Improving food security goes far beyond fighting desertification
As the global population approaches 8 billion people, hunger for sustainable food systems that cater to the diverse needs of our globalised world is rising. However, this ever-growing demand is putting immense pressure on land, water, energy and the natural environment.
In light of the BBC’s recent discourse highlighting desertification in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I think it’s imperative that we remain mindful of the resource constraints impacting the Middle East – most notably, water.
Independent of desertification, arable land in the UAE is quite limited at less than 1% of total area. Therefore, attaining 100 percent food security for a population of nearly 10 million people is a complex challenge. As such, it’s important that we outline what can be done to influence sustainable food production without depleting the country’s valuable and non-renewable groundwater reserves.
A modern and sustainable food system looks to maximise water productivity by producing more ‘crop per drop’ and reusing the ‘drop’ as much as possible.
Here are some pressing thoughts about the evolving water-energy-food-environment nexus in the Middle East:
- Protecting water at the source: Traditional open field agriculture consumes vast quantities of water from multiple sources, including non-renewable fossil aquifers, in contrast modern greenhouses and hydroponic systems consume less than 10% of the water when compared to these traditional methods. A modern and sustainable food system looks to maximise water productivity by producing more ‘crop per drop’ and reusing the ‘drop’ as much as possible. Hence, the utilisation of alternative sources of water, such as treated wastewater, is vital to the UAE’s water and food security.
- Rationalising the economic benefit: To advance our food security ambitions, it’s essential we rationalise any economic inputs into agricultural or horticultural schemes. This is particularly pertinent in relation to water and energy inputs. Given the extreme seasonal weather variations in the Middle East, year-round production is only possible through closed environment agriculture (CEA). With CEA, consistent and water efficient production is possible, but it comes at the cost of higher energy requirements for mechanical cooling and artificial lighting (in the case of vertical farms). If we can agree that water is truly the most valuable input for food production in the UAE, then the economics of those resources must be rationalised. Water for agriculture must incur a cost befitting its scarcity and value, supported by affordable clean energy that would enable the shift toward water saving CEA.
- Unpacking the future of food: Collaboration, innovation and partnerships are vital in addressing water scarcity, food security and mitigating the effects of our changing climate. Through increased governance, financing, and education about water scarcity and its inherent role in food production, collective uptake of these priority areas could reap benefits for all:
- Embrace salt-tolerant crops and feed (i.e. halophytes such as Salicornia or Quinoa)
- Focus on production that maximises nutrition / calorie / drop of water
- Consider usage of treated wastewater for agriculture opposed to groundwater
- Ratify more efficient irrigation and advanced growing systems (i.e. vertical farms, greenhouses)
- Cultivating for scale: Any holistic approach to implementing innovative sustainable food systems must consider long term scalability. Whether this is in the form of:
- Embedding sustainable food initiatives into any future masterplan or development at an earlier stage in the conceptual process
- Integrating food security into the urban built environment through vertical farms, containerised solutions, urban rooftop gardens/farms etc.
- Creating industrial scale ‘food valleys’ to incentivise cost-effective means for food production
- Scaling up food security by increasing private sector participation and project financing, and reducing project risks through public private partnership (PPP) models