, that indiscriminate warfare would be carried out by others,” Kilman said.
Kilman said the officer could not be held liable for the actions “as he had acted in a military context and had to follow orders.”
Hamo also denied all individual charges and argued that Syrian law should be applied.
Several plaintiffs are to testify at the trial, including Syrians from cities that were attacked and a British photographer who was injured during one strike.
“The attacks in and around Homs and Hama in 2012 resulted in widespread civilian harm and an immense destruction of civilian properties,” Aida Samani, senior legal adviser at rights group Civil Rights Defenders, told AFP.
“The same conduct has been repeated systematically by the Syrian army in other cities across Syria with complete impunity.”
This trial will be the first in Europe “to address these types of indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian army,” according to Samani, who added that it “will be the first opportunity for victims of the attacks to have their voices heard in an independent court.”
Hamo is the highest-ranking military official to go on trial in Europe, though other countries have tried to bring charges against more senior members.
In March, Swiss prosecutors charged Rifaat Assad, an uncle of President Bashar Assad, with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
However, it remains unlikely Rifaat Assad — who recently returned to Syria after 37 years in exile — will show up for the trial, for which a date has yet to be set.
Swiss law allows for trials in absentia under certain conditions.
In November, France issued an international arrest warrant for Bashar Assad, accusing him of complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes over chemical attacks in 2013.
Three other international warrants were also issued for the arrests of Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, the de-facto chief of the army’s elite Fourth Division and two generals.
In January 2022, a German court sentenced former colonel Anwar Raslan to life jail for crimes against humanity. This was the first international trial over state-sponsored torture in Syria and was hailed by victims as a victory for justice.