x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Farm technology a growth industry in the Emirates

The UAE relies on food imports to a large extent but as populations increase worldwide, it is among those developing systems to improve water and energy efficiency and boost crop yields at home and abroad.

Sharjah’s Greenheart Organic Farms relies heavily on sensors to determine the salinity of the water and the soil as well as mineral levels to ensure that the crops it grows are satisfactory. Pawan Singh / The National
Sharjah’s Greenheart Organic Farms relies heavily on sensors to determine the salinity of the water and the soil as well as mineral levels to ensure that the crops it grows are satisfactory. Pawan Singh / The National

Farming has become a work of technological precision. As the global population continues to rise, agricultural production will have to increase by 70 per cent to keep nine billion people fed by 2050.

With limited land and water resources, farmers need to avoid wastage and ensure food security for the coming generations. Increasingly, technology is playing a vital role around the world to provide instant feedback to farmers to help them to boost efficiency, better manage resources and improve the safety and freshness of produce at market.

Today, sensors have infiltrated every step of the farming process, from soil to plate, to provide the level of precision that ensures the highest yields on both large-scale agricultural projects as well as small organic farms.

Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is working on microelectromechanical systems (Mems) for use in agriculture.

“Our Mems research in Abu Dhabi is working on Mems gyroscopes and accelerometers, similar to what we have in our tablets and smartphones, that can be embedded in agricultural applications and, not too far in the future, significantly improve crop yields and soil productivity,” says Ibrahim Elfadel, a professor at Masdar Institute. “Agricultural and farming machines are being instrumented with gyroscopes, accelerometers and GPS monitors with the goal of moving these machines up to the next level in crop productivity by maximizing land, and water use – what’s known as precision irrigation,” says Mr Elfadel.

This is particularly relevant in arid environments such as the UAE, which relies heavily on food imports due to the limited arable land.

See food by numbers interactive graphic

Sharjah’s Greenheart Organic Farms relies heavily on sensors to determine the salinity of the water and the soil as well as mineral levels to ensure that the crops it grows are satisfactory.

“We are fairly traditional, everything is done by hand [but] we measure pH levels [below 7 is acidic] and water levels with special equipment and handheld devices. They are essential, measuring salinity is really important and we have to gauge what minerals there are,” says Elena Kinane, the managing director at Greenheart Organic Farms.

Japan’s Sharp is building a farm in Dubai to grow Japanese strawberries and has already started lab tests within the facility.

It is expected to announce the factory’s first harvest “soon”. Japanese strawberries demand high prices overseas but the fruit is very quick to spoil so distribution is limited and difficult.

“Cultivating fresh strawberries in a locally situated plant-growing facility should therefore enable local production and consumption without problems caused by location, weather and temperature,” says Masahiro Hirase, the project’s chief manager at Sharp Middle East and Africa. “In our laboratory, strawberries are cultivated in a sealed environment under artificial light. The growth environment is precisely controlled using Sharp electronic technologies.”

These include light-emitting diodes (LED) for controlled lighting, air purification technology and other equipment to monitor room temperature and humidity.

“This enables Sharp to collect data on strawberry cultivation techniques and use that data to achieve stable production of high-quality strawberries,” says Mr Hirase.

But sensors are not just used for the soil, they can also be used to monitor livestock.

The Irish company Dairymaster has developed the MooMonitor that measures a cow’s health and fertility.

Since cows cannot produce milk sustainably without getting pregnant, farmers need to determine the cows’ fertility window to ensure successful insemination. The MooMonitor captures 210,000 data points including temperature, fertility cycle, breeding cycle for each cow every year.

“Cows aren’t being optimally bred by and large and there’s a huge opportunity to improve,” says Edmond Harty, the chief executive and technical director at Dairymaster. “The MooMonitor is a necklace for cows and monitors the cow’s behaviour to determine movement patterns. A missed heat costs €250 [Dh1,267] per cow and this can happen potentially every three weeks with each cow on a dairy farm.”

Increasingly farmers are fitting their livestock with sensors that have GPS capability to manage herds and ensure no animal is lost or stolen. Zee Tags offers radio frequency identification tags for animals, while Prattley Industries enable farmers to keep track of their livestock automated animal handling equipment. Both firms are based in New Zealand.

“The benefits of a computerised database are far-reaching. Firstly this means that current demand for total traceability of a food source can be achieved ensuring food safety to the general consumer population,” says Graeme Ward, the managing director at Prattley Industries. “Incorporating technology into animal management systems increases accuracy, time management and labour input on farms.”

The major development in the foreseeable future is the introduction of mandatory electronic identification says Mr Ward. “All animals will need to be life-tagged to provide full traceability from farm to the fork.”

And during the age of smartphones and tablets, this information can be relayed back to a single device. Farmers are now becoming more reliant on mobile applications for farming. One Australia-based farmer developed a mobile application to help manage his own farm.

“We created this app for our needs. I’m a mixed-farm operator and we always struggled to keep up with what was going on as we got larger and larger,” says Jock Graham, managing director at Farm Apps.

Farm Apps’ F-track is a management solution that allows multiple users to record and access information about livestock, cropping, labour and farm inventory levels.

“It is nothing extremely extraordinary, we’re just bringing together data. It is just a simple way to speed up efficiency of farms today,” says Mr Graham.

For this region, increasing efficiency will help cut back on food imports. Masdar Institute is taking a step further by developing soil-free farming techniques.

“Sensing technology, including Mems sensing, could help speed up the progress toward having soil-free farms [crops grown in greenhouses that are suitable for desert climates] that will ultimately help reduce dependence on food imports in countries such as the UAE,” says Mr Elfadel.