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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Harnessing the wonder of water with hydroponics

Hydroponics are being used to grow an abundance of fruit and vegetables in the UAE – and why the method could be the farming technique of the future.
Rows of basil plants at the Emirates Hydroponics Farms, which supplies many wholesalers and hypermarkets. It’s one of the UAE’s longest established hydroponic farms. Delores Johnson / The National
Rows of basil plants at the Emirates Hydroponics Farms, which supplies many wholesalers and hypermarkets. It’s one of the UAE’s longest established hydroponic farms. Delores Johnson / The National

Imagine being able to grow healthy, nutritious foods in a nutrient-laden liquid instead of in traditional soil. There would be no soil-borne pests, insects or diseases to worry about, which would eliminate the need for potentially harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides. And imagine this technique could be used almost anywhere in the world, with crop success not having to rely on uncontrollable, external factors such as rainfall, sunshine and temperature. Sound like futuristic space-age fantasy? It’s called hydroponics, and it dates back millennia.

Built about 600BC, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are thought to have been grown according to hydroponic methods. The Aztecs are known to have cultivated floating gardens more than a thousand years ago using hydroponics, while similar floating gardens are described in Marco Polo’s journals on his visit to China in the 13th century.

It took another 500 years or so before the term hydroponics was coined (it’s derived from the Greek “hydro”, meaning water, and “ponos”, meaning labour), but this age-old practice is steadily taking root in the modern-day UAE and has the potential to revolutionise how fresh food is cultivated in adverse growing conditions, such as the arid Middle East.

Simple science

The principal behind hydroponics is relatively straightforward. In conventional agriculture where crops are grown in soil, plants tend to use a lot of energy growing root structures in their search for water and nutrients, which means they don’t grow as fast as they could.

With hydroponics, nutrients are delivered directly to the plants’ roots. Since they no longer need to search for food, the plants’ energy can be redirected to growing lush foliage and abundant fruits.

Plants grown via hydroponics are no different to those grown in soil; they have an identical physiology and look and taste the same. Instead of being placed in soil, seedlings are grown in a natural, recyclable and environmentally friendly alternative medium, such as rock wool, which is made from heated basalt (volcanic rock); coco coir derived from the husks of coconuts; or perlite, another naturally occurring rock.

Hydroponics has numerous advantages, since it offers complete control over growing conditions. For example, alkalinity and acidity levels can be regulated to maximise growth, while being able to adjust humidity and darkness levels also helps to ensure healthy plants and produce stable, high yields.

It also requires less space compared to conventional agriculture, and pests and other blights can be more easily controlled and prevented. Furthermore, since drainage water is recycled, there’s no risk of potentially harmful chemicals being released into the soil and wider environment.

“Just about any crop can be grown hydroponically; it’s a matter of designing and setting up the right hydroponic system for that particular crop,” explains Rudi Azzato, a hydroponics horticulturist at Emirates Hydroponics Farm (EHF).

The most convincing reason for embracing hydroponics in this particular part of the world is its water efficiency.

“When growing lettuce in hydroponics, the grower will be saving around 90 per cent as the water is recycled. With tomatoes, you can save between 40 and 60 per cent,” says Azzato.

Located midway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, EHF (previously known as City Farm) is one of the UAE’s longest established hydroponic farms. Since setting up here in 2005, its operations have expanded to include various types of hydroponic systems, specialising in growing leaf vegetables such as lettuces and herbs.

Today, EHF supplies locally grown food to wholesalers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as supplying produce to hypermarkets such as Lulu, Spinneys, Abela, Carrefour and Choithrams.

While there are some farms dotted around the UAE that grow crops using hydroponics, most of these remain small-scale operators – although the emirate of Abu Dhabi in particular is taking steps to encourage Emiratis to embrace the technique via incentives from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise ­Development.

“It is still a new concept in the UAE and it is not fully understood by the agricultural sector,” says Azzato.

To set up a commercial-scale hydroponic farm, Azzato says the initial outlay will largely depend on the scale of operations, but admits the set-up cost is going to be expensive to begin with.

“The biggest outlay is the correct design of greenhouses together with the hydroponic system and equipment such as filtration units. However, the ongoing maintenance for hydroponics is relatively inexpensive.”

Education inspiration

A recent project involving green-fingered students from a girls’ school in Dubai may prove to be the catalyst that not only boosts awareness of hydroponics within the UAE but shows it can be achieved successfully on a smaller scale with minimal ­financial input.

When some enterprising Year 7 pupils from Gems Our Own English High School in Al Warqa decided to farm a small patch of land on the school’s premises, the outcome was an impressive crop of beetroot, radish, cabbage, cauliflower and ochre.

“The results were spectacular: everything grew well and the students were very encouraged by their achievements,” explains Teresa Varman, the school’s vice-principal.

Buoyed by their initial success, the students decided they wanted to aim for bigger and better and try their hand at alternative methods of farming. One of the ideas that the youngsters came up with was hydroponics.

“The teachers all scrambled to Google the term to learn more,” admits Simmy Antony, the head of middle school. “Then after reading about Pegasus Agritech and their activities in the region, we contacted them and so began an innovative association,” she adds.

Headquartered in Dubai, Pegasus Agritech owns and operates one of the largest hydroponic farming facilities in the region and is actively involved in spearheading high-tech local farming techniques.

“They came to our school and helped train 10 of our Year 7 students,” explains Antony. “They provided us with the syllabus for hydroponics to teach the students how it’s done, they helped set up all the equipment here and the youngsters also spent a week at their farm to see hydroponics in action.”

Back at the school, the first crop the students grew using hydroponics was lettuce. Pegasus provided the nutrients solution; the students did the rest and were involved in every step of the process, from planting the seeds to checking the temperature.

“The lettuces they grew were really delicious; much fuller, tastier and crunchier than the usual ones you find,” says Varman.

Since then, her pupils have successfully diversified their crops to include green chillies, tomatoes and aubergines. What’s more, they’re now certified trainers in hydroponics and will soon be sharing their valuable knowledge and experience with other pupils in their school.

Speaking to the students themselves in their classroom, it’s clear to see the project has had a profound and inspirational ­effect.

“We learnt how to grow healthier produce in less time. A crop that would’ve normally taken 60 to 65 days to grow using traditional agriculture methods was ready in just 25 days,” says Kulsoom, 12.

“It’s not just about growing fresh and tasty food – hydroponics can help with feeding the world’s growing population,” adds Shruthi, age 13.

What’s more, Varman says the initiative has had far-reaching benefits for the students’ overall learning: “We’ve woven the hydroponics syllabus into a whole range of academic areas – not just science and biology – but marketing, mathematics, home science, nutrition and cooking, and even creative writing.

“We are very happy to share our learning with other schools, too; the more children who are inspired by and involved in this, the better our future world will be.”

The vice-president of Pegasus Agritech, Frans van Egeraat, believes that engaging youngsters in this way is a vital step in the future of food production.

“We are excited about the future of hydroponics in the UAE,” he says. “We believe that education starts at the grassroots level; it’s important for the younger generation to learn about hydroponics because, simply put, they are the future. They will have to deal with the future of higher populations, decreasing arable land and climate change.”

Consider for a moment statistics from the United Nation’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which predict the world’s population will exceed nine billion by the time we reach 2050.

At the same time, UN estimates indicate that food production will need to increase 70 per cent globally by the year 2050 to keep pace with this rise in ­population.

“It is important for youngsters to know the benefits and ways that hydroponics can combat these issues in order to create a more sustainable future,” says Van Egeraat.

All of this points to a very pressing need to look beyond conventional agricultural techniques. It’s certainly food for thought.

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